Andrea Prestwich, School Committee Chair During Height Of Pandemic, Stepping Down

Photo: Andrea Prestwich at the 2021 Belmont High School graduation

Andrea Prestwich, who led the Belmont School Committee during the height of a worldwide pandemic that upended education in Belmont, resigned from the committee Wednesday, Oct. 20, after accepting a role with the government’s leading funding source for basic science research.

“I’ve been offered a position as Program Director at the National Science Foundation and I hope to start next week,” Prestwich said in a letter to Town Clerk Ellen Cushman. “I’m very excited by this new opportunity, but it will be a lot of work and I won’t have the time needed to devote to the School Committee going forward.”

“It has been an honor to serve on the School Committee,” said Prestwich who is the committee’s longest serving member having been elected in April 2016.

“I look back at what I said when I first ran for the school committee, back in 2016, and I said, ‘I’m in awe of the teachers, the administrators and the students.’ And that’s still true. I am in awe of all those people,” said Prestwich at the committee’s Tuesday, Oct. 19 meeting.

“The district really does faces some significant challenges, especially financial. But you guys have the right core values, and are excellent people. And I believe that you can these core values and the right people will sustain the district through difficult times,” said Prestwich of her committee colleagues.

Amy Checkoway, the committee’s current chair, said she and the committee “will miss among other things, your insightful questions, your extensive scientific knowledge, and your honesty.”

Prestwich’s leadership occurred “during an incredibly difficult time to serve on the school committee, let alone be a chair,” said Checkoway. Taking the helm in April 2020 – she was the only sitting member who volunteered to replace the previous chair who suddenly resigned – Prestwich faced a district forced to provide a daily classroom experience remotely which it provided on the fly as the severity of the pandemic brought daily roadblocks to the education process.

Belmont Superintendent John Phelan said he and the central office staff shared a very unique experience with Prestwich “which was a year of Covid challenges” and the efforts to ensure that students would attend “safe school environment.”

“It does feel like we’re battle scarred, doesn’t it,” Prestwich said.

Prestwich led the committee in the district’s contentious phased opening of school starting in remote learning in Sept. 2020 which she said was a good decision, although admitting parents should have been part of the process in developing the plan. She championed district-wide Covid testing and increasing education spending in future budgets to provide needed additional instruction just as a populist austerity faction in town raised questions on funding.

With her stances, Prestwich became a convenient target for parental critics on social media platforms including many particularly personal attacks alleging a “hidden agenda” to grab control of the district. Detractors went so far as to suggest starting a recall effort which quickly petered out.

In a December 2020 interview, Prestwich explained that both she and the committee appreciated the anxiety of parents whose children remained out of the classroom.

“I completely understand the level of frustration in the community with our schools,” Prestwich said. “Not one of us on the School Committee is happy with the current situation. We would all like for school in Belmont to be back to normal. As School Committee chair, I’m the natural target for the frustration.”

“I remember very vividly a phone conversation I had with Andrea at some point last school year, when she described how heavy this role felt every day,” said Checkoway, who took over Prestwich’s role after she stepped down from the chair’s position in early April.

Prestwich ran in 2016 promoting later school start times especially for high school students, pointing to the overwhelming scientific evidence that maturing teens – She and her husband, Steve Saar, are parents of teenage twins – more sleep to effectively tackle the school day.

Her reliance on a fact-based approach as chair and as a member can be found in her own education and day job. A PhD in Astrophysics from Imperial College London, this year marked Prestwich’s 30th anniversary at Harvard’s Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory where she is a staff scientist at the Chandra X-ray Observatory.

And in her final act as a committee member, Prestwich was given the honor of closing the committee’s meeting one last time.

School Committee Mandates Student Vaccinations by Dec. 1 To Take Part In Sports, Extracurriculars

Photo: Students aged 16 and older who which to participate in sports and extracurriculars must be fully vaccinated by Dec. 1

The Belmont School Committee voted unanimously Tuesday, Oct. 5 to require students 16 and older to be fully vaccinated against Covid-19 to participate in school-sponsored athletics or extracurricular activity.

The mandate, according to the language in the interim policy, was passed to “promote public safety and the safety of students, facility and staff” during the worldwide pandemic that is “causing disruption of the traditional school day.”

“I do think it’s a step in the right direction to continue to create a safer environment as possible for school operations,” said Kate Bowen who heads the committee’s policy subcommittee which wrote and edited the new language.

The policy requires students who are age-eligible according to the Federal Drug Adminstration – current guidelines would impact those between 16 to 19 – have received both doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines or the one-shot Johnson & Johnson injection.

The new policy is an effort to spur Belmont’s already high vaccination rate in the 7th-12th grades which currently averaging in the low 80 percent range.

While voting in favor of the measure, committee members Bowen and Meg Moriarity along with Belmont Superintendent John Phelan expressed a worry that it would appear the policy is selecting a group of students based on interest or participation . But each acknowledged that the intent is trying to vaccinate as many students as possible in all settings in order to provide a safer environment.

Chair Amy Checkoway said it is important after the vote to inform families the policy was “going into place and making sure their questions are answered” while continuing to support access to vaccines for students.

The vote comes a day after the Belmont Board of Health recommended the committee mandate a vaccination requirement for all students 16 and up.

I’m in the process of consulting and finding out some more information from our legal counsel about next steps,” said Checkoway. “I think this is obviously a very important issue and something we neeed to discuss.”

School Committee Set To Vote On Vaccination Requirement For Sports, Extracurriculars Participation

Photo: Sports and extracurriculars could require a vaccine to particpate.

In an effort to increase the number of students vaccinated against Covid-19, the Belmont School Committee is expected to vote at its next meeting, Tuesday, Oct. 5, to require all age eligible students who wish to participate in school-sponsored sports and rostered extracurricular activities occuring outside of the school day to be fully vaccinated.

“While [sports and extracurricular] has great merit and benefits,” said Committee member Kate Bowen at the School Committee’s Sept. 21 meeting, they are not required to be provided as they happen outside of the regular school day. For that reason, vaccination requirements lie in the hands of local authorities rather than the state which controls which vaccines students must have to attend school.

The goal of the interm policy’s goal is to promote public safety and the safety of students, faculty and staff will take effect immediately after the vote.

With several hundred students remaining unvaccinated, “[a mandate] is exactly the kind of thing that brings us closer towards normalcy and absolutely to safety,” said member Jamal Saeh.

Under the policy, fully vaccinated is discribed as two weeks after the final dose of initial vaccination, excluding booster shots required by the particular vaccine brand. Students who are waiting vaccination would be required to participate in state sponsored testing at Belmont public schools or submit evidence of indicative COVID-19 tests on a weekly basis for age ineligible students. The policy will remain in place until rescinded by the school committee.

Currently, nearly four of every five Belmont students in 7th to 12th grade are fully vaccinated, according to data from the Belmont School District.

The new policy – modeled after one adopted by Lexington – came close to receiving an up-or-down vote at the School Committee’s most recent meeting on Sept. 21, before it was temporarily pulled. Late changes to the language in a few sections required sending the proposal back to the Policy Subcommittee and the Town Counsel for a once-over review.

One gray area committee members wished to clarify was the age to start the vaccination mandate: OK a 12-16 “emergency” use authorization approved by the state and backed by the American Academy of Pediatircs or stay with the 16-18 which the Federal Drug Administration has backed.

Despite the delay, it appears the policy is well on its way to being adopted as each committee member voiced support for measure at the Sept. 21 meeting.

School Committee Supports Move For Mandatory Student Covid Vaccination; ‘Jab To Play’ Athletics, Extra Curriculum Being Discussed

Photo: Students will need a vaccine card to attend Belmont schools if the Belmont School Committee has its way

While communities and states in parts of the US are passing laws preventing school districts from mandating vaccinations and/or masks and commentators saying vaccine requirements creates a “apartheid” system, Belmont is moving in the opposite direct as the School Committee vote unanimously at its Sept. 7 meeting to push the state to mandate a Covid-19 vaccination of every eligible student to attend school.

“Let us demonstrate [our commitment to protect children’s health] by taking the critical step of requiring the COVID-19 vaccine for school attendance … ,” said a letter written by School Committee Chair Amy Checkoway.

Currently, students 16 and older can take any of the available vaccines while those 12 to 15 are able to be vaccinated on an emergency basis.

Calling it one of several pathways of requiring student vaccination, Checkoway drafted the letter addressed to the town’s state delegation, State Sen. Will Brownsberger and State Rep. Dave Rogers, to back the move several neighboring communities have committed to.

The letter (see below) asks the elected representatives to add Covid-19 to the list of vaccines – for measles and chicken pox – the state requires children to have before entering school and push the Department of Public Health to codify a similar step.

”We have no time to lose. The school year has already begun,” reads the letter dated Sept. 7.

In a related action, School Committee member Jamal Saeh proposed (see below) a requirement that any student who wished to participate in school-sponsored athletics or after school extra curriculum (clubs, theater etc) to be vaccinated to take part or they will have to take a weekly mandatory test. Saeh said the committee could make this a mandate as it doesn’t prevent a student from attending school and it would encourage the 20 percent of high school students who have yet to be vaccinated to get the jab.

“This will emphasize the importance of vaccination of the entire Belmont public school community,” said Saeh.

While the proposal received overall support by the committee, there were questions on how to implement this possible emergency policy change with sports beginning in two days (Belmont High Field Hockey starts the athletic year on Thursday) while Belmont Superintendent John Phelan noted the leadership of the Middlesex League athletic conference, in which Belmont is a member, was hesitant of supporting similar policies as all student athletes taking part in fall sports have signed up and were not expecting changes to their eligibility status once the season got underway.

Checkoway asked the athletic department to provide more “specifics” and how other districts are committed to similar proposals. The committee decided to delay a vote until its policy subcommittee to review the “first” reading and make recommendations. “But I am hearing urgency” to come to a resolution, noted Checkoway, saying Saeh’s proposal will return to the committee for its Sept. 21 meeting.

Belmont School Committee Formally Accepts Town’s Newest School Building

Photo: The newest school building in Belmont.

After nearly 27 months of construction, tons of steel, concrete, wires and piping, and a lot of money, the (nearly) completed high school wing of the new Belmont Middle and High School is now in the hands of the Belmont School Committee after the town issued the committee a temporary certificate of occupancy on Aug. 31.

”Belmont has much to be proud of,” read the letter accompanying the certificate to the school district. (See the letter below)

“The building project has been in the ownership of Skanska construction and the building committee since it started digging into the ground several years ago,” Belmont Superintendent John Phelan told the School Committee on Tuesday, Sept. 7, two days before the opening day of the 2021-22 school year as well as the first day the high school section will be open to students.

The committee voted unanimously to formally accept the TCO.

Phelan noted that several town departments including Police, Fire, and Health had to sign off on the certificate to allow the ownership transfer to the School Committee. It will remain a temporary certificate until the 7th and 8th grade middle school wing is completed in Sept. 2023 and the permanent certificate will be issued. The now former high school building, opened in 1970, is being demolished.

As of August, 2021, 54 percent of the construction has been completed with $166.5 million spent out of the $295.2 allocated to the project.

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.

‘Prepared To Be Shocked’: Take A First Peek At Belmont’s New School [Video]

Photo: The high school wing of the Belmont Middle and High School is just days away from opening.

First it was years. Then months, followed by weeks. And now the high school wing of the new Belmont Middle and High School is just days away from the opening of the school year on Sept. 9.

This week is when the town is expected to issue a temporary certificate of occupancy (TCO) that officially transfers the ownership of the structure from the Belmont Middle and High School Building Committee to the School Committee. And while many in town have followed the progress of the exterior construction – from putting up steel, installing the bricks and windows and the landscaping – there has only been a few chances to witness what has been going on inside.

Last week, in a pre-tour before the building committee gets its opportunity this week, a small group got a glimpse at what has been developing on the inside.

”Be prepared to be shocked from the last time you were here,” said Building Committee Chair Bill Lovallo as he led the group into the just-about done school.

And Lovallo didn’t disappoint with his announcement; the interior is an exceptional educational space with an eye-catching design (by architectural firm Perkins+Will) that incorporates natural light to support the function of the building.

“It really is beautiful,” said a tour participant.

As recently as six months ago, the wing’s interior was just bare walls and floors, a few rooms filled with a jumble of tools and workers everywhere. And while there is still a fair share of material that still needs to be installed and unpacked, the tour introduced a building that is impressive, modern and waiting for students to start learning in.

“It has been a tremendous transformation,” said Lovallo, noting the work of the Building Committee which has meet for more than 125 meetings to keep the project pretty much on time and within the project budget at this stage of construction.

Many of the classrooms are only waiting for the furniture to be unwrapped, electronics to be plugged in and floors washed. But the paint is dry, the internet is up and running and the air conditioning works, using geothermal technology to pump in the cool air.

Work will continue after the school opens: The spacious theater needs the acoustic wood panels, carpet and chairs installed, the tiles for the Higginbottom pool just came in while the new turf field – dubbed the Rugby Field – is just waiting for a few days without rain so workers can lay down the carpet. All should be done by mid-October while the new locker rooms in the Wenner Field House is just now getting under construction.

And while there is growing excitement for the high school’s opening, the building project is a little more than half finished with the middle school segment just getting underway with the demolition of the original high school. Only in the fall of 2023 with the completion of the 7th-8th grade wing and athletic fields and parking will the “job be done,” said Lovallo.

Pair Of Public Meetings This Week: Belmont Middle/High Building Committee And American Rescue Act

Photo: Two public forums will be held this week

The Select Board will be joining several committees and groups for two virtual joint public meetings that will effect the lives of every resident in Belmont.

On Tuesday, Aug. 17 at 7 p.m., the Select Board will be joined by the Belmont Middle and High School Building Committee and the School Committee to discuss aspects of the construction of the $295 million 7-12 school that has been in the news. One area that will be brought up will be design and construction concerns at Concord Avenue and Goden Street, the new traffic lights at the intersection, site design review as well as public comments on the evaluation of construction impacts to neighboring properties.

The Transportation Advisory Committee and the High School Traffic Working Group have also been invited to join the meeting.

The meeting will be conducted Via Zoom Meeting. By computer or smartphone, go to:
https://us02web.zoom.us/j/89055600185?pwd=alNQLzVHOFM3bEZuU2dUWjczaTVYdz09 and follow on-screen instructions.

On Wednesday, Aug. 18, the public is invited to join the Select Board’s joint meeting with the School, Warrant Committee, and Capital Budget Committee also at 7 p.m. via Zoom to discussing the how the town will distribute the approximately $7.6 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding the town received earlier in the year.

By computer or smartphone, go to: https://us02web.zoom.us/j/84474554147

Both meetings can be seen live at the Belmont Media Center:
Channel 8 on Comcast
Channel 28 or 2130 on Verizon
Or watch online at belmontmedia.org/watch/govtv

If you have any questions, please reach out to the Town Administrator’s Office at townadministrator@belmont-ma.gov or call 617-993-2610

Belmont Schools To Open Year Under Universal PreK-12 Mask Mandate

Photo: Belmont students will start the new school year wearing masks.

Belmont students and teachers throughout the district will be wearing masks to start the new school year beginning on Thursday, Sept. 9, after the Belmont School Committee at its Monday, Aug. 9 meeting accepted a town-wide universal mask mandate approved by the Board of Health and the Belmont Select Board on Friday, Aug. 6.

The committee will “revisit the mask policy and discuss strategies to increase vaccination rates” with the Health Board sometime at the end of September, according to the policy.

“I believe it’s really important to provide Belmont school families and staff with clarity about the masking plans and requirements for the beginning of the 2021-22 school year,” said School Board Chair Amy Checkoway.

Attended by approximately 200 via Zoom, the meet showed no sign of contentiousness or rancor seen at school committee meetings across the country – notably one held on Tuesday in Franklin, Tenn. – that resulted in anti-masking protests and threats of violence, while a Fox Entertainment personality claimed masking students is done to “terrify” them and anti-mandate decrees being issued by a handful of governors.

During the three hour meeting, Superintendent John Phelan presented the district’s proposed “Back to School Health/Safety Protocol Plan” for the 2021-22 school year created by the district’s Health Team. Its recommendations include:

  • Implement indoor masking for staff and students in accordance to the Aug. 6 town-wide decree.
  • Masks required on buses and at health clinics.
  • No mandate for outdoor activities or while students are at lunch.
  • Maximize distances in classrooms and cafeterias at the elementary and middle schools including providing outdoor space.
  • Encourage vaccinations for staff and students 12+ and host vaccination sites at schools.
  • Testing, quarantining and contract tracing is also recommended; the district is waiting for state guidance.

Phelan told the committee the district would be seeking direction on creating an indoor mask mandate for the entire student population and staff. The Health Team’s guidance would be provided by the state – using the Department of Public Health (DPH) and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) – the federal government’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Phelan noted “there’s a lot of similar guidance” from the three sources and that included masking for all preschool and elementary school students as they currently can not be vaccinated. The one area Phelan said where the three entities differed is in-school masking for vaccinated student in 7th through 12th grade. While the AAP and CDC recommend masks, the state’s DPH advise masks if the student lives with someone who is not vaccinated or immunocompromised while DESE would allow vaccinated students to remain maskless while indoors.

Masking challenge for High School students

Since half of the grades at the Belmont’s Chenery Middle School fall under the elementary policy and the other half in the 7th to 12 range, Phelan said it was best that all students remained masked as the four grades will come in contact throughout the day. This left the School Committee to determine the masking in the traditional 9-12 high school grades.

Adrienne Allen, the Board of Health’s observer at the School Committee, told the committee that as a physician she was “very hopeful” two months ago that vaccinations would create a situation where mask use could safety be reduced. “But then things rapidly changed before our eyes with [the] Delta [variant],” she said, with the most disconcerting part being vaccinated people can spread the variant which is nearly as contagious as chickenpox.

With the overriding goal of the School Committee and district is to “keep kids in school as much as possible” while mitigating harm as much as possible, said Allen. And masking protects people from a source; for example, “if I had Covid and I’m wearing a mask, you’re protected. But it also protects other people.”

So if you want to keep students in school and protected, the schools should have a universal mask mandate, said Allen.

It soon became clear the Committee’s consensus was to start the school year with grades Pre-K to 12 masked. And each of the members agreed there will likely be a time when the mandate will be modified or ended. Coming to what that point was where the committee split.

For Jamal Saeh, the answer, for at least 7th to 12th grade pupils, was already baked into the town-wide mask mandate. Rather than reinvent the wheel, Saeh pointed to the town policy that says the mandate will end when the level of community transmission for Middlesex county as recorded by the CDC is designated as either low or moderate for two consecutive weeks.

But the other members pointed to the unique nature of the schools where, unlike the town-wide impact on stores, eateries and offices in which people may spend a few minutes to an hour, students and staff in schools are inside and interacting with dozens of fellow students for six hours or more.

Committee member Mike Crowley what masking does is helps the district “avoid disruptions that so rattled the community last year.” And while it’s impossible to know with any certainty what the coming year will bring but masking seems to be a fairly effective strategy.” For Crowley and others, rather than have a “ridged” standard as the town-mandate, the policy should be reviewed on a regular basis.

The committee did agree with Saeh that the first review of the mask mandate should take place in late September and also to advocate for increased vaccinations among students – those in 9th to 12th grades have about a 80 percent fully vaccination rate – with future discussion on a possible requirement that staff be vaccinated.

”If we learned one thing from last year, it’s that people value in person schooling,” said Committee member Andrea Prestwich, and masking not only tamps down Covid spread but also the flu and other respiratory illnesses “and takes some of the load off of our nursing staff.”

Belmont Schools Summer Reading List Targeted By Fox News For Alleged ‘Race-centric’ Curricula

Photo: Fox News has highlighted books on the Belmont Schools Summer Reading List they contend targets ‘Whiteness’

Along with the opening of the Underwood Pool, summer arrives in Belmont when the Public Library releases its summer reading list for the town’s public school students.

Designed to encourage pupils to make reading a habit while raising both their interest in and level of reading, the summer collection runs the gamut from Too Many Cats by Lori Haskins Houran that kindergarteners read with their parents, the fantasy series The Land of Stories by Chris Colfer for middle schoolers and acclaimed novels such as Isabel Allende’s House of the Spirits that rising sophomores in the English honors program will pick up.

“The Library and School Department have worked on summer reading lists for many years, long before I arrived in Belmont in 2015,” said Belmont Public Library Director Peter Struzziero. “It’s always been a great partnership that we look forward to every year.”

For all previous years, the list has been the exclusive purview of school-aged students hoping they made a good choice to read on warm summer days. That all changed when late last week, an ominous headline came across computer screens courtesy of the online version of Fox News: “Massachusetts school district pushes grade schoolers to read books about ‘White privilege,’ ‘Whiteness‘.

That district? Belmont, where books, according to the article, that condemns “Whiteness” are in the recommended summer reading list for grade school students “amid a national uproar over race-centric curricula in schools.” The likely furor the article mentions is linked to the teaching of critical race theory, a catch phrase used by conservative groups and right wing media to condemn studying that racism is systemic in the nation’s institutions and they function to maintain the dominance of white people in society.

A primer on critical race theory can be found at Education Week.

While there is no evidence that critical race theory is taught in any K-12 district in the country – although some teachers who have participated in a professional development sessions have encountered topic – Fox News has refocused its daily coverage towards allegations of students being bullied for being white and forcing them to attend classes that condemn their race. Since March, Fox News programs have mentioned the topic 1,300 times in a little over a 100 days.

The Fox article, authored by Peter Hasson, said the offending books are within a category titled “Race, Culture, and Activism” that are “recommended” for grade school students including one titled Not my Idea: A Book About Whiteness, by Anastasia Higginbotham.

“The imaginary terms [provided by “the devil” to white children that will] offer “stolen land,” “stolen riches” and “special favors,” explained Hasson. It adds that “WHITENESS gets” “your soul” and “to mess endlessly with the lives of your friends, neighbors, loved ones and all fellow humans of COLOR.” “The end contains a section for signature and notes [l]and, riches and favors may be revoked at any time, for any reason,'” in Hasson’s summarized.

Other targeted titles include Jenny Devenny’s Race Cars: A Children’s Book About White Privilege and Stamped, by Ibram Kendi, who is described by Hasson as a “far-left academic” who has called for “an anti-racist amendment to the U.S. Constitution that enshrines two guiding anti-racist principals: Racial inequity is evidence of racist policy and the different racial groups are equals.”

The Fox article came a day after right-wing activist Christopher Rufo tweeted that Belmont was one of 30 communities in the US – five in Massachusetts – using Not my Idea either in classes or are on reading lists. Rufo’s tactics, research and goals have come under increasing fire. As one critic noted, Rufo “takes critical-race theory as a concept, strips it of all meaning, and repurposes it as a catchall for white grievances.”

Racist email follows ‘whiteness’ claim

Reaction to the Fox article and Rufo’s tweet came quickly as an email saturated with White racist and White supremacist tropes – calling for a “Thank You White People Day” – was sent late on July 8 by a “Brian Jenkins” to each member of the School Committee, the district’s Central Office, the district’s six PTOs and the Friends of Belmont Education.

Responding to the Fox article, Belmont Superintendent John Phelan noted the reading list is created “in partnership with our Public Library and are not assigned by the school department.” rather, it is made up of “suggested titles for families to use at their discretion.”

At the June 29 school committee meeting, Phelan addressed just how the list is developed, with an acknowledgment that “I know there have been some questions about how this process is conducted each year.” The selected books, including those highlighted by Fox, are a collaboration between Belmont librarians, district’s curriculum leaders, elementary school principals and assistant superintendent Janice Darius. The library begins the process by reviewing the list from previous years and adding notable new reads.

“They send a draft of the list to the curriculum leaders to review so it will align with each grades curriculum in representing the diversity, cultural, language and race of our students,” said Phelan. Books are taken off the list because they’re already part of a grade level curriculum, if they should belong to a different grade level’s list or “they may be too controversial,” he said.

It is school curriculum leaders who add new books to replace those titles taken off. “The list is then reviewed by the elementary principals, the assistant superintendent and, finally, through my office as well,” said Phelan. The list is then sent to out to all teachers, families and posted on the district’s website.

“I do not think that it is the School Committee’s role to select which books are on the list. We will continue to listen to and communicate with community members and share input received with the district and library.”

Belmont School Committee Chair Amy Checkoway

Phelan reiterated that the the K-7 list are suggested books for families, and “they are not required reading in any way.” These are suggestions for our kindergarten through seventh grade families. There’s one book on the list that is required of our eighth graders; The Giver by Lois Lowry. All other books on the eighth grade lists are also suggestions, said Phelan.

Responding to the Fox article with the Belmontonian, Struzziero said the books in the targeted category “teach about some of the history of racial injustice in our country and attempt to give messages about equality, justice, peace, kindness and many other themes that we want to inspire in all our students.”

“We hope this list will inspire discussion and learning among our families, provide a way to better understand history, and encourage us all to better understand each other. This is really only a highlight of the many books we have available on these topics,” he said.

Speaking directly at Fox News which he said “took into consideration a certain point of view” in its coverage, Stuzzierio said there’s no shortage of opinions on literature or on education of the young. “I won’t comment on what’s credible or not, all opinions are valuable, and we are always happy to have feedback on how to make the Library and it’s collections the best it can be,” he said.

Placing the books highlighted in the the Fox article in great context, Stuzzierio said many were selected at the culmination of the library’s first-ever Community Read last year with its central focus on antiracism. Partnering with more than 700 residents and groups as varied as Belmont Against Racism, the Belmont Religious Council, the Human Rights Commission and the Belmont Chinese American Association, “the community spoke loudly about the place that we want Belmont today,” he said. “It was joyful, community building, and a healing expression of how Belmont supports itself to be such a great place to live and work. It’s been one of the most inspiring chapters in my career,”

As for moving forward on future lists, Stuzzierio said “we’ve heard from many citizens with feedback on this year’s summer reading list. Most citizens thought it was wonderful and a great accent to the work we do, some others had feedback on titles they thought should be removed from the list, or others still included names of additional titles,” he added.

Resident raises his own concern on summer list

One such resident who has been made his concerns known for the past three years is David Benoit. The retired law enforcement officer has been critical of one specific book used by the district since 2018; The Hate U Give, a young adult novel by Angie Thomas that Benoit contends “teaches that opposing views justify violent destructive riots, assaults, and arson” to “highly impressionable BHS students.” This month, Benoit called out the district for placing on the 2021 summer reading list the book Something Happened In Our Town by Marianne Celano, Marietta Collins, Ann Hazzard and Jennifer Zivoin, for elementary grades K-5, which he said is “poisoning the minds of young innocent children.”

Benoit’s letter and a short conversation with him will be published on Saturday.

Stuzzierio said the will use “all the feedback to review our lists and see in what ways we may build upon it for next year. We look forward to working with the School Department on this process,” he said. 

Speaking to the Belmontonian, School Committee Chair Amy Checkoway said the committee will continue to listen to and communicate with community members who are supportive of the books and with those who have concerns about some of the books and further discuss these items at upcoming meetings.

While the committee will plan to review the current lists in August, “I do not think that it is the School Committee’s role to select which books are on the list. We will continue to listen to and communicate with community members and share input received with the district and library,” she said.

When asked what the best approach for the school community to confront political-based charges the district is teaching a “race-centric curricula,” Checkoway said everyone needs “to remain focused on efforts that are already underway in the Belmont Public Schools to ensure that all students and staff have the opportunity to be successful and feel welcome, seen, represented, and supported in our schools including through our curricula.”

She added the committee supports a district-wide racial equity audit to be conducted by an outside firm beginning in the summer with a focus on helping to identify what the district and committee are doing well and areas of improvement in a range of areas including school climate, student outcomes, hiring and advancement practices, student discipline, and more.

“I also look forward to welcoming a new Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion who will report to the superintendent and provide much needed capacity to advance the district’s equity work and support faculty, staff, students, and families,” said Checkoway.

“There is a lot of good work that is happening and plenty of work that remains.”