COVID Vaccine/Booster Clinic For Belmont Students 12+, Staff On Jan. 31 At Chenery

Photo: Vaccine/booster shots will be provided to public school students and staff on Jan. 31. (Credit: Wikimedia)

The Belmont Public Schools, working with VaxinateRx and Healthcare Family Pharmacy, is offering the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine/booster shot to eligible students ages 12 and older at the Chenery Middle School on Monday, Jan. 31 from 8 a.m. to noon in the school’s Large Community Room.

Students are welcome to register to receive their first, second, or booster dose at this clinic.

IMPORTANT THINGS TO KNOW

VaccinateRx staff request all signed consent forms to be submitted to the school nurse by Noon Friday, Jan. 28. A Parent or Guardian signature is required for any students under the age of 18. 

Parent/guardian does not need to be present as long as the child has a signed consent form

Remember to bring your vaccination card from the previous vaccination(s) and submit a signed consent form to the school nurse.

  • Students who received their first dose of the Pfizer series at another location are welcome to register to receive their second dose at this clinic as long as it has been at least three weeks since their first dose.
  • If you are 12-17, and received the Pfizer vaccine, you can get a Pfizer booster dose six months after your second dose.
  • If you are 18+, and received the Moderna or Pfizer vaccine, you can get a booster dose six months after your second dose. *Booster shots can be any of the approved COVID-19 vaccines for those 18+, regardless of your original dose. The Pfizer vaccine will be provided at this clinic.
  • If you are 18+, and received the Johnson and Johnson vaccine, you can get a booster dose two months after your original dose.

If you experience any issues with the registration process, please email info@VaxinateRx.com to resolve any issues.

All students will be vaccinated free of charge regardless of insurance coverage. If insured, please enter insurance information in the online registration. Once registered online there is no need to bring an insurance card to the clinic. 

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.

Snow Day: Belmont Schools Closing On Friday Due To Pending Winter Storm

Photo: Snow day in Belmont

Belmont School Superintendent John Phelan’s Thursday afternoon announcement was short and concise:

Due to the storm, Belmont Public Schools will be closed on Friday, January 7, 2022.

The storm is also moving the scheduled Boys’ and Girls’ away varsity basketball games up a day to Saturday, Jan. 8 vs. Woburn.

As Communities Reconsider Masks, Belmont Stands Pat On Coverings Indoors, In Schools

Photo: Hopkinton is the first Massachusetts school district to end mask mandates at its high school (Credit: Hopkinson High School website)

As the first town in Massachusetts has ended a mask mandate at its high school on Monday, Nov. 1, Belmont will be standing pat with requiring coverings for students and public indoor activities.

At its meeting on Monday, the Belmont Select Board heard from Health Department Director Wesley Chin who discussed Covid-19 in Belmont. Chin noted 74 total cases in October, compared to 71 in September with 35 the average age of those infected. Under CDC standards, Middlesex County “still sits in high risk for transmission and Belmont is still in substantial risk,” said Chin.

Chin agreed with Board member Mark Paolillo who said, despite a plateauing of cases nationwide, with Belmont remaining in the substantial risk level of transmission, “we’re not in the position at this point based on the statistics … to lift any mask mandate.”

But Chin did tell Paolillo he believes the town could return to the mandate after the first of the year.

“I think we’re in a sort of gray zone right now. We’re … cautiously watching and eager to see what the holidays bring us. Once we get past the New Year, we should reassess and see where things are,” said Chin.

Hopkinton lifted its mask mandate at its high school for the next three weeks on a trial basis after the school in the center Massachusetts town exceeded the 80 percent Covid-19 vaccination threshold for students and staff which Massachusetts Gov. Baker’s administration set in September to end requirements.

An Oct. 15 article in the Boston Globe found Belmont and 61 other Massachusetts school districts had reached the levels to end mandates. In fact, the Globe found Belmont far exceeding the state requirement: 90 percent of students between ages 12-15 and 89 percent 16-19 have been vaccinated.

When asked to comment on the findings, Belmont Superintendent John Phelan said the mandate “was voted on by the Belmont Board of Health and School Committee. The School Department respect the decision and are following this policy” with any discussion of ending the ban should go through the Board of Health.

But Phelan did leave the door a bit ajar on reconsidering the mandate.

“All issues are open to discussion and I am sure the decisions will be in the best interest of keeping our students, staff and community safe,” said Phelan.

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.

Letter To The Editor: Belmont Needs Common Sense Policy On Student Covid Vaccination Mandate

Photo: The author believes Belmont should adopt a common sense approach to student vaccinations

To the editor:

In the last year and a half, I’ve made it a point to call my elderly Aunt Helen every week. Our conversations touch on a wide range of topics: politics, stories about my parents I’d never heard before, and regular family updates. Lately, Helen has shared stories that are more personal: experiences with her mentally ill father and her unfaithful husband whom she divorced, and sexual harassment and gender discrimination as a working single mom. Recently, I asked her, “How did you manage to get through all of that?”  Helen laughed and said, “I just thought of the story about the little engine that could and I told myself, I can, I must, I will.”  

Belmont needs a little of my Aunt Helen’s can-do attitude right about now. For the third school year in a row, we’ve struggled to maintain focus on where we want to be in the future and how to get there from a policy perspective. To be fair, the national political and scientific landscape is complex, dynamic, and divisive, and “guidance” from the state has been slow to come and sometimes unhelpful. As a consequence, our small town has become torn about the best ways to keep everyone safe and to return to a “normal life” whatever that means going forward.

We can and must do better. For starters, as it did with the universal indoor mask mandate, the Board of Health should follow the advice of the CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics by enacting a policy that mandates vaccinations against COVID-19 among all BPS students who are approved for vaccines by the FDA, presently 16 and older. Based on recent data provided by Belmont Superintendent John Phelan, student vaccinations seem to be stuck at the 80 percent mark, which means that hundreds of students who are eligible for vaccines have not yet gotten them. This represents a significant risk to public health and must be addressed.  

A vaccine mandate for students who are 16 and older will not ensure that all age-eligible students will get vaccinated, but it will send a powerful message to students and families that vaccines are normal and expected for participation in the Belmont Public Schools for all age groups once the FDA determines that the vaccine is safe. The policy can be written in such a way that families will know that they need to prioritize getting their children vaccinated as soon as their age brackets are approved under Emergency Use Authorization because, eventually, all age brackets will be approved by the FDA. This kind of policy will make it unnecessary for the School Committee to make vaccine policy in an ad hoc way every time a new age group gets approved, leaving time to discuss other essential business, such as academic achievement and the social-emotional wellbeing of our students, both of which have suffered in the last two years. 

A vaccine mandate, especially if the policy is enacted with a deadline before Thanksgiving, will not only make schools safer for students and their families by reducing the number of students who will become seriously infected as we head into the winter, it will also be a sign of good faith to our school nurses, the members of the Belmont teachers’ union, and other bargaining units who have agreed to mandatory vaccines that the community cares about their workplace safety.  

More than anything, by using its authority to enact this policy, the Belmont Board of Health will help us take a step in the direction of a future we all want for our children and ourselves, a world in which our children can play and attend school largely without masks and without dread of serious illness and death. As a small town with a strong commitment to local governance, we don’t need to wait for the Massachusetts Legislature, which we heard recently from State Senator Will Brownsberger will defer to the state’s Department of Public Health, to issue this common-sense policy. We can and we must take this important step ourselves to protect our community.   

Jeff Liberty

Worcester Street

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.

Belmont MCAS Scores Dip In Covid-19 Year; Performance Exceeds Statewide Results

Photo: MCAS scores in Belmont and statewide slumped.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the most recent MCAS test scores for Belmont students took a dip as the district struggled to provide a first rate education model during a worldwide pandemic. But with the exception of a sharp drop in the percentage of elementary and middle school students meeting or exceeding in math, the district performance held its own compared to scores for all Massachusetts students.

While the statewide scores showed some large discrepancies from grade to grade, “Belmont did not see the same degree of [downward] shift,” said Belmont Superintendent John Phelan at the Belmont School Committee on Tuesday, Sept. 21. Yet, Phelan said, “any shift is important to note.”

The statewide MCAS test results from the spring 2021 exam released by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education on Sept. 21 showed many more students had gaps in their knowledge of math and, to a lesser extent, English language arts, compared to students in the same grades before the COVID-19 pandemic, and fewer students meet or exceeded grade level expectations.

“Each percentage point is very, very important to us because they represent our students,” said Phelan. ”The real important work is to look at how each student … fared with this testing and use that data.”

“We tend to perform higher than the state average in all categories. So we’re thankful for that. But to be repetitive, we do have our own expectation of Belmont. We need to compare ourselves to what our goals are and that’s the work of the district moving forward,” said Phelan.

(The state did not administer MCAS tests in spring 2020, near the start of the pandemic, so the most recent year to compare with this year’s scores is 2019.)

In Belmont, 76 percent of students in grades 3-8 met Expectations or higher in English language arts in 2021, and 67 percent did so in math. Both of these represent a drop compared to 2019, when 80 percent scored at that level in English language arts and 81 percent did so in math. Still, Belmont’s 67 percent is nearly double the 34 percent of statewide students who are in the top two categories.

For 10th grade English language arts, 88 percent of students scored Meeting Expectations or higher in 2021, compared to 90 percent in 2019. In 10th grade math, 85 percent of students scored Meeting Expectations or higher in 2021, compared to 91 percent in 2019. These represent a slight drop when comparing 2019 to 2021. Like the elementary/middle school grades, Belmont high schoolers continue to exceed the scores of their state compatriots.

Phelan said the MCAS data will now be sent to the district’s academic directors and school principals to discuss how to utilize nearly $150,000 the district put aside to supporting students this year.

Having anticipated a likely drop in math scores in the early grades, Phelan said the district has allocated funds from its ESSR account – money sent by the federal government to school districts during the pandemic – to hire a pair of math coaches at the elementary level who will work primarily with third and fourth grade students. They also will be working at the middle school with students who need support.

Phelan said high school students will have less time to make up the drop in scores, the district will be reinforcing the skills all students have to know and be able to do before they leave Belmont High, said Phelan.

“We’ll be working with those students in those content areas moving forward,” he said.

Schools, Teachers Union OK Covid-19 Vaccination Mandate For All Staff

Photo: Mandated COVID vaccinations for all BEA members to begin soon

The Belmont School Committee and the Belmont Education Association (BEA) agreed to mandate COVID vaccinations for all BEA members in district schools for the 2021-2022 academic year, according to a press release from Belmont Superintendent John Phelan.

This agreement, voted on and ratified by the School Committee and the BEA on Thursday, Sept. 10, “is an important step to ensure a healthy school environment along with all the other mitigation strategies in place such as masking, pool testing, and test and stay programming,” said Phelan. The agreement comes as the federal government is moving forward with its own vaccination mandate for business with more than 100 employees and for all federal government employees.

The new vaccine requirement comes as the rate of Covid-19 cases over the past two weeks ending Sept. 10 has decreased for the first time since early July, according to the Belmont Board of Health. The average daily incidence rate per 100,000 people fell to 9.4 percent from 13.3 percent between Sept. 3 to Sept. 10, although the actual number of cases over that period jumped from 18 to 23 positive cases.

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.