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COVID Baby Bust? Not in Hopkinton.

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In the United States, the COVID-19 pandemic led to a noticeable decline in birth rates, marking a significant impact as part of the broader “COVID baby bust” phenomenon. This decline continued a trend of decreasing fertility rates in the U.S. that had been observed over the past several years, but the pandemic accelerated this trend for a variety of reasons.

The Commonwealth was also affected by this trend. According to the Department of Vital Statistics, Massachusetts saw a 4% year-over-year decline in live births in 2020. The state bounced back in 2021, and the birth rate increased 4.1%, but then declined 2.1% again in 2022, defying the typical 0.5% average decline in births from 2011 – 2019.

Experts attribute several factors to the COVID baby bust, including economic uncertainty and job loss, healthcare concerns, and the overall stress the pandemic had on families. 

Notably, the pandemic seemed to have very little effect on Hopkinton. In fact, the opposite was true: The number of live births in Hopkinton in 2021 jumped a startling 11% over 2021. This was the biggest change since 2016, when Hopkinton parents welcomed 159 babies, a 17% increase over the prior year.

This has obvious implications for Hopkinton’s schools and student population. 

In forecasting student enrollment, the district uses a report authored by demographer Arthur Wagman, who routinely consults with districts in Massachusetts to help them predict student population in future years. The most recent report was created in November 2020, when Dr. Wagman pulled data from a variety of sources, including real estate transactions, new building permits issued, birth data, and proposed housing and sub-divisions within Hopkinton. Blending the data together, Wagman created a table of projected enrollment up to the year 2030. In presentations for the new Elmwood School and the proposed Hopkins School addition, Superintendent of Schools Dr. Carol Cavanaugh has relied heavily on these numbers.

But an independent analysis of the Wagman report, data from Vital Statistics, and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) enrollment metrics by HopNews shows that Wagman’s forecast did not anticipate the COVID-19 boom Hopkinton residents experienced. The report projected just 144 births in Hopkinton for 2021, when the actual number was 185, a 22% miss. This unexpected increase induces doubt that the remainder of the Wagman forecast is correct; Wagman assumed a moderate 0.4% increase in year-over-year births, when it’s very likely he should have assumed a 2.1% increase, which would be more in line with Hopkinton’s actual experience. 

Several conclusions can be drawn from the Wagman report:

  1. COVID birth rates increased in Hopkinton, defying the State trend
  2. Wagman underestimated 2021 Hopkinton births by 22%
  3. Wagman underestimated 2022-2023 Pre-K enrollment by 17%
  4. Wagman underestimated 2022-2023 K-5 enrollment by 4%
  5. Wagman overestimated 2022-2023 6-12 enrollment by 9%

This data becomes particularly relevant in light of the proposed Hopkins School addition, an estimated $49 million project that will be presented to voters at Annual Town Meeting. While readers can parse the details of the Wagman report and debate the validity of the statistical model, the simple truth is that the Hopkins school is at capacity. The school was built to handle 628 students and it currently enrolls 687. The library has been divided to create classrooms, and two other classrooms have been created in windowless spaces.

Hopkins School with the proposed addition

The Hopkins addition calls for the construction of a new gymnasium, art room, and several classrooms, including those dedicated to special education. The project would also renovate the kitchen, cafeteria, music room, nurse suite, and science rooms, and other spaces.

The HVAC system, which has reached end of life, will also be replaced, a cost that can potentially be recovered from the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) Accelerated Repair program. 

More classrooms necessitates a larger lunchroom, which is why the kitchen and cafeteria are included in the project.  The state requires all elementary schools to provide 40 minutes of physical education per week, and with the size of the current Hopkins gym it is unsafe to run classes concurrently, which given the enrollment numbers, is the only feasible way to meet the state’s requirements.

With the addition, the district’s plan is to move the sixth grade class down to Hopkins, and push the fourth grade class down to the Elmwood school replacement. This will alleviate pressure on the middle and high schools, which are also stretched to capacity. It is possible that with this addition the town will avoid a much larger capital request for a new middle or high school building in the near term. 

“The new Elmwood school is the linchpin in this plan,” said Dr. Cavanaugh, in an interview with HopNews, referring to the grade realignment.

The School Committee hosted a public forum on the Hopkins addition on February 12, and they’re expected to hold more in the near term as they seek to make their case to voters. 

Whatever the district’s official enrollment projections are, readers can be certain that they are understated. Hopkinton’s real estate market seems to be virtually recession-proof, and as evidenced by the data from Vital Statistics, so are many of our residents.

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7 COMMENTS

  1. I would love to see a similar analysis of the MSBA enrollment forecast since that is what the district used for determining space needs- these figures are seen in the District wide study document and in various presentations. When comparing MSBA K-12 projected enrollment (they do not forecast pre-K) to actual DESE K-12 enrollment for the current 2023/24 school year, I see that we are falling short of that forecast by about 190 students.

    • Something additional to consider- in 2001 there were 233 births in Hopkinton and the Kindergarten class size in 2006 was 235. Similarly, in 2002 and 2003 births were 222 and 213 respectively, with corresponding Kindergarten classes of 231 in 2007 and 233 in 2008. I am no demographer, but to state that 185 births in 2021 “has obvious implications for Hopkinton’s schools and student population” is speculative at best.

      • While current birth rates in Hopkinton track below the early 2000 numbers you cite, the hot real estate market and consequential inbound migration was not a significant factor in our town back then. Those variables contribute to the increase in new school enrollments. And to your earlier point: you can run all the comparisons you want between MSBA and DESE, and debate the finer points of the model, or you can just visit the Hopkins School and see what’s happening on the ground. The difference between the theoretical and actual is stark.

  2. Too bad we we don’t have any closed or soon to be closed schools to use, you know, any tax payer funded buildings that are lying in waste. Im calling BS on that they can’t be used – the “studies” are predetermined by the committees that hire the the consultants and we hare being fooled into thinking there is only one solution, and thats build, build, build.

    • I am afraid that because of the building code, schools have a very strict rules they must abide by (fire exits, hallway dimensions, etc). That leaves any non-educational facilities out of reach. I am not even talking of how to get there.

      • Center School and Elmwood School meet the criteria. Keep Elmwood for 2nd grade only. Move 3&4 to the new school being built, Hopkins is 5 only. Problem solved, then we still have Center unutilized.

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