“Students are gathering at other school events … There are no state restrictions. Why is this an issue?”
Portsmouth and Barrington high schools are both planning outdoor Homecoming dances, but Mt. Hope High School is not. Administrators decided the dance would be postponed as a precautionary measure due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
That did not sit well with many parents, including Michele Martins, whose son is a junior at Mt. Hope High School. Unlike most other parents, however, Michele is in a unique position to do something about it. Armed with the knowledge and expertise of her recent tenure leading the Fourth of July Committee through two COVID-altered celebrations, Martins knows a little something about following the science, and following the rules.
For the past two years, her mantra has been “we’re following state guidance,” and, guided by the state, she and her committee adapted, course-corrected, and innovated their way through a labyrinth of rules that changed constantly.
“We spent, I don’t even know how much, on hand sanitizing stations and laminated directional signs for some of the July 4th events, and by the time we received them, we didn’t even need them anymore.”
She knows events, too — when not working her day job at the Bristol Department of Parks and Recreation or making the Fourth of July happen, she is one of the Two Gals of cocktail catering fame, just coming off a busy season of rescheduled events. Per the state, there are no restrictions on the numbers of people who can gather together — something she witnessed repeatedly throughout the summer.
An ‘abundance of caution’
Homecoming is not canceled, stressed Mt. Hope High School Principal Deborah DiBiase. The school is currently in the middle of Spirit Week. They have a lot of activities planned, themed days, and a bonfire night on the beach Thursday with fire pits, music and food, and of course the pep rally and Homecoming game on Friday night.
“I’m really looking forward to this week,” DiBiase said. “The student council has done a great job organizing everything.” DiBiase said the decision to postpone the dance was made from “an abundance of caution” and that it was not a unilateral decision but one that was carefully considered by the district.
“Even if it were to be held outdoors,” DiBiase said, “at any dance, students are in very close proximity to one another, dancing and breathing heavily.” With the recent rise in cases statewide, the district decided to postpone the event until the numbers level off, hopefully right after the holidays.
The logistical challenges of testing the student body with the gold-standard PCR test, coupled with the number of students who have not received the vaccine, is another reason DiBiase said they are exercising extra caution. Currently, based on information on file with the school nurse, self-reported by parents in students’ medical records, 38 percent of Mt. Hope students are vaccinated, well below the 54 percent reported for the community in the 12- to 18-year-old age group in Bristol and Warren.
“That 54 percent includes all 12- to 18-year-olds, whether they attend Mt. Hope or not; we understand the state will soon be reporting numbers by school, but that hasn’t happened yet,” DiBiase said.
For at least some students, disappointment is tempered with acceptance. "While the cancellation of the Mt Hope homecoming is disappointing, I also feel that their intentions are for the well being of the students and to avoid the possible shut down of other activities throughout the school in case of a covid outbreak,” said Reyn Ferris, a junior.
Parents see hypocrisy
However, a group of parents don’t accept the district’s decision.
“Students are gathering at other school events,” Martins said. “They have the dog pound (the Mt. Hope cheering section at sporting events). There are no state restrictions. Why is this an issue?”
To stand in for the postponed dance, Martins and Erin Kopecky of Warren are spearheading a group of parents organizing a Fall Ball at Mount Hope Farm, to be held from 5 to 9 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 31. Students are encouraged to wear semi-formal attire, Halloween-themed if they would like, but Halloween costume masks will not be permitted (not to be confused with COVID-compliant, nose-and-mouth covering face masks, which will be more than welcome).
The event will be held on the water, under the tent at the farm, and well-chaperoned by parents, as well as a Bristol Police detail. Pizza and refreshments will be provided; guests are asked to not bring any with them. This is not a school-sponsored event, organizers emphasize.
Martins said she has had so many parents step forward to volunteer to chaperone, she may need to turn people away; and she has received donations from people who don’t even have students attending but just want to support the effort. Cathy Squatrito will serve as the DJ, and Brittany Adams will run a photo booth; both have volunteered their time and talent. “We are keeping the costs low, and any leftover money will be donated to the classes of 2022 and 2023, as their fundraising ability has really been impacted these past couple of years,” Martins said
To reserve tickets, email email@example.com for payment info, or Venmo $20 with name and email info. Tickets will be capped at 250 and are available on a first-come, first-served basis. “When it’s full, it’s full,” Martins said.
“If there are no structured events, students go find their own fun,” Martins said, citing a couple of recent cases of student parties interrupted by law enforcement. “We are doing it correctly,” she said, speaking at once to security as well as COVID concerns. “We just need to take the emotion out of it and follow the rules.”