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.

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.”

All Belmont Public Students Are Back In School On Last Week Of April

Photo: Belmont student will be in classrooms after the Spring break. (Credit: Pixabay)

After two months of in-house analysis and some pressure from the state, all Belmont students will be back in school on the final week of April, according to John Phelan, Belmont superintendent of schools.

“We believe that we’re making really, really good progress so we appreciate everyone’s patience [during the pandemic],” said Phelan, at the Tuesday, April 13 Belmont School Committee meeting.

Chenery Middle School students and teachers will return full time on Wednesday, April 28 and those attending Belmont High School will be back in the on Thursday, April 29. Each school will reopen after the two student cohorts at the Chenery and High School are combined in the hybrid schedule.

Those students learning remotely will attend classes via live stream.

Students in Belmont’s four elementary schools have been in classes both in class and remotely since April 5, an experience so far, Phelan said, “students are doing very well, some kinks to work out for sure.”

Currently 83 percent of students district wide have elected to return to in-person learning at the six Belmont schools. Approximately 17 percent will continue to be taught remotely. Elementary students have the greatest in-person attendance at 91 percent while high schoolers are split 70-30 in-class vs remote.

Phelan told the committee that the district has taken “a real close eye on” the level of community transmission of the COVID-19 before moving towards a full return to in-class education.

In announcing the dates for the reopening, Phelan acknowledged the effort of the 32-member Return to In-Person Learning Working Group which over eight meeting since February drafted sets of “rolling” recommendations to the School Committee and District outlining the steps both in terms of public health and navigating logistic concerns that led to the return of full-time classroom education.

The group – made up of educators, students, parents, members of the Board of Health, School Committee and community – included:

“We truly appreciate the role that everybody brought to this work; the feedback, the healthy suggestions, the debate, the disagreement, and there was disagreement in this committee. There were recommendations that folks felt really good about, and there were recommendations that folks struggle with a little bit in these were hard discussions within our subgroups,” said Phelan.

“This was not all smiles in fun. This was work. This was debate, review and reflection. But ultimately we came up with an outcome that that put students in school in the month of April, to some degree ahead of time. So we’re thankful for their work,” said Phelan, who pointed to the leadership of the Working Group’s facilitators, Harvard-based Michelle Rinehart and Dr. Drew Echelson, who provided the analysis and just the hand-holding required to shepherd the group in its mission.

While finished with its initial goal, the work group will reconvene in May to tackle issues such as remote learning, creating contingency plans in the event of another surge and mapping out a seasonal strategy.

“We did do a little bit of reflecting on what this group could do better next time. How this type of work can serve the district well in any other type of challenge or with any other issues that need to be worked out with community support and feedback. So we think we have a pretty good format for future use,” said Phelan.

‘There’s No Panic On Pleasant Street’: Phelan Resolute In Difficult Year As Educator Pink Slips Coming In May

Photo: John Phelan, superintendent, Belmont Public Schools

It was day two of “Belmont after No” as the town and its residents began coming to grips with austerity being the guiding policy for local governance in the unforeseeable future after voters rejected a $6.4 million override on Tuesday, April 6.

But to Schools Superintendent John Phelan, the reduction of millions in funding and pending teacher and staff layoffs is not going to cripple student learning for the upcoming school year beginning in September.

“There’s no panic on Pleasant Street,” said Phelan, referring to the location of the school district’s headquarters while speaking at a joint meeting of the Belmont School Committee Finance Subcommittee held virtually on Thursday, April 8.

“We’re going to reduce $2 million worth of expenses [but] the school department is not going to fall apart. I want every single family to know that their child will be taken care of next year. School will happen,” said Phelan, who praised both teachers and staff for their dedication to teaching during a pandemic and, now, job firings

Phelan reassured the committee and community that the approaching 2021-22 school year – which will start in person this September at each of the town’s six buildings – will be “on par” with the 2018-19 and “much better” than the current year of remote and hybrid schooling.

That’s not to say the cuts won’t be felt by every student that attends the district, said Phelan.

Cuts in activities and increase in class sizes

“Class sizes will be higher, and there’ll be some parts of your [student’s] day that won’t be available to you with clubs and activities that were in years past, but we will get through this,” said the superintendent.

The reality of the difficult decisions as a result of the austerity budget came when Phelan announced two rounds of RIF – a reduction in force – totaling 22 full-time equivalent positions. On April 30, educators hired in the past year to contend with COVID-related issues will be made redundant.

But it will be on May 15 when the gut punch to the district will be felt as 11 current teachers, staff, and administrators (totaling $635,000) will receive pink slips while an equal number of educators which the district had planned to hire ($870,500 in wages and benefits) will be set aside. The cost of $1.5 million in cuts is the loss of programs and activities, higher class sizes, and fewer teachers.

Just where the cuts will come will be determined this week by the district’s Leadership Council, made up of school principals and administrators. Earlier in the year, Phelan noted the district will not follow a “last hired, first fired” approach when determining who is let go. Rather, it will come down to where the need for teachers is greatest. With middle and high school numbers are expected to continue to grow while early elementary classes – such as kindergarten to first grade – are beginning to stay level, the greatest share of cuts will come from the cohort teaching kindergartens to fourth grade.

In addition, there is growing support in the district and on the committee to hire a new diversity director that is on the chopping block for next year as well as other positions the school committee believes “have value,” said Phelan.

If the committee feels those positions that were being cut or set aside are necessary, that would result in further reduction of teachers and staff beyond the 11 FTEs slated to be fired.

The staff reductions will be accompanied by nearly half a million dollars in cuts to all extra curriculum activities including clubs, music, theater, and sports district-wide. While no decisions on reductions have been made, discussions in the past few months pointed to possibly eliminating freshman sports teams while creating “intermural” programs in arts, music, and theater.

Revenues remain ‘fluid’

If there is a glimmer of hope for the beleaguered budget it was highlighted by Phelan and Town Administrator Patrice Garvin at the Warrant Committee Wednesday night acknowledging that funding for both schools and town “remains fluid.” Both point to the Massachusetts State Legislature which has yet to present its version of the 2022 state budget which includes Chapter 70 Local Aid. In addition, the town has been allocated $7.2 million in the American Rescue Plan Act signed by President Biden in March.

Yet the state legislature has yet to show any indication local aid will deviate far from Gov. Baker’s proposed $12.5 million to Belmont which the town is using as a placeholder in its budget calculations. And the federal government remains quiet on issuing guidelines for using the $7.2 million.

Even before the state legislature acts and the guidance on the ARP comes down, Phelan is in early talks with Garvin on possibly using those funds to “fill in the gap” in the school budget.

An example of this approach would be “to parlay those federal dollars into services that would help students in lieu of something that we might have to reduce” such as hiring a high school social worker to help with mental health issues related to the pandemic, said Phelan.

“We have a discussion with the town if there’s any way that the $7 million can be used for COVID-related issues,” said Phelan. “We know it’s really going to come down to whether or not those definitions of the four areas of expenditures for the town” which include responding to the coronavirus health impacts or economic impacts.

Racist, ‘Painful’ Grafitti Found At Wellington Elementary

Photo: The Wellington Elementary School

Graffiti described as “racist, devaluing, painful to read, and unacceptable” was discovered on the face of the Roger Wellington Elementary School on Monday, March 29.

Belmont Superintendent John Phelan made the “deeply upsetting” announcement in a late-night letter to the community, noting that “several inappropriate terms” were written on the school’s exterior, one being racist.

Phelan said his office immediately contacted the Belmont Police who are investigating the incident.

“The Belmont Public Schools stands in solidarity with and in full support of our Black and brown families,” said Phelan.

The graffiti was discovered by fourth graders who told Wellington Principal Heidi Paisner-Roffman as part of the school’s “seeing something and saying something” policy.

“It is extremely important to mark these moments of racism in our community,” said Phelan in his message. “Our grade 4 students had the integrity to mark this moment by telling their principal; we as school and community members must also call out this action as hurtful and unacceptable.”

Phelan said Principal Paisner-Roffman will be working with her staff to talk with all Wellington students in the coming days about this issue in an age-appropriate manner. She will also be reaching out the families of the students who found the graffiti to inform them.

Hateful graffiti is not a new phenomenon in Belmont. On July 4, 2008, racist notes were found at the Wellington playground while homophobic and racist comments were discovered in a Chenery Middle School bathroom in November 2018.

After such an incident, Phelan said the schools “are grateful for our growing relationships with community partners who share our values of zero tolerance for racist behavior” including Community Organized for Solidarity, Belmont Against Racism, and the Belmont Human Rights Commission.

“[They] are doing excellent work educating our community and calling attention to important issues, and we are appreciative of their advice and partnership,” said Phelan.

“We look forward to continuing this important conversation about race, respect, and what it means to live in a community with one another. Please reach out to me or to any of our Principals with your thoughts as we work toward becoming a more anti-racist and inclusive community.”

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.

As District Works Towards Full-Time In-School For K-4; Phelan Commits To ‘Fully In-Person Start’ Of ’21 School Year

Photo: The Belmont School District is working to bring K-4 students back to full-time in-the-classroom instruction by April

Belmont Schools Superintendent John Phelan reiterated his stance from last week that the district is actively working to derive a program to safely send elementary school students back to the classroom full time in April, according to a press release dated Thursday, March 4.

Rather than add in-person hours to the existing hybrid plan for those attending Belmont’s four elementary schools, “we are now developing a plan for a full, in-person option for K-4 students,” said Phelan.

Phelan also used the release to acknowledge the strain the pandemic has had on residents and students for the past year and his personal pledge to “a strong fully in-person start of the school year in September 2021.”

“I am committed to finishing this school year better than we started. I am committed to returning students back to school as safely and quickly as possible starting with our youngest learners at the elementary schools,” he said. “I will be working tirelessly, along with the entire Belmont Public School community, to deliver on these commitments.”

As he stated in his release of Feb. 26, Phelan said the district has shifted its focus following the announcement by Department of Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner Jeff Riley who said on Feb. 23 that he will ask state permission to yank the hybrid option for the state’s youngest students.

In response, the district’s Return to In-Person Learning Working Group – the nearly 30 member group created last month to manage the transition to full-time in-school learning – had shifted its focus to now “building recommendations in subgroups which focused on physical distancing and classroom capacity, lunch and snack, specials and specialized instruction, remote-only options, and transportation,” said Phelan.

Monday, March 8: Working Group meeting and possible recommendations
Tuesday, March 9: Recommendations presented to at School Committee Meeting
Thursday, March 11: Q&A session with school administrators
Friday, March 12: Survey to all K-4 parents asking for remote/in-person choice
Wednesday, March 17: Survey due by 5 p.m.

And as Phelan promised when the group was formed, the working group has begun making “rolling recommendations” to the district on meeting his new goal. After its meeting on Monday, March 1, Phelan along with school principals and central office staff have begun reviewing emerging recommendations focusing on creating guidelines for social distancing in classrooms and non-learning spaces in the four elementary schools.

One of the leading constraints identified last summer hampering a return to full-time in-school learning throughout the district has been the lack of physical learning space required for 100 percent student participation with a required six-foot separation between students.

In addition to social distancing, the working group has also focused on addressing concerns related to the remote-only experience for those students and families that select to remain remote for the rest of the year, and taking stock of current PPE equipment, and make any recommendations so the schools are ready for a return to increased in-person learning.

The Working Group will meet again on Monday, March 8, and could issue recommendations at that time. If there are proposals from the Group, they will be made public at the School Committee the next day, March 9.

In an attempt to have families fully briefed on each learning option – in-person or remote – Phelan said the district will hold a Q&A session with school administrators on Thursday, March 11 at 6:30 p.m. 

The district will send a survey to parents on Friday, March 12, on whether they would like to choose the remote or in-person option for their child.  The survey will be due Wednesday, March 17 and this selection will be binding for the remainder of the school year.

After the Working Group has completed its K-4 recommendations, it will then move into discussions of how to increase in-person learning at the middle and high schools. Initially, the Working Group will start with grade 5 by leveraging their recommendations from the K-4 given the self-contained grade 5 model which is more similar to our elementary schools.

On a personal note, Phelan said he was well aware of the considerable hardship the school community – students, staff, parents – has taken on since the pandemic halted in-school learning in March 2020.

“I want to recognize that this has been a difficult year for students, as well as for parents and families. It has also been the most significant challenge our educators have ever faced. There are no easy answers as we battle COVID-19,” said Phelan.

“I appreciate and acknowledge that change can be disruptive and that these plans will be met with happiness by some and concern by others. I look forward to working together to deliver on three big commitments: finish the year better than we started; return more students to in-person learning this spring, and focus on a full in-person start to the year in the fall.”

“I … want to thank the families of Belmont for the grace they have shown–and continue to show–as we work through this devastating public health crisis,” said Phelan.

Breaking: Belmont Preparing For April Return Of Full-Time In-Person Classes For Elementary Students

Photo: Belmont will offer full-time learning for K-5 in April

The Belmont School District will announce next month two learning options for its youngest students one of which will be full-time, in-person learning beginning in April, according to a press release from Belmont Superintendent John Phelan released on Friday, Feb. 26.

The statement marks the first time the district has announced it would move to all-day in-person learning during the current school year.

Yet still to be answered as the district heads to a return of “normal” school days are issues that have existed since the summer: the existing space limitations at the four elementary schools and the need to negotiate all changes of staffing levels and scheduling with the teachers union.

The impetus for the move came as the state is forcing Belmont’s – and many other school districts – hand when Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) Commissioner Jeff Riley announced Tuesday, Feb. 23 he will ask the DESE Board to vote on March 22 on giving him the authority to eliminate all hybrid learning options in the elementary grades statewide.

Belmont is currently working in separate hybrid programs for elementary, middle and high schools.

“With COVID cases and hospitalizations continuing to decline and vaccines well underway, it is time to set our sights on eliminating remote learning by April, starting with elementary schools,” said Gov. Charlie Baker at a news conference on Tuesday.

If the board OKs the authorization, Phelan said Riley will then direct districts to provide elementary school students with one of two learning models: full in-person or a return to or continuation of remote learning. 

Riley said his goal is to require all districts starting on Monday, April 5 to have an in-person, full-time option for students in kindergarten through 5th grade.

In his response to Riley’s announcement, Phelan said Belmont is ahead of where the state stands in moving towards in-person reopening for all students, pointing to the recently formed Return to In-Person Learning Working Group (RIPLWG) with its “goal of providing more in-school time for students who want it.”

“Because Commissioner Riley’s goal of increasing live instructional time for students is very much in line with our own goals, we will not wait until March 22 to begin the important work of considering the implications of this change,” said Phelan.

“We will continue to plan thoughtfully and thoroughly so that we are ready to adjust to any changes that may be mandated,” said Phelan. “We await the Commissioner’s plan and updated guidance to ensure our work is directed toward the intended goal.”

As soon as the district gets a clearer picture of what the two models will look like in Belmont, it will survey families “so you can make an informed decision” on which plan to accept. The survey will also be determining staffing levels in the schools and remote.

“It is important that families have a full picture of what either model will be before committing,” said Phelan.

That process begins next week as “[w]e intend to be very public and transparent about our work, and will share all of the materials and data we are using with the entire community,” said Phelan. Those resources will include classroom enrollment data, room capacity measurements, and other information, most of which can be found on the Return to In-Person Learning webpage.

Phelan said the next communication with the community will be on Tuesday, March 1, after the next RIPLWG meeting.

“There will be many details to come in the weeks to follow that we will need to discuss and operationalize for this next step to take place successfully,” said Phelan.

But there remain several questions that have been left unanswered. The first that has plagued the district is the lack of space in the four elementary schools to provide 6-feet social distancing to allow the full capacity of students to attend. There is also the issue of incorporating one grade at the Chenery Middle School into the full-time schedule. Along with expected expenses is the knowledge that all significant changes the district will need to put forth to accomplish the mandate are required to take to collective bargaining with the Belmont Education Association, the local teachers union. It is not known if Riley has the ability to waive state labor laws when he sets forth his agenda.

At this time, Phelan said he is moving towards the goal of in-class learning.

“The Belmont Public Schools is committed to more in-person learning for students, whether the mandate is handed down or not. We will continue working to provide greater in-school time to those students who want it, while also maintaining a remote option,” said Phelan.

“We will do this work as we always do: thoroughly, thoughtfully, and in conjunction with all stakeholders – students, families, and educators,” said Phelan.

With The Pressure On, School District Introduces Group To Lead Belmont Back To In-Person Learning

Photo: A working group has been created to facilitate to return students back to school full time.

With pressure increasing to bring back students to the classroom, the Belmont Schools District announced this week the formation of a working group whose charge is to create a roadmap to quickly reopen the district to in-school learning.

“It is our full intention. as a district, to identify the challenges and … to see where we can look for opportunities and also anticipate some updated guidance,” said Belmont Superintendent John Phelan before the Belmont School Committee on Tuesday, Feb. 2 as he introduced the “Return to In-Person Learning Group” which will hold its first meeting on Monday, Feb. 22.

The district is running under a hybrid school day which provides a limited amount of in-school instruction.

Unlike past committees and groups that produced a final summery that “lies gathering dust,” Phelan said this group is committed to producing “rolling recommendations” where breakthroughs and solutions can be rapidly implemented.

“This committee is really charged with identifying those challenges and giving us a roadmap for when those challenges [become] opportunities … and how we can move forward,” he said.

The new working group, introduced by Phelan on Jan. 19, is established just as the district and school committee is feeling the pushback from national and state governments and local groups and residents to find some way to put kids back in schools full-time, which hasn’t occurred since mid-March of last year.

The day after the superintendent’s announcement, newly-appointed Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky said “[t]here is increasing data to suggest that schools can safely reopen” without the need for teachers to be vaccinated. She also said schools would need to meet a myriad of safety protocols – masks, distancing, ventilation and surveillance testing – to open safely.

Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker has been advocating for the return of in-person learning whether it is hybrid or full time instruction since the school year began in September, providing incentives such as testing . Locally, the frustration of parents on the slow roll out in September of the hybrid plan and no indication of a date certain for person to person instruction has led some to run for the two school committee seats

The district is also feeling the push from the local teachers union. While silent throughout the COVID crisis, it is clear the Belmont Education Association has emphasized safety of its members during the nearly-year long pandemic.

The state union, the Massachusetts Teachers Association has asked been adamant that districts wait until all teachers are vaccines before educators back into classrooms.

On Tuesday, the School Committee voted to join a letter signed by 42 superintendents and 23 union presidents endorsing the calling for teachers to be given preference in receiving the COVID-19 vaccine. Currently, Massachusetts teachers are part of the third group in Phase 2 of the state’s vaccine timeline which start later in February.

“In order to do our jobs at the level desired by [the state], the professionals working in our field should be vaccinated as quickly as possible so they can continue to work with the children they come in contact daily,” said Prestwich reading from the letter.

The working group will be led by independent veteran educators with connections to the Harvard Graduate School of Education; Michelle Rinehart and Dr. Drew Echelson,

“The purpose … for this working group is to develop specific and actionable tools that will support Belmont public schools in determining when and how to bring more students back to in-person learning,” said Rinehart.

The group’s charge is three fold: Discover the conditions which will allow the schools to increase the level of in-person learning, determine the current conditions and what are the “roadblocks” impeding students return to the classroom and finally submit draft rolling recommendations to the superintendent that will outline the path to person-to-person learning.

The working group will be divided into subgroups which will focus on critical areas for a safe return such as social distancing, vaccination, testing, classroom capacity, PPE and health supplies and transmission rates.

The working group will also pay attention to changes in and emerging guidance and regulations from national and state government entities – the CDC, the Massachusetts departments of Elementary and Secondary Education and of Public Health – on opening schools, follow COVID cases and trends as well as focusing on possible additional funding available from the Biden administration which will be in line with his initiative of ramping up the opening of a majority of K-8 schools in the first 100 days of the Biden presidency.

The group will be one of the largest in town history: 27 members – represented by teachers, students, residents, health officials and the school committee – meeting weekly with biweekly public gatherings to provide updates and receive feedback and insight from the public and other stakeholders. The members will be selected Feb. 9.

Phelan sees the working group laboring through February and March with its final recommendations submitted to him by late March/Early April.

“There’s going to be a lot of work to do with the context of the work ever changing,” Phelan said on Jan. 19.

Hybrid Learning Returns To Belmont Grades K-8 On Monday; HS Enters Hybrid Thursday, Dec. 10

Photo: A hybrid schedule at Belmont schools

It’s hybrid week at the Belmont Public Schools as the entire student population will be either returning to or begin for the first time hybrid in-person learning schedules.

In an email to the community from John Phelan, superintendent for Belmont schools, grades K-8 will resume their hybrid schedule on Monday, Dec. 7, while “we are happy to report Belmont High School students, grades 9 to 12 will start -person hybrid on Thursday, Dec. 10.”

The schedule for the Belmont High School hybrid schedule can be found here.

Phelan noted that principals from each of the six public schools will have sent out a communication to parents of children with more details on returning to the classroom.

“We appreciate the patience of our students, parents, faculty, and staff in pivoting to remote learning after the Thanksgiving holiday weekend,” said Phelan.

“We feel these proactive measures help keep the school community safe and give us a chance to assess and ‘reset’ the buildings for a healthy return to hybrid in-person learning,” he said.

Phelan said the district’s goal is to proactively and strategically pivot the instructional model for elementary, middle, and high schools when needed during the current pandemic environment while trying to limit disruptions to teaching and learning.