New COVID Cases Remain Low In Belmont, No Additional Deaths Since May

Photo: The latest COVID-19 update for Belmont

The rate of new infections of COVID-19 in Belmont continues to remain steady with single digit increases over the past month.

As of Aug. 28, Belmont has reported 253 cumulative confirmed cases of COVID-19, an increase of four cases since the previous week’s Aug. 21 report. Due to the new case count in the past fortnight, Belmont is in the Massachusetts Department of Public Health’s “green” zone indicating less than four cases per 100,000 population based on the average daily case rate.

Since March when the first cases were reported, there have been 60 COVID-19 related deaths, 57 of which are confirmed by filed death certificates with the Belmont Town Clerk’s Office and three are unconfirmed. There has not been an additional death associated with the coronavirus pandemic since the last week in May.

The Massachusetts Department of Public Health (MDPH) continues to provide weekly reports of COVID-19 data by city or town as part of its Dashboard for COVID-19 Cases, Quarantine and Monitoring. MDPH updates this list once a week on Wednesdays.

State Requiring Flu Shots For All Students Attending Massachusetts Schools

Photo: Now it’s required

Last week State public health officials announced that influenza immunization will be required for all children 6 months of age or older who are attending Massachusetts child care, pre-school, kindergarten, K-12, and colleges and universities.

The new vaccine requirement is an important step to reduce flu-related illness and ​the overall impact of respiratory illness during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Students will be expected to have received a flu vaccine by Dec. 31, for the 2020-2021 influenza season. Elementary and secondary students in districts and schools that are using a remote education model such as Belmont are not exempt.

Exempted from the new mandate are K-12 students who are homeschooled or have either a medical or religious exemption.

This new flu immunization requirement to enter school in January is in addition to existing vaccine requirements for all those attending child care, preschool, K-12, and colleges and universities in Massachusetts. The following immunizations must be documented by a health care practitioner, with dates including at least month and year; full dates are preferable and sometimes necessary. 

Attendees older than two years should be immunized for their age according to the ACIP Recommended Immunization Schedule.

Immunization Requirements For School Entry In 2017/18 School Year*
 Child Care/PreschoolGrade K-6Grade 7-12College
Hepatitis B3 doses (laboratory evidence of immunity acceptable)3 doses (laboratory evidence of immunity acceptable)3 doses (laboratory evidence of immunity acceptable)3 doses (laboratory evidence of immunity acceptable)
DTaP/DTP DT/Td4 doses 5 doses1 dose Tdap1 dose Tdap
Polio3 doses4 doses4 dosesNA
Hib1- 4 dosesNANANA
MMR1 dose2 doses2 doses2 doses
Varicella1 dose2 doses2 doses2 doses
MeningococcalNANA1 dose1 dose

*These requirements also apply to all new “enterers.”

NA = no vaccine requirement for the grades indicated.

Requirements apply to all students including individuals from another country attending or visiting classes or educational programs as part of an academic visitation or exchange program. In ungraded classrooms, Kindergarten requirements apply to all students greater or equal than five years. In ungraded classrooms, grade 7 requirements apply to all students greater or equal than 12 years. Requirements apply to all students, even if over 18 years of age.

All children entering kindergarten must show evidence of:

  • Lead screening
  • Vision screening

This law also indicates that a student without such proof of immunizations may be excluded from attending school.

District Reveals How StudentsWill Move Through The Four Learning Phases

Photo: The title page of the Belmont School District’s presentation on the coming school year

After questions from parents and students on how and when Belmont schools would transition between the four learning phases established last week, the Belmont School District released a detailed blueprint on the health and safety criteria the community and each school building will need to meet to move from remote to hybrid and finally in-class learning.

In addition, the district produced the “earliest” date these changeovers can take place, which could occur as quickly as three weeks after entering each initial phase.

“The hope is that we have some clear understanding of what this presentation means for families and students so they can plan their lives and in their work as well,” said John Phelan, superintendent of Belmont schools last week before the School Committee. The district will start learning remotely on Sept. 16

The creation of the multi-stage approach was necessitated by the continued COVID-19 pandemic that is likely to stay active for the entire 2020-21 school year.

According to Phelan, the earliest possible dates that each transition could occur are:

  • Beginning of the school year in Phase 1: Sept. 16
  • The transition from Phase 1 to Phase 2 (Remote 2): Oct. 19
  • The transition from Phase 2 to Phase 3 (Hybrid): Nov. 9
  • The transition from Phase 3 to Phase 4 (In-person): TBD by state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Phelan noted the dates provided are “best case” estimates involving a “three-week decision-making cycle.”

The district and the town’s Health Department will work closely in determining when the transitions can occur using a dual system of health measures, one issued by the state and the second a comprehensive test of air circulation in Belmont school buildings.

The first is one devised by DESE which uses a color-coded system – red, yellow, green and unshaded – that measures weekly the 14-day rolling average of daily cases of COVID-19 in each community.

If the average daily cases are less than eight or fewer (green and yellow), Belmont schools will be allowed to move to the next phase. Greater than eight will require the town to move to a remote system.

The latest data from the state puts Belmont in the green sector with 1.7 cases.

But before Belmont students prepare to move onward to “Remote 2” the town’s schools are undergoing a thorough examination of their facilities air exchange systems to determine if the machinery is working up to the manufactures standards and if they move the air at a sufficient rate to create a flow that will disrupt the concentration of coronavirus droplets in the air.

Phelan said that work, known as the Facilities Air Flow Assessment, will be completed around the time school begins and a report will be produced two weeks later in late September.

“That is why we will pause right now and not jump right into hybrid because we just don’t know that information yet and moving into a scenario without all the information,” said Phelan.

In anticipation that some areas and rooms will need to have an alternative , the district has purchased 100 filtration systems to add to the circulation of air in each room.

Only if the two safety measures are met will the district come before the school committee for discussion and a vote to move to the next phase.

The district has also committed to working towards the next phase as they prepare for the expected transition.

While the schools are in Phase 1, district officials will be reviewing data and decide on a timeline for entering Phase 2 and the air exchange assessment will be reviewed as well as the DESE metrics.

It will be during this time that parents and guardians will receive a notice of whether their children will wish to enter the hybrid phase and those who will stay in a remote-only cohort. Finally, schedules will be created for those kindergarteners and first graders which will enter the hybrid in-person learning under Phase 2.

For more information on the transition of phases and the work being that the district will conduct during each phase to prepare to move between stages, a link to the district’s charts can be found here.

Discussion among the School Committee members ranged from concerns on understanding on the extent of the interior assessments – some schools (the nearly decade-old Wellington) are in better shape than others. So far, the district has paid $25,000 in labor and parts to prepare the schools, $15,000 will go to repairing all screens and window repairs, $42,000 on HVAC updated and $100,000 to purchase 100 air purifying units.

The School Committee’s Tara Donner, who is also a teacher in Winchester, voice an issue with the focus on “plowing ahead as fast as possible” into the hybrid phase when there hasn’t been much discussion on effectively staffing that step. Speaking from her own experience, Donner said “these models are frankly fairly incompatible to good teaching” until the district has a quality educational model in mind.

“I want to make sure we’re not putting the cart before the horse,” he added.

Special Town Meeting Likely To Take Up Ending Civil Service For Police, Fire; Trailers Staying On Woodland

Photo: The civil service in Massachusetts

Those hoping Belmont’s Special Town Meeting to be held on the last full day of summer (Sept. 21) would “be so easy” with a few procedural articles that would get passed without much trouble can put those dreams away as it appears there’s likely to be a “knockout drag out” over the future of a long-standing labor hiring practice in town.

Among the draft proposals for the Town Meeting, Town Administrator Patrice Garvin announced that Article 10 would put an end to civil service in the Belmont Police and Fire departments. (The warrant will be finalized on Aug. 31.)

“This has been talked about for some time since I’ve been here, and we felt this was a good time to bring this forward given the financial climate and some of the social climate that’s going around town,” said Garvin, at the end of another marathon Select Board meeting on Monday, Aug. 24.

A public meeting on the article will be held on Sept. 9, said Garvin, whose office will manage the meeting.

Garvin has sent notices out to all union presidents that the town will bargain “in good faith” under the state’s collective bargaining law.

But in a twist to the bargaining process, the board and Garvin will go first to Town Meeting “to see if [it] is interested in removing it and then go to the bargaining table” as opposed to a more traditional negotiating away civil service first and then seek Town Meeting’s approval.

The civil service system in Massachusetts was created in an attempt to end the corruption, patronage, and cronyism that dominated all types of government in the late 1800s when it was who you knew not your qualifications that determined who was hired for a government position. Critics say the civil service laws represent a significant barrier to efficient government operation while its defenders contend it has taken the politics out of municipal jobs especially for the police and fire departments.

While the overwhelming number of Massachusetts cities and towns adhere to civil service rules, Burlington, Lexington, Reading, Wayland, Wellesley and Westwood are some of the nearly 30 municipalities which are not covered by civil service.

While there haven’t been any recent attempts to revoke civil service in town, the topic has been raised periodically by previous town administrations and Select Boards. It resurfaced in the past year specifically during the hiring process of the new police chief and during the current search for a fire chief.

During his public interview for the job, James MacIsaac, Belmont’s current police head, was emphatic that civil service should be taken off the table, saying it would prevent him from hiring qualified residents from a larger pool of candidates and limit placing people of color onto the force as he is required to take the first name off a list of test-takers presented to him by the civil service board.

The members of the current Select Board have in the past expressed qualified support to bring a measure before the town’s legislative body for a vote and did so on Monday.

“A lot of people have been telling us to do more structural change so there you go,” said Adam Dash, a member of the board.

“The people most directly involved with it, namely the police and fire chiefs think this is a very desirable thing to do,” said Roy Epstein, chair of the Select Board.

But the defenders of civil service are beginning to rally their supporters. At nearly the same time Garvin presented the article at 10:40 p.m., firefighter’s local union 1637 was on social media with a notice whose headline screamed: “Protect The Public From Politics!”

“The rank and file members of the Police and Fire departments feel this is not something that would benefit the town in any manner,” read the email pamphlet.

And the town certainly realize they will have a fight on its hands.

“I definitely think we’ll get some push back [from the unions],” said Garvin. But it is worth exploring especially if the outcome of a yes vote are departments with greater diversity and in future years a larger pool of employees of color in senior positions, she noted.

While this Special Town Meeting warrant is filled with articles that were not taken up during the annual Town Meeting in June, there is one which could prove to be just as contentious. The board will likely approve an article to purchase the two trailers the police department has been using as its temporary headquarters for the past year on Woodland Street.

With its single floor open-design plan, the 5,000 square-foot modular trailers have been a hit with the police – early in the year one senior officer said the department would have been happy to have them set up as its permanent headquarters – the town is viewing the modulars as a solution for the threadbare condition of the nearby Water Department.

“The trailer are in really good condition, we can utilize some offices down there,” said Garvin. “It’s an opportunity for the town to acquire an asset and for the Water Department to use it.”

With potential savings by not making payments and eliminating the moving and disassemble fee, “there’s a high upside for keeping those buildings knowing that there’s a space crunch [in town departments],” said Jon Marshall, assistant town administrator. “There are some departments in town that are actually renting space … so there’s certainly an opportunity to put people in spaces that makes sense.”

But board members noted that several neighbors along Woodland Road were told the trailers would be temporary as they worried about police traffic at the site.

“I’m not saying I’m opposed to it but I think there will be a lot of push,” said Dash.

Other articles coming before the Special Town Meeting will include:

  • Adopting private street Carleton Circle as a public way.
  • Authorize the Select Board to grant temporary easements for the Wellington Elementary’s “Safe Routes to School” plan.
  • Vote on several Community Preservation Committee projects including $680,000 for Town Field Playground renovation and $100,000 to repair the front steps at the Police Headquarters.
  • Reallocating water and sewer capital balances towards other capital projects.
  • Vote to approve changes to the zoning bylaw to allow for the construction of residential housing in a portion of the McLean Hospital property.

Leonard Street Remains One Way Until Sept. 28; Free Parking In Center ‘Til Then

Photo: One way on the way out come Sept 28

The Belmont Select Board has extended by nearly a month the one-way traffic on Leonard Street allowing restaurants in Belmont Center to continue al fresco dining into the fall.

The street through Belmont’s main business hub will revert back to two-way traffic in the early morning hours of Monday, Sept. 28. In addition, licensed outdoor table service will be extended to Sunday, Sept. 27 throughout the town.

The board also approved that free parking in the Claflin Street municipal parking lot located behind Belmont Center will also end on Sunday, Sept. 27.

At yet another marathon Select Board session held Monday, Aug. 24, members acknowledged that several Center merchants have “expressed some unhappiness” with the plan that began on June 18 as it has taken valuable on-street parking spaces out of circulation, according to board member Adam Dash.

The traffic change was installed as an opportunity to provide extra outside dining areas to local restaurants which are still not allowed to use their interior dining space due to restrictions imposed by the state to stem the COVID-19 pandemic.

In addition, the Belmont Board of Health had some concerns in regards to Leonard Street being “a little congested” during the height of dinner service along with complaints that people were not diligent in wearing masks or being aware of social distancing, said Town Administrator Patrice Garvin.

“We were hoping to have an opportunity to go down there and to see if the requirements of the permits were being adhered to,” said Garvin.

While saying “the last thing we want is the community to be concerned that people are acting irresponsibly when they’re out and about in Belmont Center,” Glenn Clancy, town engineer, and director of community development, said he has been on Leonard Street “quite a bit and I haven’t really been seeing problems,” an observation seconded by Dash who is a regular diner.

The three-plus week extension of the one-way direction of Leonard Street has required the town to inform at least one resident of Moore Street – a principal detour of vehicles traveling northbound onto Pleasant Street – that the board would extend the one-way experience past a promised end around Labor Day deadline.

Clancy said he does worry about traffic in nearby neighborhoods and along specific streets – Moore, Alexander Avenue and Pleasant Street – during the expected increase in post-Labor Day traffic.

Clancy believes that it’s prudent for the town to take these issues incrementally “and I think if we’re talking about the end of September [to return to two-way traffic], I think that’s far.”

Since many restaurants made investments in furnishing and in the appearance of the outdoor space, “I’d like to give them the maximum ability” to take advantage of the money spent, said Dash.

“I think there is a great community atmosphere that been created down there,” said the Board’s Tom Caputo. “I do think that this isn’t going to last forever but certainly going through the end of September very likely makes some sense.”

Private To Public: Belmont Adding A Circle To Its Streets

Photo: Carleton Circle will soon move from a private way to a public road.

It’s been so long since the town of Belmont took ownership of a private street that Town Engineer Glenn Clancy can’t recall the last time it’s happened.

So next month’s Special Town Meeting will have a unique opportunity to approve the town’s taking of Carleton Circle, a 455 foot private through-way connecting Common and Washington streets.

“This is a rarity that something like this happens,” said the Select Board’s Adam Dash.

“A public road would mean that it would be cared for and maintained by the town,” said Patrice Garvin, Belmont’s town administrator.

That doesn’t mean the town hadn’t had some involvement in the current road’s upkeep. Private roads are plowed for snow and some patching is done by the town’s Highway Division, according to Garvin. But significant improvements is the responsibility of the owners which are the homeowners that abut the roadway.

Why private to public is such an anomaly is due to two major factors. First, all property owners must agree to the taking. And second, the roadway must be meet the “standards of a public way” in terms of road surface and if it has the necessary width, which in nearly all cases requires the abutters to come up with a significant amount of coin to reach that milestone.

“We don’t want to inherent any problems,” said Clancy.

In the case of Carleton Circle, one advantage is there are only nine abutters to the road, a small enough number that led to a successful outcome.

There have been initial attempts since 2000 to turn a few of the several private roads on Belmont Hill into public ways. But with between 50 to nearly 200 homeowners, it quickly became evident to campaigners they could never achieve an unanimously vote on those roads.

“We’ve been working with other people and other streets and it’s been very frustrating because you’ve got some holdouts who just won’t do it and it’s private property … so we can’t afford to go in and take this if people aren’t going to go along,” said Dash.

But just as important, the owners had the advantage of having the street recently repaved for free. During National Grid’s two year long improvements to the infrastructure under Common Street, the neighbors allowed a portion of the road to be a staging area for construction equipment. As part of the contract, the multinational utility agreed to repave the potholed asphalt surface at no cost.

Usually, the expense to homeowners of a private way to reach the public standard is significant and requires the abutters to seek a betterment assessment, a special property tax that lasts for 10 to 15 years in which the property receives a special benefit or advantage from the construction of a public improvement such as a new roadway.

But for the homeowners along Carleton Circle, the National Grid paving job “significantly helped” the road to reach the town’s pubic way standards, said Garvin.

“The most expensive element in a road project is the roadway itself. And because we were able to work with National Grid … it took the cost of asphalt in the road off the table,” said Clancy.

With much of the potential price tag reduced, the owners petitioned the town to make their street a public way. The town determined that a minimum amount of sidewalk maintenance and tree work would address the town’s remaining concerns. The owners anted up about $1,400 each and all signed a waiver to allow the road’s ownership to be passed over to the town.

A warrant article with an adopted layout of the street created by the Board of Surveyors was approved by the Select Board in early August.

Will Belmont High Be Playing Sports In 2020? Here’s The Q&As

Photo: Belmont High Football will be delayed until 2021.

It’ll be Thanksgiving without the turkey this year.

The annual Belmont vs Watertown Turkey Day football rivalry, which would be marking its centennial contest in 2020, will have to wait until sometime next year to settle its annual grudge match after the state and the athletic governing body for high school athletics decided the quintessential fall sport is deemed too high risk to play while the COVID-19 pandemic continues to plague the US.

The postponement of the football season statewide was just one of several outcomes with the release of a joint sports guidance for the 2020-2021 school year from the Department of Secondary and Elementary Education (DESE), the Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, and the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association (MIAA) .

The blueprint for the resumption of high school sports – which took months to hammer out between the state agencies and the governing body of athletics in secondary education – was approved by the MIAA on Wednesday, Aug. 19.

With several questions remaining, here are the answers for sports in the new school year:

Q: So will sports be played this fall and the rest of the year?

Yes, the guidance has identified the sports deemed safe to play – either low or moderate risk – and the few which would be “practice only” activities.

The most striking element to come out of the recommendations is the creation of a fourth “season” dubbed Fall II or the Floating season to be played in late winter and into early spring. It was created to allow sports deemed too risky to be played at the beginning of the season and those school districts which has high community infection rates or which decide to pass on the first fall season a chance to compete when there is clearer evidence on the risk factors in participating in the sport.

Here is the list of sports and the time of year they will be played:

Sept 18 – Nov. 20, Fall Sports: Boys and Girls Soccer, Fall Gymnastics, Cross Country, Field Hockey, Girls Volleyball, Swim & Dive, Golf and Dance.

Nov. 30 – Feb. 21, Winter Sports: Boys and Girls Basketball, Boys and Girls Hockey, Wrestling, Winter Gymnastics, Boys and Girls Indoor Track & Field; Alpine Ski, Nordic Ski, Winter Cheer, Dance, Swim & Dive

Feb. 22 – April 25, Fall Sports II (“Floating Season”): Football, Fall Cheer, Unified Basketball, sports not played in fall season because of remote learning model or a decision made to wait until the spring.

April 26 – July 3, Spring Sports– Baseball, Softball, Boys and Girls Lacrosse, Boys and Girls Tennis; Boys Volleyball; Boys, Girls and Unified Outdoor Track & Field, Boys and Girls Rugby, Sailing, Girls’ Golf, and Crew.

Q: So are these dates for each season set in stone?

No. The start and finish dates are flexible due to circumstances such as moving sports between seasons. The date for the spring season ending could extend to mid-July.

Q: What else was approved by the MIAA?

The , there will be no state championship to contend in the fall; only league titles will be on the line. Out of season coaching will be allowed for the entire year and students can play in all four seasons. Also “Captain practices” – in which senior players hold un-sponsored training sessions during the off-season – are being discouraged by the MIAA.

Q: Are districts that choose to begin the school year remotely effected by the new guidance?

Under the DESE guidelines accepted by the MIAA, districts such as Belmont which starts the school year in a remote only setup are currently prohibited along with districts in communities with high COVID-19 rates from playing any sports – whether they are considered low risk such as cross country or moderate risk like soccer and field hockey – until late February when a newly created “floating season” begins.

Q: So, no sports for Belmont athletes until after the winter break?

Not all is lost for the fall and winter athletes as the new rules gives the district an “out”; remote learning districts can get back into competition if they gain the approval of their School Committee. In addition, in his weekly memo to the community on Thursday, Aug. 20, Belmont Superintendent John Phelan noted that “Belmont is able to participate in these sports with our given Phased Plan with a remote start in Phase One.”

Q: So with the general guidance approved, what’s next?

A: With health and safety for the students and coaches paramount, the next issue is how to play each sport under the guidelines set forth by the EED and DESE. And this is all about the MIAA modifying the sports to meet these state goals.

Q: What are modifications?

The modification is just that, altering the rules of the game to either eliminate or significantly reduce encounters that pose an opportunity for the Coronavirus to be transmitted. These changes are becoming a point of contention for both student and coaches.

While some sports will see little change – swimming in a pool with lane markers follows most of the social distancing; cross country will likely use a staggered start – others, such as football, are played in close quarters with constant contact as an integral part of the game.

For many sports, the changes are still being developed while other youth sports associations have already issued new rules. Take, fore instance, soccer. The Massachusetts Youth Soccer Association has just released its modified rules to comply with EEA guidance. There are changes that will effect some of the sports’ bedrock skills include:

  • No heading the ball
  • Shoulder tackles are prohibited
  • Slide tackles within 6 feet of a player are not allowed.
  • Throw-ins and corner kicks will be replaced with a “kick-in” which can not be played directly into the opponents’ penalty area.
  • A restart after a foul will require all players to stay 6 feet from each other and the opposition to stay 10 yards from the ball.
  • The “defensive wall” is suspended.

By Monday, Aug. 25, the MIAA will identify and put the modification guidance in place for each sport, which will be reviewed by each school district, said Phelan.

Q: So will the schools decide after Aug. 24 whether to play in the fall?

A: Well, yes but there is a caveat. Schools are joining their respective athletic leagues – for Belmont that’s the Middlesex League – to discuss the modifications and new rules with the idea of voting as a group on their future playing fall sports.

“The superintendents and athletic directors in the Middlesex League are meeting on Monday, Aug. 24, to discuss these latest guidelines,” said Phelan.

Q: Why would a league or school decide not to play in the fall and wait until the floating year?

A: Simply, there will be sports in which coaches and athletes believe the changes to the rules alters the play to such an extent that student athletes are forced to learn essentially a new sport. Since the MIAA will not decide whether the modifications will be used in the floating or spring season, leagues may take their chances that the development of effective therapeutic or a vaccine which will move the sport to a return to pre-COVID rules.

In addition, by working together on their positions to participate or not, the leagues will secure a schedule of traditional opponents and not have to seek teams to play possibly in far flung locations.

Jim Davis, the district’s athletic director, said that he “will be speaking with Phelan to talk through the District’s options.”

“[It’s a] [w]ork in progress,” said Davis.

In-Person Early Voting For State Primary Begins Saturday, Aug. 22

Photo: Early voting starts Aug. 22

In-person early voting for the Massachusetts State Primary will take place statewide from Saturday, Aug. 22 to Friday, Aug. 28., according to a press release from Ellen Cushman, Belmont’s Town Clerk.

In Belmont, all early primary voting will take place at Town Hall, Concord Avenue in Belmont Center. Only voters who are registered as Democratic, Republican, Green Rainbow or Libertarian will be able to vote.

On Election Day, Tuesday, Sept. 1, voters must go to their precincts to cast ballots that day.

Belmont’s in-person hours are:

  • Saturday, Aug. 22        10 a.m. – 2 p.m. 
  • Sunday, Aug. 23           10 a.m. – 2 p.m.
  • Monday, Aug. 24          8 a.m. – 7 p.m.
  • Tuesday, Aug. 25          8 a.m. – 4 p.m.
  • Wednesday, Aug. 26    8 a.m. – 4 p.m.
  • Thursday, Aug. 27        8 a.m. – 4 p.m.
  • Friday, Aug. 28             8 a.m. – NOON 

Belmont School Committee OKs Remote Start But Questions Remain On Moving Forward, Testing


While many neighboring communities are diving into the 2020-21 school year with at least some in-class instruction, the Belmont School Committee approved unanimously on Tuesday, Aug. 11 one of the most conservative reopening programs proposed in the state, a four-part phased approach that requires Belmont’s 4,800 students to move through a pair of remote learning stages before reaching the hybrid stage.

While acknowledging the best learning is when students are taught in a classroom with a teacher, due to the lack of testing and contract tracing as well as a recent uptick in positive COVID-19 cases in the state, starting classes online for all grades was the safest option said Belmont Superintendent John Phelan to the committee at a community forum held on Thursday, Aug. 6.

“We have to prioritize and put in an order that matched up with the priorities that we set at the beginning [of this process] which are safety, social emotional well being of students and staff. So I feel like the conversation really needs to revolve around safety,” said Phelan.

But at least half of the committee voiced their hesitation making their decision, not so much against the plan but that several important aspects of the plan appeared to them lacking on a myriad of issues such as testing and how moving from one phase to the next will be determined.

“With reluctance because I think we have a lot of work left to do,” said Committee member Mike Crowley, who had suggested delaying a vote until many outstanding issues were answered.

The 170-day school year is scheduled to start on Wednesday, Sept. 16 with students K-12 being taught online with the exception of those with complex and special learning needs.

Belmont joins many of the largest school districts in the country and nearby communities – Somerville, Wayland and Swampscott – who will open via the internet. Other districts such as Arlington, Bedford, Danvers, Plymouth, Shrewsbury, Wellesley and Woburn will start in a hybrid mode.

Based on two recent parents survey results and emails to the media and school committee members, nearly two-thirds of parents prefer some form of hybrid start for school.

The reaction among those who attended the two meetings ranged from enthusiastic support to not being thrilled by the decision.

“Smart move, Belmont! It’s important to think about the health and safety of the students, teachers and community. Not only does this protect Belmont but also the commonwealth of Massachusetts,” said Dianne Cohen DeChellis in a Facebook comment. 

“Pure BS,” noted one father – who did not want to give his name as he will likely seek to volunteer for a proposed task force. “[Massachusetts Gov. Charlie] Baker released a map showing Belmont is one of the safest communities when it comes to COVID-19 exposure. It’s depressing.”

Baker stated at a Friday, Aug. 7 press conference the facts, data and science doesn’t support “everybody” reverting to a remote model in reopening schools.

The decision also prompted a petition on calling for Belmont to start the year with the hybrid approach for all students. The petition authored by Christine McLaughlin garnered approximately 500 signatures.

The divergence between the district’s supporters and critics is shadowed by the wide variety of opinions promoting either caution or a green light approach to reopening schools. An interactive map from the New York Times dated Aug. 14 suggests Belmont – “where the rate of new coronavirus cases may be low enough, and testing rates in the state high enough” – can safely open its four elementary school and the Chenery Middle School and allow Belmont High to begin the year in a hybrid option. On the other side, a report by WGBH had a Harvard epidemiologist calling the hybrid model for reopening ‘is “Probably Among The Worst’ Options.

Tuesday’s vote, which attracted 500 residents viewing the meeting on Zoom, came five days after the Belmont school superintendent surprised the community by recommending starting the new school year remotely, emphasizing the health and safety of pupils and staff.

“We can create a robust and remote environment that can continue learning and moving forward, engage students academically and we can connect with children as best we can,” said Phelan. “But we can’t do that in-person until we know it’s safe.”

The district’s decision – which was originally set to be presented to the school committee at the Aug. 11 meeting – was a jolt to those attending the forum.

“I have to say I’m suffering from whiplash just a little bit,” said a clearly surprised Andrea Prestwich, chair of the school committee, after the announcement. “Just a few weeks ago … we were absolutely certain that we were going to go back into hybrid mode. And now here we are going back from it.”

The district’s recommendation on using a remote plan comes just two days after at a school committee meeting in which it went into details of the hybrid and remote plans, spending a majority of the presentation emphasizing a hybrid option in which students would attend school in-person for two consecutive days and learning the remainder of the time via Google Classroom.

Thursday’s meeting was originally a Q&A with parents and students questioning school officials and committee members on the three education options – remote, hybrid and in person – required of each district by the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. But Phelan said he gave the recommendation early so parents would have the weekend to review the decision.

In the view of the district, the four part reopening plan creates “a pathway” so that all students “in a very methodical way” towards the “total goal … to have all student back in school. But that strategy can only move forward by securing the safety of the students and staff,” said Phelan.

The district’s recommendation for the school year consists of four phases; two remote, a hybrid and in-school options. [see table below]

Phelan said remote learning in 2020-21 will not resemble the haphazard approach in the final three months of last school year closed due the COVID-19 pandemic. The out-of-class learning in the fall will be a robust real-time “virtual school” with synchronous educator-led learning in which instructors will collect and assess assignments provide feedback and grade assignments including tests and quizzes.

Students will “attends” classes for the entire day based off a synchronized schedule. Assignments will be found on an academic hub with homework expected from each student.

“I believe parents want to know two things; … what’s going to happen in the fall so they can plan and they want to know what each phase will look like so they know what’s going to happen,” said Phelan.

Phelan said the district’s next step is to create detailed remote and hybrid schedules for the School Committee to vote in the next few weeks.

“We know our families want more detail on these models, and we have been planning our models with our educators,” said Phelan in a statement.

During the discussion between committee members at Tuesday’s meeting – public comment was reserved to Thursday’s forum – a major concern for several members would be the mechanism in which the district will move from one phase to the next.

“I know people want that information now and we have some of it, but we don’t have all of it, saying they will have that detail in the next week, maybe two weeks,” said

Phelan said the district will establish a Metric Task Force made up of residents, health experts and educators (see below).

The first issue facing the task force will be determining what data will be used in the rubric and the measurable level or condition that “opens the door” to allow the district to move to between phases.

While still in its genesis – no members have been named – it appears the task force will only have an advisory role to the school committee, making recommendations on which phase the district should be in to the committee which will likely have the final say. Another unknown is how long it will take from when a recommendation is accepted to when it’s implemented.

Another issue is surveillance testing students and staff for the virus which Prestwich has spearheaded. Through her research Prestwich has discovered many districts are looking at daily testing a one percent random sample of students – about 50 students in Belmont – to determine the absolute levels of infection. The cost for six months of testing is $250,000, a price tag Prestwich said “will be money well spent.” She also believed that less accurate but much faster daily tests – approximately 90 percent accurate at $1 per test – could be better for the district’s purposes of identifying and containing any outbreak.

But a source of funding remains a stumbling block as the district faces a $9 million deficit and it’s uncertain additional funds to cover COVID-19 costs from the federal government or the state will arrive.

A major priority for the district is the effectiveness of the movement of air in the ventilation system in each school. New research has found more evidence that COVID-19 can be spread through aerosol transmission rather than through contact with surfaces. Phelan said the district has yet to begin the process of assessing the air handling equipment in the district’s six school buildings which will likely take up to a month to conclude just as classes start.

Committee member Kate Bowen had hoped to review the eight hybrid options to reach a consensus on “what is the right hybrid situation” since having a preferred option would allow families to plan ahead their employment and child care issues.

But Phelan said the question on the community survey was not to select a preference on a specific hybrid plan but to register “how the impact of any hybrid model will have on your family.”

“I will take full criticism for not having full baked hybrid and full baked promote plans, even though we’ve been discussing this internally at great length,” he said. But absent testing and a complete air movement assessment, Phelan said the overriding question is “are we able to enter school to even entertain a hybrid model?”

School Committee member Tara Donner agreed with Phelan. “I think the benefit of moving forward with the face plan today is that we free up our administrators to focus 100 percent on developing these metrics … and I know that [Phelan and assistant superintendent Janice Darius] are committed to having these kinds of meetings, even if we start in a remote plan.”

But, she added, “We should move as fast as we can from phase 1 to phase 2 and I’m fully in support of robustly immediately devoting a lot of resources to developing the metrics that we can use to go forward.”

Contractor Selected For Lexington/Sycamore Lights Installation

Photo: The intersection of Lexington and Sycamore streets

Nearly two years after a Belmont resident was hit and killed by a van as she walked in the crosswalk at Lexington and Sycamore streets, the Select Board rewarded a contract to make safety improvements to the intersection.

Pine Ridge Technologies of North Reading was the low bidder to remove the speed table and install signal lights at the corners, Glenn Clancy, Belmont’s director of community development told the Select Board at its marathon meeting on Aug. 10.

Sachi Thanawala, 39, of Sycamore Street died on the morning of Aug. 30, 2018, after being hit by a commercial van as she was walking in the crosswalk heading to work.

Estimated at $450,000, Pine Ridge out bid three other firms with a price of $414,003. Clancy added that a supplemental appropriation for $100,000 from State Rep Dave Rogers’ office will reduce the total cost paid by Belmont to $314,000. Most of the cost of the project will go towards the metal computerized controller boxes that house the lights’ “brains” which has a price tag of between $100,000 to $150,000.

“For me the most important feature in the design and ultimately what would be constructed is a dedicated pedestrian crossing phase,” said Clancy. When a pedestrian activates the cross button and traffic stops all traffic from all directions “so there will be no more conflicts during the walk stage which I think is very important.”

The new lights will be designed so it’s interconnected with the intersection at Lexington and Church streets. When traffic releases from there, it’ll proceed up to Sycamore Street where the lights will allow traffic to continue moving with will prevent grid lock during the morning and evening rush.

Clancy thanked the community and the Traffic Advisory Committee for its contribution.

Clancy said work on the intersection will begin in the next couple of weeks and if the late fall and early winter is mild, the job can be completed before the first day of 2021.