The town of Hopkinton is usually known for its role as the starting line for the Boston Marathon. But it’s in the spotlight again as the first public school district in Massachusetts attempting to phase out mask mandates for vaccinated students and staff. To test out the idea, the school committee approved a three-week trial that began on Nov. 1 at Hopkinton High School.
So far, about half of the students are taking the district up on the offer to remove their masks.
Senior Owen Schnur and sophomore Evanya Mathur say their decisions were personal. Mathur wants to wear a mask until her younger sibling gets vaccinated. But Schnur says he feels safe to go without a mask because about 98% of his classmates are vaccinated.
Both of them say they’ve enjoyed seeing little things, like a teacher’s smile.
"It’s been really important to me to see my teachers' faces and see their face light up when someone gets a question right," explained Mathur.
"You feel like you have more of a connection with the teacher when you can see their facial expression and the emotion towards what they're teaching," added Schnur.
Hopkinton's trial run was made possible by a relatively new Massachusetts policy that lets districts phase out the state's mask-mandate if more than 80% of a school community is vaccinated. So far, 18 districts have requested permission from the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to do this. The agency has approved 11 of them. The Hopkinton School Committee was the first public school district in the state to enact the policy locally.
But not everyone at Hopkinton High School is excited about the mask mandate change, like senior Madison Loos.
"I was absolutely against it," said Loos. "I still am not sure I support it, and I haven’t really established an opinion yet. But, so far, I still wish we were all masked."
Still, Loos acknowledged, despite her reservations, she has noticed a lot of unexpected social and emotional benefits.
"You’re communicating more than before when you were look looking at someone’s eyes to read their cues," she said.
For students learning English, like Mena Youssif, who moved here from Egypt two years ago, the policy has also made it easier to understand and speak his new language.
"My English teacher always says to me that it’s hard to recognize what we’re saying with masks. You cannot see our lips," Youssif explained. "So when we take the masks off it makes it much easier."
All of the students WBUR spoke with say they were surprised by how much of a morale boost this trial run has been, even for those who are not vaccinated and must keep their masks on.
"I personally think it’s great," said Andrew Gaughan. "I really enjoy seeing people’s faces. It just makes for a better experience in school."
But even with state permission, school committee chair Nancy Cavanaugh says making the decision wasn’t easy because of intense debate within the community.
"We had a lot of people who couldn’t imagine that we’d even entertain such a decision," Cavanaugh explained. "And then we got the other side of that, with people who are really angry that we won’t entertain unmasking our vaccinated students."
In the end, the school committee voted (3-2) to approve a temporary trial run that would occur several weeks before major winter holidays. Participating students are also required to show proof of vaccination and parent permission to remove their masks in school. The parental permission forms also help the district avoid health information privacy violations.
"It’s baby steps,"Cavanaugh said. "We have been very cautious."
The town’s health director Shaun McAuliffe, says while he does have some concerns about safety, he feels pretty confident the trial run will go well, in part, because more than 90% of the teenagers and adults in Hopkinton are fully vaccinated. Many of them seem very committed to making this experiment work, he said.
"I have parents calling me and saying that, 'My child was at this location and there was an exposure. What should I do? I don’t want to mess this up,'" McAuliffe explained.
So far, one student has tested positive for COVID-19 at the high school during the district's trial run. However, contact tracers believe transmission of that case happened outside of school. McAuliffe adds that he'll feel even more confident in off-ramping mask policies in the district once most of the town's 5- to 11-year-olds are fully vaccinated.
"If we really reduced the ability for the virus to spread throughout the community then we should, in theory, have a lot less illness popping up," he said.
Hopkinton's trial run will wrap up next week. After that, the school committee will analyze what happened before voting on a long term policy. In the meantime students like Jessica Ianelli say they're going to enjoy this mask-free time with their friends while it lasts.
"I forgot what the bottom half of their face looks like, which sounds so weird to say," Ianelli explained. "It’s been nice to see that come back to normal."