Belmont Readies For Schools Reopening As District Defends Restart Process; A Question of Whose Mandate

Photo: The elementary schools will be open for business on April 5 … if not sooner.

Days after the state’s education set dates for reopening of elementary schools, the Belmont School District revealed on Tuesday, March 9 its plan that will allow the district’s youngest students to return to full-time in-school classes on Monday, April 6.

Created from recommendations by the Return to In-Person Learning Working Group, the blueprint will provide an educational experience for children in Kindergarten to 4th grade lacking since exactly a year ago this week.

“Our administrators and administrative team at the central office have been working hard on this for over a month and a half and we’re glad we are making progress … and to let our families know that as we try to finish this year as strong as possible, that we are prepared to have a goal of opening [schools] in-person learning next year,” said John Phelan, superintendent of Belmont District Schools as he presented the plan to the School Committee at its regularly scheduled Tuesday meeting.

The new plan was being developed by the Working Group when the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) which oversees public education in Massachusetts, issued an edict requiring districts to replace their hybrid systems in elementary schools with full-day in-school classes.

The plan for in-person schooling at the town’s four elementary schools has been discussed for the past two weeks by the working group, school committee and district with the final recommendations released Tuesday:

  • Students in school 5 days/week with the same timing as our pre-Covid school schedule;
  • Offer academics, specials (art, physical education), lunch, and snacks as part of the school day. Lunch and some electives classes will be made possible by setting up large wedding tents at each elementary school and a pair at the Chenery Middle and Belmont High schools.
  • Include specialized instruction for students with disabilities and students who are English learners; 
  • Provide bus transportation to all student in accordance with DESE guidance;
  • Implement classroom capacity, individual distancing, and quarantining requirements from CDC and DESE guidance.

Parents who’ll choose to have their children attend classes remotely will also attend school five days per week. Yet one “trade-off” of moving to a full-time school day will be the end of live streaming that allowed for in-class and at-home students to learn together. This will likely require many remote students to “loss” their current teachers who will transition to in-class teaching, replaced by remote-only educators.

“These are some of the challenges that we are facing in order to be able to provide these two learning models,” said Phelan.

Parents were sent a survey last week on which learning model they would choose for their students which will, in turn, determine how many teachers would be in the classroom and those teaching online.

More specific information on in-school elementary education can be found in the form of a PowerPoint presentation at the Belmont Public School website which was presented at the Tuesday School Committee meeting.

You can see the March 9 Belmont School Committee meeting at Belmont Media Center here.

Phelan noted DESE is requiring middle schools to follow the elementary schools in full-time in-school learning by April 28. And even though the state has not made any time certain for high school students, Phelan said the Working Group will be moving forward on recommendations for reopening the middle and high school.

Tuesday also provided an opportunity for Phelan to defend the district and school committee’s deliberative approach to reopening the schools to the criticism from many residents who felt the superintendent and committee members were ignoring physical data compiled by parents indicating students could have safely returned to classrooms earlier in the school year.

“Why in person now versus earlier in the school year than in the winter,” Phelan asked as he spoke of the success of the Return to In-Person Learning Working Group in formulating the recommendations using data and information gathered internally. The superintendent pointed out that the following guidance from the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that only within the past few weeks had it become the optimum time “about bringing more students back to schools.”

“But back in February and January, that was not the case,” he said.

Whose mandate is it anyways?

In a sidebar to the meeting, a question of who has the mandate to speak for educating Belmont students could preview issues facing the Belmont School Committee after Town Election when new members come on board.

Committee member Mike Crowley chided the emergency mandate from DESE Commissioner (and Belmont High alum) Jeffrey Riley directing children back in the classroom either absent of any guidance on a number of issues including the social distancing for unmasked activities and conflicts with union bargaining agreements or “that “DESE guidance seems to be updated about every five minutes,” said Andrea Prestwich, school committee chair.

“I do not like that DESE has usurped the authority of the school committee to make decisions about these planning efforts. This is work that we asked for,” said Crowley, a sentiment seconded by Prestwich, saying she was “holding my tongue about my feelings about DESE, but you did say it nicely.”

Crowley’s statement is hardly a lone voice in the wilderness as many school committees, teacher unions and associations came out to pan Riley’s seeming overreach into local governance. Phelan joined a large group of nearby superintendents in signing a letter asking DESE to work with school districts to come up with a more concrete plan for a return to school, including joining the effort to vaccinate school staff.

While current members were expressing disappointment with the state, School Committee candidate Jamal Saeh, whose run for office is fueled by a growing populism among a segment of the community critical of what they perceive as unwarranted delays in reopening schools, wasted little time in castigating Crowley for his critical take on the state’s intrusion in the running of local government.

“When I hear a school committee member say that DESE usurped the authority of the school committee, I feel compelled to amplify the voice of those parents’ opinion of the school committee [that it] is not the mandate of the community,” said Saeh.

Saeh’s apparently offhand comment was interesting in so much that an elected school board, by state law, was provided a mandate by voters to run the municipality’s schools including managing its own budget, independent hiring practices, and creating policies on how to educate its students.

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