Phelan: District At ‘Breaking Point’ As Covid Cases Skyrocket In Belmont Schools

Photo: Belmont Superintendent John Phelan

A snow day this past Friday couldn’t have come at a more opportune time for the Belmont District Schools.

As the Omicron variant of the Covid coronavirus sweeps through Belmont schools after students returned from the winter recess, absentees among educators and staff has placed the district close to a breaking point whether there’s enough teachers in each building.

The numbers say it all.

In the final week of 2021, 16 Belmont students, educators and staff reported being infected with a new case of COVID-19. A week later, on Jan. 5, that tally exploded to 228 novel positive cases across the district’s six schools.

New Covid positive cases
(students, staff, teachers)
Week endingnumber
01/05/2022228
12/29/202116
12/08/20214
11/17/20216

“The impact of the staff attendance and staffing levels is a real concern of the district,” Belmont Schools Superintendent John Phelan told the School Committee on Tuesday, Jan. 4 as 72 and 73 staff members were out on Monday and Tuesday respectively. And while praising substitute teachers and district employees for stepping up and filling in, Phelan told the committee the current patchwork approach for cover classrooms “is not sustainable.”

On Monday, Jan. 3, a staggering 605 district students (out of a total of approximately 4,600) were not in class while Tuesday showed an improvement where 473 were out due to Covid, traveling and those waiting for results of Covid tests. The usual number out on an average week is about 275. This is occurring in a system that has impressive numbers of vaccinated students. (See chart below)

“We believe that that we haven’t seen the worst of this phase of the virus at this point in time,” said Phelan, with the next weeks seeing staff and families make some “truly hard choices” related to going to school. Friday’s snow storm was a blessing for many teachers and family as it provided an extra day away from the classroom and added a day towards a quarantine total.

Phelan and his leadership team calculated teacher attendance would hover just below 90 percent which posed significant challenges requiring the district to set up a educational “triage” system to allow school to open on the first Monday of the new year.

On Sunday, teachers and staff came to Belmont to receive take home tests while on Monday the start of schools were delayed by one hour so teachers could receive KN95 masks, “ensure that we had time for our educators to get together, our principals with teachers and other administrators to support the setting up of the school day.”

Staff, central office personnel and other non-educators were redeployed and placed in classrooms to support teachers. The district also doubled its rate for substitute teachers while proactively recruiting to ensure it has sufficient numbers to place before students arrived on Monday

But even with adults in the classroom, Phelan said certain aspects of the school day have been lost such as small group instruction and parts of the traditional school day schedule that teachers can best perform effectively.

The challenge of lunch

Phelan also pointed to student lunch time as “one of the largest challenges moving forward.” With the large tents at the elementary and Chenery schools allowing for an outside option taken down for the winter, Phelan said he is attempting to balance Covid safety with feeding students. That will require keeping masked in the cafeteria, assigned seating, shortening lunch times by sending students to recess early, keep talking to a minimum and keeping their distance.

Sports and extracurriculars will soon see restrictions on the number of who can attend contests, restrictions on using locker rooms and a greater emphasize on proper mask wearing during play. This comes after a growing number of student/athletes and at least two sporting events were cancelled due to Covid outbreaks.

Phelan has been in discussion with his fellow area superintendents on possible changes to the schedule or length of the school day for elementary, middle and high schools as a way of keeping them safe from spread while providing adequate education.

“We want to keep our options open,” Phelan told the committee. Moving forward, the district will be keeping an eagle eye on in-school transmission rates, new positive cases in the community and keep appropriate staffing levels to allow schooling to take place.

While more parents and guardians are calling for the district and committee to consider the role of remote learning during this surge, Belmont – along with school districts statewide – finds itself between a rock and a hard place. Districts are prohibited by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to return to full-time remote learning. And while DESE has established a protocol for when a school or entire district can seek permission to re-impose virtual learning, it has been done only in “a very few cases,” in the past months, said Phelan.

“{DESE) is keeping a very tight rein on [granting waivers],” he said.

Please Remember

When asked by the Belmontonian if the district has set a benchmark of when it would be prudent to close schools due to staff shortages, Phelan said there was no set percentage.

“We will assess our staffing levels daily to determine our coverage models. This looks different at each level. We need to assure that all students are engaged and properly supervised,” he said.

If a school or district simply must close due to staffing shortages, Phelan said DESE has informed districts they will need to use a “snow day” with the requirement it is made up at the end of the school year.

The district’s actions this week are at best a stop gap until the pandemic peters out which health experts said will not happen soon enough. All this is being played out as the district is facing ever “shifting guidance” from state and federal agencies on Covid safety.

Phelan told the committee the recommendations from the CDC and DPH are, at best, “inconsistent” such as the CDC requiring 10 days out of class and DESE five; no requirement for testing to return that many parents and school administrators find and DESE and CDC not on the same page on contract tracing (Belmont has abandoned it due to staffing issues).

The district will also step up its promote parents to sign up their students for pool testing, which “is more important now than ever for us to get a very clear picture through pool testing mechanism … for this upcoming year,” said Phelan.

While it has a plan in place to continue in-school education, Phelan said the new reality of variants and their impact will remain with the district when this current surge subsides.

“This is only one step in a long journey,” said Phelan.

Interim Regs Places A Wet Blanket On Belmont’s Use Of Fed Covid Rescue Funds

Photo: Belmont Middle and High School is now considered the source of revenue generating debt, according to the state.

When the details were released of the Biden Administration’s $1.9 trillion COVID relief plan – dubbed the American Rescue Plan Act – signed into law this past March that Belmont would be receiving upwards of $8 million for the town and schools, there was a segment of the population in the Town of Homes that cheered the news, not so much as a fiscal salve to a battered budget but as a political accoutrement.

“We definitely don’t need an override now!” came the clarion call on the No Override Now Facebook page of March 16, as the austerity-based group viewed the community-based bail out as a, albeit, short term solution to the worrying structural deficit facing the town.

The news became a game changer in the override battle, making it easier for many voters sitting on the fence on the proposed $6.4 million override to check the “no” box on the ballot less than a month later.

While town executives and elected officials cautioned at the time it was far too premature to assume the funds were heading into town coffers until there was more clarity of the rules, others were eager to champion – and begin spending – the windfall.

“This money can, in part, be used to offset revenue shortfalls and operating expenses,” proclaimed the No Override Now campaign in ads and opinion articles.

Well, it turns out, maybe not.

Under recently released interim final rules written by the state for allocating ARPA funds by cities and towns, Belmont is facing the prospect of have little to no leeway to use any of the $7.8 million to offset the substantial lost public revenue the town incurred since March 2020.

“What we found was a little troubling … because what we’re showing is no revenue loss based on the state guidelines,” said Town Administrator Patrice Garvin at the Monday, Dec. 6 meeting of the Select Board.

And the reason the state has pulled the ARPA rug from under the town’s feet is located at 221 Concord Ave.

After a careful reading of the rules and regulations, the town’s auditing firm determined that during the tight 18 month window the state is using to calculate lost revenue, the 2018 voter-approved debt exclusion used to finance the building of Belmont’s new Middle and High School, as well as the state’s partial reimbursement of expenses constructing the building is seen by Beacon Hill as a revenue “gain” for the town.

So in the ultimate example of bad timing, while Belmont has shown where revenues had fallen off a cliff, in the eyes of the state which dictates the funding, Belmont was awash in dough during that year-and-a-half reporting period because it borrowed funds to pay for a new school.

As Homer Simpson would put it: “D’uh!”

“We’ve had the issue of a … short-term budget distortion from the high school because it’s such a large number just as Covid hits … seems totally unjust to be counting that as revenue because that’s not what it is,” said Adam Dash, chair of the Select Board.

As the town seeks to have its state and federal legislators attempt a hail Mary to convince the state to reconsider its regulations, the prospect of a revenue shortfall for the upcoming fiscal 2022 budget has become only all too real.

Under the provisions of the ARPA, Belmont’s $7.8 million allocation can be used in one of four ways; pay for Covid-related expenses, make premium payments to essential workers, and invest in water, sewer and broadband infrastructure. It was the fourth “bucket,” the replacement of “lost public sector revenue” caused by the pandemic, which austerity groups and town officials saw as getting plugged into the budget. Just how much of the town’s share can be used in an unrestricted manner is based on a formula provided by the state’s Division of Local Services.

It was this rule making from the state – dictated in the federal law – is when Garvin said she and other municipalities began “hearing rumblings” as state officials began writing the regulations.

“I had been concerned from the beginning … [that] sometimes the state does like to get involved in defining how the money can be expended,” said Garvin. One such red flag from as far back as the first days of summer was how the rule makers first defined as revenue.

Is a debt exclusion a revenue windfall? The state thinks so

“At that point, I decided it was important to get the auditors involvement” and allow them to do a “deep dive” into the town’s revenue figures in regards to the state regulations, said Garvin.

Craig Peacock, a partner with the town’s auditing firm of Powers and Sullivan, told the board that since the summer what the state has deemed eligible for reimbursement “has been a moving target” resulting in attempting to make calculations “a little confusing.”

What Peacock first had to determine the revenues in fiscal 2019 which the feds was using as the base year and compare it to losses in calendar 2020. While the town did show a decrease in its general funds of $1.6 million, there were two unexpected line items which offset that lost revenue.

One is the on-going cost reimbursements building the new school from the Massachusetts School Building Authority, which is paying nearly $85 million of the $295 million project, a significant amount – $24 million – being received in calendar 2020. Even with the MSBA reimbursement figure removed, said Peacock, the state also views the $213 million debt exclusion the town is using to pay for its portion of the building’s cost as yet another source of revenue, with Belmont “collecting” an additional $11.7 million in calendar 2020. Without these items, Peacock said the town by the state’s reckoning did suffer a revenue shortfall during the 18 months.

The end result is while Belmont can use the funds for the three of the four buckets, ARPA funds will not be going into the one ARPA bucket the town most needs to fill. While the town will have $7.6 million to spend – in two $3.8 million segments with the second available next fall – “it has made it much more difficult for us to use it,” said Garvin.

The news didn’t go down well as Select Board Vice Chair Roy Epstein calling the state’s rules an accounting exercise that “frankly makes no sense to me,” pointing out that the reason the town undertook the debt exclusion was to pay for a school which can hardly be seen as a revenue windfall for Belmont.

“I think the treatment of a debt exclusion that are earmarked for particular capital projects to just really seems nonsensical,” said Epstein as Dash questioned whether the federal government understands the New England-concept of debt exclusion which could have been exempted in the ARPA law.

The Select Board’s Mark Paolillo asked Peacock who in state government can the town question how they rationalize school debt and reimbursement of expenses as “revenue.” The answer was less than encouraging.

“We are not aware of any caveat in the interim final rules that would allow us to remove the debt exclusion and we are not aware of any agency that would be willing to review and discuss that because currently it is in the rules”, said Peacock.

As it currently stands, without the ability to replenish the lost public revenue and if there are no big ticket infrastructure projects ready to go into the ground, Peacock said there is a chance Belmont will return a portion of the ARPA funds back to the US Treasury.

If there is a glimmer of hope, the guidance is being written by the state and there are several communities feeling the same pinch by the state’s rules writers, said Peacock.

“As they say, the squeaky wheel gets the grease so I don’t think it ever hurts to try to contact” state legislators, advised Peacock. “I do know other communities that are contacting their state reps who have very similar attributes” that are preventing them from reporting revenue losses and are “trying to change the rules before the final rules become final.”

1 in 5 Middle School Students Consider Self Harm, 9 Percent 7-12 ‘Made Suicide Plans’: Youth Risk Behavior Survey

Photo: the 2021 Belmont Youth Risk Behavior Survey (credit: CDC)

Jamal Saeh was shocked by what he had heard.

In March, 89 high school students and 56 middle schoolers in Belmont told health professionals that in the past year they had gone so far with a possible suicide to write out or record plans on taking their own lives.

“To say I’m stunned is an understatement,” said Saeh. “[It’s] mind boggling and frightening.”

The concerning statistics come from the 2021 Youth Risk Behavior Survey of Belmont’s 7-12 grade students presented to the Belmont School Committee on Nov. 9.

The survey’s data justifies Saeh concern: in terms of raw data nearly one-of-five middle school students has considered suicide and approximately 9 percent in both high and middle schools have gone so far as to detail the ultimate act of self-harm.

And among students who identify as gender Queer, the percentages are exponentially greater; 36 percent in high school have considered suicide while 31 percent have planned suicide.

“That is way too many kids,” said Lisa Gibalerio of the Belmont Wellness Coalition who authored the survey with the Education Development Center.

The survey comes as school systems nationwide are witnessing “a growing crisis” on mental health and risk issues, said Committee Chair Amy Checkoway. “Districts are not equipped to handle the number of issues that are arising,” she said after attending a conference of school committees.

The survey is the second conducted by the coalition surveyed a statistically large 1,710 students in 7 – 12 grades (655 at the Chenery Middle School and 1,055 at the high school) on substance abuse and mental health concerns before (in 2019) and during the Covid year 2021.

A PowerPoint summary of the survey can be viewed by linking to this site.

Survey highlights include:

  • a reduction in use of most drug categories including vaping and marijuana from 2019 to 2021.
  • a decline in bullying in the high school while it’s in-school bullying at the middle school has increased.
  • Stress continues to lead to loss of sleep and coping through risky alternatives such as alcohol and drugs.

The survey also looked at the top five stressors at the middle and high school, according to Ellie Lesser, a Belmont High sophomore serving as the study’s student ambassador. A third of all students point to school demands as the top reason for pressure in their lives with a busy school and extra curricular schedule and worries about the future such as college choices and career paths.

The Covid pandemic which halted in-school learning for more than a year added more to the plate of students with 70 percent feeling angry, fearful and sad.

For Belmont Superintendent John Phelan, the survey’s results are “startling” just how much stress – which has been at consistent levels for several years – is impacting so many students and how vulnerable they are to the repercussions that include abusing alcohol and self-harm. In recent years, Phelan admitted the district has not been keeping up with the professional services that students and staff need such as adjustment counselors, consulting services and professional development for teachers to identify and assist students.

But change has occurred during the pandemic. He pointed to the district hiring four social workers – the first hired by the district since Phelan came to Belmont in 2013 – in the current school year to meet the increasing demands for their services. He said the survey data calls for a two-fold approach focusing on providing community and school support from social emotional assistance.

“And [that district-wide clinical model] will be part of what we’re asking for moving forward,” Phelan told the committee.

“School is just not a place where it’s all about academics. If we are not having children feel safe, heard and valued, and able to be respected and known by the adults in the building, they’re not going to learn,” said Phelan.

The committee members all expressed a need not to allow the issue to fall by the wayside.

”The numbers should shock us,” said Mike Crowley of the data on suicide planning, which should force the committee to support the clinical model in future budgets. In additional, a community conversation with students, parents, the public and educators “because any child would be thinking of self harm in our schools, our community, we have to be concerned.”

Saeh said the conversation on risk behavior must be followed up with additional meetings on the proper level of staffing and assistance to students “because we cannot look at his data not react with incredible urgency.”

By reviewing the pre and post pandemic numbers, “the pandemic is not necessarily the culprit here, this is the environment of our high school and middle school,” said Saeh.

Ann Wang of the Education Development Center said Belmont can find successful programs being used in nearby communities such as Lexington and Newton which had student suicides. “These appear to have some impact that can be measured in reducing suicide attempts,” she noted.

Phelan said the solution in the schools is to start to put in place multiple layers of support to students at every level of the district.

“We are not looking to put numbers [in the upcoming school budget] right now, but we want to acknowledge the need and start with students talking about solutions and then start to price out those solutions so that the community can know whether they’re going to support that need or not.”

Welcome Back: Jones To Fill Vacant School Committee Seat; Will Not Seek Full Term In April

Photo: Ralph Jones

Venerable town official Ralph Jones returns to the public stage after being appointed to fill the final five months remaining of Andrea Prestwich’s term on the School Committee.

Jones received five votes from the combined members of the Belmont Select Board and School Committee, outdistancing resident Jeff Liberty who garnered three votes at the joint meeting held on Wednesday, Nov. 10.

“I am prepared to serve as required and anytime it is necessary to get the job done,” said Jones.

Jones was also emphatic that he will not use the temporary five month post as a springboard to a full term.

“It takes a big person to take on this job in this climate,” said Adam Dash, chair of the Select Board. “You’re basically parachuting onto a ship that is in the middle of a hurricane.”

Jones’ extensive town experience was a chief factor in his selection, having once chaired each of the “Big Three” governmental bodies in town; the Select Board (then known as the Board of Selectmen), and the School and Warrant committees. Jones’ selection is a return for him to the committee he served on for three terms and also headed two decades ago.

“I understand the authority and responsibilities of the committee,” he said, noting his role in creating past budgets and twice leading bargaining between the committee and the teachers’ union. “I believe that my experience in negotiating those contracts would be a contribution to the committee as it enters into that final negotiation process.”

Jones said starting a conversation on diversity, equity and inclusion would be a priority of his with the hope that the hiring of Chon’tel Washington, the district’s first DEI director will bring immediate improvements to the issues.

A majority of the committee and board agreed a successful candidate needed the necessary background demonstrated by past successes. Select Board member Mark Paolillo said looking at the skills and experiences the group said it would consider, “which candidate … meets all of these expectations, understanding the issues facing the school committee and has the communication skills … the only conclusion I reached is Ralph Jones.”

”[If] you have a round hole, [Jones] is the round peg that fits in the hole at the moment to do what needs to be done,” said Dash.

And Jones’ long-standing political mentoring of many residents just entering town politics was noticeable as both Dash and the School Committee’s Meg Moriarty reported before the deliberations Jones had held important positions in their most recent election runs – as campaign manager for Dash and Treasurer for Moriarty’s successful 2021 committee run – while the Paolillo noted Jones was also his campaign manager in the past.

The night started with nine candidates in the field as three dropped out and later two more did not answer the call to the gate with seven remaining. In addition to Jones and Liberty, Alessandro Miglio, Frances Leighton, Glen Robertelli, Jung Yueh and Amy Zuccarello finished off the field.

In the first round of voting to see who would go into the five questions and answer portion of the selection process, Liberty and Zuccarello each received the maximum of eight votes with Jones at seven. Yueh took in six with Leighton and Robertelli tied for the final slot with four.

Liberty’s background as a principal and district leader in Boston and now a consultant proved an interesting mix for those looking to bring change to the town.

Mike Crowley said while areas such budgets and union negotiating are some of the most important, the committee and district needs a candidate who will bring a more holistic approach to educating Belmont’s children. “Jeff was a harsh critic during this past year, but I’ve found him to be extremely thoughtful, intelligent and he’s experienced design educational matters beyond measure.”

“I think we need Jeff,” said Crowley.

When the Q&A section ended, it was clear from the remarks from the joint group that the temporary seat would either go to Liberty or Jones. It appeared the board’s familiarity with Jones as the three Select Board members voted for the former Selectman. And it was the School Board’s newest members – Moriarty and Jamal Saeh – who backed Jones providing him the margin needed to claim the seat.

Jones’ decision not to run will likely result in a wide-open horse race for the three year term up for grabs in April.

Belmont High Administration Responds To Racist Act During Saturday’s Open House

Photo: The open house at Belmont Middle and High School Saturday, Oct. 23

Belmont High School officials reacted quickly to the writing of racist graffiti during a public open house of the high school wing of Belmont Middle and High School on Saturday, Oct. 23.

“The use of any racial slur is not in line with our values at Belmont High School,” said High School Principal Isaac Taylor in a press release dated Tuesday, Oct. 26. “We are committed to becoming a school community where all people feel welcomed, celebrated, and supported.”

According to Taylor, during the second of three open houses to provide the public a view of the new building’s interior, two students, one BHS and one from another school, entered the building and made their way to an unsupervised area in the library.

“While in the space, the student from another school wrote a message containing a racial slur. This slur was directed to our black and brown students and families with the use of the ‘n’ word,” said Taylor. The pair was approached by a custodian at which time they ran off. The message was removed before students and staff entered the building on Monday. The students movement and actions were captured on camera, which were reviewed by the school administration.

Isaac outlined the actions by the administration to the event which included:

  • Meeting with the Belmont student and their family, where consequences were assigned.
  • Belmont police was notified via the School Resource Officer.
  • The headmaster of the school where the other student attends was notified of his student’s involvement.
  • Contacting and partnering with Chon’tel Washington, the district’s Director of Equity and Inclusion. 
  • Reaching out to the school’s liaisons at the Belmont Human Rights Commission who can serve as a resource to anyone in the community.  

Isaac said the administration will also review event policies and school security to ensure that students cannot gain access to unsupervised areas after school hours. 

“Please know that we are here for you,” said Isaac. “Students, please feel free to reach out to any trusted adult at the high school. Your guidance counselors, teachers, and administrators are here for you. There are also other resources available to anyone in Belmont; you are always free to reach out to the Belmont Human Rights Commission for support.

Breaking: Burbank Principal Resigns After Staff, District Lost Confidence In His Leadership

Photo: Burbank Elementary School

Seeley Okie, principal of the Burbank Elementary School, was forced to resign his position on Thursday, Oct. 21 after teachers and staff of the school “expressed concerns” to the Belmont School District on his running of the school since September and, specifically, Okie’s handling of a specific event in which a student was restrained during a “de-escalation” incident under his watch.

In a letter to the Burbank community dated Oct. 21, Belmont Superintendent John Phelan said after recently speaking with school personnel and reviewing the incident with the student, Okie was placed on administrative leave on an unspecified date according to district protocol.

After subsequent conversations “we have come to a mutual agreement that Principal Okie will submit his resignation, effective immediately,” wrote Phelan. “[Okie] has been fully cooperative throughout this process and has indicated that this course of action is best for him personally and professionally, for his family, and most importantly, for the school community.”

Phelan expressed his personal thanks to Okie for providing “leadership and stability” through “the significant challenges and uncertainty” of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Okie came to the Burbank as its interim principal in July 2019 after spending seven years as assistant principal at the McArthur Elementary School in Waltham. He was named Burbank’s full-time principal starting in September 2020.

Phelan said the district’s central office and members of the superintendent’s Leadership Team – made up of senior staff and the district’s principals – will work with teachers and staff to “ensure the smooth operation of the school.”

The district will begin “an immediate search” to hire an interim principal for the Burbank. It comes at the same time Butler Elementary Principal Danielle Betancourt announced her resignation after accepting a position in London.

Select Board Approves Vaccine Mandate For Belmont Town Workers

Photo: Vaccination is a requirement for town employees

The Belmont Select Board voted unanimously Monday night, Oct. 18 to mandate all town employees to be vaccinated for Covid-19.

But the requirement will likely take at least a month, if not longer, before it goes into effect as the town must complete impact bargaining with the seven labor unions representing the 300 full- and part-time municipal employees. During those talks, it will be determined what administration action will be taken against workers who remain unvaccinated.

“This is a public health emergency,” said Select Board Chair Adam Dash before the vote. “I think [the board] need[s] to stand strong and do the right thing.”

“The goal here is for people to get vaccinated and stay employed. They’ve sacrificed quite a lot in their lives to [be in public service] and this is one of those things for the greater good,” Dash said.

The town mandate comes after the Belmont School Committee approved an agreement on Sept. 10 with the Belmont Education Association to require teachers and school staff to be vaccinated.

Spurring the board’s vote was the lastest data on Covid-19 infection rates in Belmont. Data (see at the bottom of the article) compiled by Public Heath Agent Lindsey Sharp showed higher 2021 infection rates than in the same month in 2020. For instance, while there were 11 new cases in August 2020, Belmont recorded 96 in 2021. And since June of this year, Belmont has seen 233 new cases, with nearly half being breakthrough cases occurring to residents who are fully vaccinated.

Sharp said the surge in the past few months are likely related to the highly virulent delta variant of the virus and the reopening of schools and businesses during the summer and fall. “There’s just more people out and about doing activities, traveling,” said Sharp.

In a voluntary survey of employees conducted by the town’s Human Resources Director Shawna Healey, a little more than a third participated of whom all said they have received at least one shot of the Covid-19 vaccine. The town’s Labor Counsel Brian Maser told the board it could require the other employees to provide their vaccination status by exercising its managerial prerogative as part of a vaccination mandate.

But even if the board went that route, “what does that get us?” said the Board’s Mark Paolillo. If, for example, 80 percent of employees are vaccinated, “what do we do with the other 20 percent?”

“I hate to mandate anything but these employees work for the town and we have to consider the safety of our residents,” said Paolillo. Saying there has been “chatter” on Facebook that the board is seeking to control worker’s lives, Paolillo “we’re just trying to protect the public.”

Vice chair Roy Epstein suggested a possible two track approach used at health sites such as the Boston Medical Center in which unvaccinated employees are required to be tested once or twice a week if they choose not to comply with notification requirements or outright refusal. But Paolillo countered that while religious or medical exemptions can be part of the measure, the board needed to take a strong stance on vaccinations.

“I just don’t think halfway [measures] helps anything. It’s either fully mandate or you don’t,” said Paolillo who backed Dash’s amendment.

The most notable of public comment came from resident Joseph Kelly who has questioned the vaccine mandates in Belmont at other venues, saying “there are a lot of things, short term and long term, that we don’t understand yet“ about the Covid vaccine, citing side effects to young recipients and a myriad of other issues. He also noted what he called the “Nuremberg Code” that he said that a person cannot be forced or coerced to be part of this “medical experiment” which, if the employee mandate is passed, would result in a person losing their job.

[Editor’s note: USA Today has produced a fact sheet on the Nuremberg Code and the misinterpretation of its main tenet.]

One area the board expressed concern was what to do with employees who flatly refuse taking the vaccine after an agreement is approved. While not wanting to fire an employee, Maser told the board it can follow the state’s mandate for its executive branch employees. Those who do not comply by a specific date would be placed “on leave” status when they would be required to use their accrued benefits charge, basically their holiday and other time off. When that is expired, those employees are not meeting the condition of employment and faces progressive discipline and ultimately termination.

Town Administrator Patrice Garvin said the practical issue facing the town is negotiating with seven unions who will could have different demands or requirements before signing an agreement with the town. Maser advised the board not to set a date certain that is at least four weeks from the vote for the mandate to take effect. It was agreed that after informing the unions of the vote on Tuesday, the board will meet in executive session next week with Garvin, Healy and Maser to discuss strategy relative to what the town’s proposal to bring to the bargaining table.

Successful Opening Day For New Belmont High School Wing

Photo: A flood of students heading into the new school.

Around 7 a.m., on Thursday, Sept. 9, the first line of shower passed and behind it the skies brightened to allow the first day of school in Belmont to be one without raincoats or umbrellas.

Over at Concord Avenue, students – being driven, driving, walking and biking – began swarming to enter the new high school wing of the Belmont Middle and High School.

Despite the rain and the new street configuration that includes signal lights at Goden, the first morning was surprisingly calm. Traffic flowed somewhat seamlessly, students patiently waited at the cross walks and only a few parents attempted dropping off kids on campus – they were given a first day ‘pass’ with a reminder. The only issue on this opening day: not enough bike racks as a flood of students took the advice of the administration to wheel it to the high school.

“It’s a miracle,” said Jay Marcotte, Belmont Department of Public Works director, who came to observe how the new traffic/crosswalk lights were effecting traffic.

Maybe not a miracle as it was the result of countless public meetings (including 126 of the building committee) community notifications over the past weeks and a slew of public safety officers on the day directing vehicles and manning the crosswalks.

“Everyone is playing nice today,” said Marcotte, with his hope that it will continue deep into the school year.

For Belmont Superintendent John Phelan, this opening day with 300 educators and staff and 1,400 students arriving for a half day of school – Friday will be the first full day on the 180-day school calendar – was certainly one filled with some apprehension. Taking in the day from in front of the school with Owner’s Project Manager Tom Gatzunis of CHA Consulting, Phelan said his initial reaction to the morning was “a great deal of pride” for all who had a hand in bringing the 9-12 portion of the school on time and on budget.

Phelan has experience opening new buildings when as a principal in the Milton Public Schools the district brought on line five new schools within a decade in 2008.

“It’s alway exciting to see all our students and teachers come into a building that the voters overwhelmingly supported,” he said while taking photos of the day.

He noted that while it was conspicuous day, the project is just half complete with the Middle School expected to open in two years.

Tentative Agreement On Vaccine Mandate For Belmont Teachers/Staff

Photo: Belmont teachers and staff will be required to be vaccinated if a tentative agreement is approved.

In a joint press release issued Friday afternoon, Sept. 3, representatives of the Belmont School Committee and the local teachers’ union, the Belmont Educators Association, tentatively agreed to mandated vaccinations against the Covid-19 virus for educators and staff working in Belmont’s six public schools.

The agreement, passed on Thursday, Sept. 2, will now go before the full BEA membership and the six member School Committee to be voted on and ratified.

The Belmont School District will also begin the school year with a mask mandate for students and staff.

The provisional deal comes as school’s open in Belmont on Wednesday, Sept. 8, in the midst of a significant surge of the virus due to the spread of the highly infectious Delta variant. Elementary and younger middle school students who can not be vaccinated due to their age are seen as susceptible to either catching or carrying the virus.

The press release also announced the second of” two important health mitigation strategies that will support a safe opening of school” as the Belmont Public Schools is partnering with Cambridge Innovation Center to implement a Routine COVID Safety Checks – formerly known as Routine COVID Pooled Testing – and a “Test and Stay” close contact testing protocol.

Routine COVID safety checks is when shallow nasal swab samples are collected at school and put into a single tube. If a group tests positive, individual follow-up testing with a second sample collection occurs at the school with BinaxNOW and/or individual PCR testing, as necessary.

Test and stay protocol is for students and staff who may have been exposed to COVID-19 while in school. Test and Stay allows students and staff who were exposed to a person who tested positive for COVID-19 at school to remain in school as long as they have no symptoms. Instead of missing school, these students and staff will be administered a daily BinaxNOW rapid test at school. They will continue to quarantine outside of the school day. Students and staff participate in Test and Stay for a minimum of five days after they may have been exposed. 

A health bulletin from the school district’s nursing staff with more information on pool testing, test and stay, testing consent forms, etc., with links to the new symptom checker will be sent to you early next week, Sept. 12.

Temp HS Student Parking, Drop Off/Pick Up Locations Along Concord Get A Thumbs Up

Photo: The new stripping along Concord Avenue at Goden Street (Credit: Belmont Police Twitter account)

Concord Avenue will be just a tad busier starting Sept. 8 as the Belmont Select Board unanimously approved 100 temporary student parking spaces along the westbound (from Cambridge to Belmont Center) lane of Concord Avenue as the high school wing of the new Belmont Middle and High School opens its doors for the first time.

In addition, the board approved drop off areas for students to exit cars bringing them to the school, according to Glenn Clancy, Director of Community Develop who made the presentation at the board’s Monday, Aug. 31 meeting.

“The beautiful thing about this plan is nothing’s new,” said Clancy, noting that construction workers have been using the same spots for the past two years that students are coming to, so drivers are familiar with vehicles along the roadway.

Approved by the Transportation Advisory Committee on July 15 with guidance from the Planning Board, the parking spaces are located at three locations:

• Across from the Belmont Public Library between the two curb cuts of the familiar turn-in parking area.

• Running across from Cottage and Goden streets, and

• Along Clay Pit Pond from the school’s entrance to Underwood Street.

The spaces will be issued by a lottery system, said John Phelan, Belmont Superintendent.

The spaces will be available to students until the completion of the Middle School portion in August 2023 when on-site parking becomes accessible.

While the TAC has delayed making a recommendation for the location of drop off and pick up spots due to the view that having a travel lane, bike path and parking along the street was “too concentrated” creating safety issues especially for bikers, said David Coleman, a TAC member, Phelan told the board there was an immediate need to have those spaces identified as the school year was less than two weeks away.

The placement of the drop off/pick up spots would be:

Heading eastbound (to Cambridge): Between Oak and Orchard streets to allow students to use the newly-lined crosswalk which will be staffed by a crossing guard.

Westbound: Across from Orchard Street that allows students to get out of the right side of the vehicle onto the sidewalk.

Phelan said the school district did not want to use a new loop in front of the school’s entrance as it will be reserved for buses. “We always wanted to separate cars, buses, walkers and bikers,” he said while construction continues for the next two years. “All the cars pulling into the driveway would create a walking conflict for those … coming from Harris Field … to get on the campus.”

Phelan said an additional drop-off site could be at the turn-off area across from the library.

Once the middle school is open, “we’ll have plenty of room for a pickoff/drop off on the site,” he said.

“That does not mean that this is a perfect scenario. We all know we are in a two-year temporary phase where traffic will be extremely congested in this area,” said Phelan.

For the Select Board’s Mark Paolillo, the current plan has his “heart in my mouth” concerning the likelihood that parents will simply stop along the entire stretch of Concord as an impromptu drop-off spot when traffic is congested.

“We need to have police presence… to supervise this,” said Paolillo. Phelan said Belmont Police Chief James MacIsaac will be present for the first two weeks of school to “observe everything that’s happening.”

While saying there isn’t any way to know the demand for two drop-off locations, “I think we all just have to realize that with experience in the opening days of school we might have to make some adjustments,” said Select Board member Roy Epstein. “But I think this is the logical starting point.”