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.”

Indoor Mask Mandate At Town Buildings Return Wednesday; ‘Emergency’ Meeting Friday To Discuss Possible Town-Wide Order

Photo: Belmont welcomes back masks to town

Beginning Wednesday, August 4, visitors and employees in town offices and buildings will be required to wear a mask as Belmont responds to a recent surge of positive cases of Covid-19.

“It’s erring on the side of being cautious. It’s the best thing for the public health and safety of everybody,” said Health Board Chair Donna David as the Select Board approved the sudden return to a mandate after speaking to health and town officials at its Monday meeting. In addition, public meetings will revert back to being held via Zoom or other virtual software.

At this time, there is no scheduled date for the mandate to end.

On Friday morning, Aug. 6, the town’s health and select boards will hold an emergency meeting to discuss expanding the indoor mask mandate to local stores, offices and restaurants. While the town building mandate was a straightforward call, the Select Board appeared less eager to re-establish a full town-wide indoor mask requirement.

“I think the business community’s going to be really upset with us” if masks make a return, said the Select Board’s Mark Paolillo.

It appears Belmont’s schools will continue requiring masks indoors at the district begins the new school year in mid-September, according to Donna David, chair of the Health Board. “They are onboard,” she said.

Adam Dash, chair of the Select Board, told the meeting that in the past when cases were on the rise the town had followed closely recommendations from the state’s health department on mask “but now the state’s basically saying ‘it’s on you’. So here we are.”

At Monday’s meeting, Health Department Director Wesley Chin told the Select Board that after going more than three weeks without a case in early summer, the town has seen 20 Covid cases since July 4, half of which are “breakthrough” cases; when an individual tests positive after they’ve been fully vaccinated against the disease.

“So far, we’ve been lucky we haven’t had any hospitalizations or deaths with these breakthrough cases,” said Chin, noting that those exposed were in their 40s and 50s and relatively healthy. While Belmont has not entered the state’s designated “red” zone of new cases, David said it is moving into that range, with the added complication that within the next three weeks, children – many under 12 and unvaccinated – will be returning to town from family vacations and trips as they settle in before heading back to school.

David said since it has made a “very strong” recommendation to the School Committee to continue its mask mandate, he said her board was “pretty much in alignment that [masks] should extend to the town buildings and offices, whether you are vaccinated or not.”

The reason for being vigilant even with a majority of adults being vaccinated, said David, is due to what is being learned about the variant on a daily basis.

“Each day unfolds new information in terms of the viral load and how it spreads to others,” she told the board. “If you’re at work and you’re exposed and asymptomatic and take it home to your unvaccinated child or somebody who’s immunosuppressed.”

Paolillo said he would support masks for workers and those visiting town-owned facilities “as a way of protecting our employees” especially since the town will not ask who is vaccinated inside a building.

While Town Administrator Patrice Garvin had hoped to give the employees a level of expectation of when the order may cease, it will be up to the Health Board working closely with the town to determine when the mandate will end.

Health Board ‘Strongly Recommends’ Masks In Classrooms As CDC Endorses Coverings In Schools

Photo: A continuation of the current mask mandate is being proposed by the Board of Health

After an hour long debate, the Belmont Board of Health voted unanimously on July 26 to “strongly recommend” a universal indoor masking requirement for students and staff at Belmont’s public and private schools to begin at the start of the new school year in September.

The decision came about 24 hours before the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Tuesday, July 27, endorsed the wearing of masks by teachers, staff members, students and visitors in schools regardless of vaccination status and the rate of community transmission of the virus. 

Monday’s 3-0 vote came after the board nearly approved a mandatory mask requirement but took a step back from the more restrictive sanctions to allow the Belmont School Committee to have its own discussion before accepting or rejecting the board’s decision.

NOTE: Belmont Select Board will discuss a possible town-wide mask mandate at its Monday, August 2 meeting.

But the board’s chair made it clear that it would come back with more definitive mask measures if it believes the school committee will not commit to a clear masking policy.

“[The School Committee] must know what we’re leading up to so a strong recommendation is pretty strong,” said Board Chair Donna David.

The board’s action comes as the highly contagious COVID-19 Delta variant is causing positive cases and hospitalizations to increase after the rates of infection has been dropping over the past four months. The CDC noted in its revised guidance of this week that those fully vaccinated and become infected with the Delta variant can harbor large amounts of the virus as seen in unvaccinated people, thus becoming spreaders of the disease. Those people should return to wearing masks indoors in certain situations, including when vulnerable people are present.

Wesley Chin, the director of the Belmont Health Department, told the board parents were looking for direction from the town on masks as schools are set to open in six weeks. David told the approximately 30 people attending on Zoom that the board’s decision would follow current “scientific knowledge” rather than being decided by a “popular vote.”

“We’re doing it in the best interest of the public health for everyone,” she said.

Vice Chair Julie Lemay said the recent jump in cases in the past week after a relative quiet summer “this information is evolving and it’s evolving quickly.” She believed that to prioritizing moving kids back in the school and keeping schools open, “using mitigation strategies including mask wearing is going to be important” with the knowledge that the policy will be reevaluated during the school year.

Adrienne Allen pointed to guidance from the American Academy of Pediatrics that stressed that if school districts’ goal is “to keep all of our children in person in school all year, universal masking for staff and children is the way to do it.” Until questions of vaccine effectiveness and other issues are addressed, “it’s better to stay the course, follow the AAP and have masking until more is known,” said Allen.

In addition the board members, Director of Nursing Services Beth Rumley spoke on the current mitigation measures the school district have established for the summer session including masks, following up on all absentees and testing for anyone who is out sick. “I hear the concerns about masking but when you have a high volume of students and you have masking, it works,” she said. Nor is masking the only mitigation that needs to be concerned about including checking students and staff who have symptoms and creating a plan to return to school. “We’re going to make decisions with everyone’s safety in mind,” said Rumley.

The majority of residents who spoke Monday were in favor of the masking option. For Mariola Magovcevic, a mask requirement is the only way she will send her two children – one who is at high risk in catching infections – to elementary school in September. Speaking on making mask wearing an option, Magovcevic said such an action “does not protect me from children from spreading the virus who are not wearing a mask.”

Playing roulette with other people’s lives

Heather Rubeski said she’s not worried about her children being infected, “I’m worried about what they’re going to bring home” with her husband’s inoculation just 60 percent effective due to existing conditions. “It’s playing roulette with other people’s lives,” she said. Speaking to residents who have told her that their children “have suffered enough” by learning at home and following mask and other mitigation strategies at schools, Rubeski spoke how her niece and nephew lost their father to COVID as a true cost of suffering.

“It is not suffering to wear a mask for the vast majority of people. It’s unfortunate that as a community we can’t come together a little better and to this one basic thing that’s going to protect so many people … and considering all the families and not just the children in school but teacher families and our families,” Rubeski told the board.

There was not unanimity at Monday’s meeting for the recommendations. Speaking as a resident, School Committee Member Jamal Saeh attacked the board saying that while it earlier declared any recommendation or requirement would be made based on the available science, “I didn’t see it in today’s conversation.”

After pointing to selected studies from the New England Journal of Medicine on the effectiveness of vaccines on different COVID variants, “I don’t know exactly other than our community members who are pushing for [mandates], why we’re having this conversation right now,” said Saeh, who then proposed a “proper” conversation via a large public forum to hear from a “large swath of the community.” He also suggested creating a strategy on mask wearing for vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals and when, upon reaching some undetermined rate of infection, would the mandates end.

In response, David pointed out that there is still much to be known about the Delta variant that carries a lot more viral load within people. “There are new things coming [from the CDC] and school is about to start,” she said, noting that determining a percentage of infection or other numbers that show a decrease in cases “is an evolving process.”

“I don’t think there’s an easy answer,” said David, a comment seconded by Allen, who is a physician. “I don’t feel prepared to set a … number [when to lift a mandate]. I would want to consult with others” but would still follow the AAP guidelines “if we care about equity because it’s really an equity issue for all students.”

While there was consensus among the board for masking and other mitigation measures for indoor activities, LeMay wasn’t prepared to make their decision a requirement for the school district to follow. Rather, she felt the Belmont School Committee should be given the opportunity to discuss the board’s “strong recommendation” on all people wearing masks in schools.

While the board effectively “punted” to the school committee further discussion of the issue, the board said it would moved its next scheduled meeting up to early/mid August to review the information coming from the CDC and the state’s Board of Health with an eye towards following the AAP in its recommendation.

“Look, no matter what we decide, people are going to be upset but that’s not our concern. We’re concerned but it’s not going to influence what were going to do,” said David.

Belmont Schools Change Mask Policy: Outdoors Athletes Can Ditch Coverings, Indoors Masks Remain On

Photo: Athletes no longer need to wear masks playing their sports outside

Effective Thursday, May 20, the Belmont Schools’ COVID-19 mask policy is being changed to follow newly announced state guidelines where students no longer have to wear masks when outdoors, even if the distance cannot be maintained, according to a joint press release from Belmont Superintendent John P. Phelan and Director of Nursing Services Beth Rumley.

Gov. Charlie Baker announced on May 18 that given the low rate of outdoor transmission of COVID-19, the state has updated guidance applying to recess, physical education, youth sports, and outdoor learning environments.

At this time, adults and students must continue to wear masks in Belmont school buildings. All of the Belmont Schools protocols for contact tracing indoors will remain in place until further notice from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, Massachusetts Department of Public Health, and/or Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Students will continue to stay in their class cohorts during recess for the time being. However, with lower case rates, this could change in the next couple of weeks. Adults on school grounds that can not socially distance themselves should continue to wear masks.  

Outdoor sports will no longer be required to wear masks. Sports that play/practice inside will still need to wear face coverings. Although these are minimum standards, face coverings can still be worn. Also, encourage social distancing and hand sanitizing as much as possible. For practices, students will practice in cohorts to limit exposure to each other. 

Adults must continue to wear masks outdoors if distancing cannot be maintained.

Here are the new rules for Belmont athletes:

  • Athletes on spring teams in active play outdoors are not required to wear a mask/facial covering.
  • Athletes when they are on the bench or in a dugout are not required to wear a mask/facial covering.
  • Athletes in low-risk sports when indoors where a distance of at least 14 feet or more is consistently maintained between each participant, are not required to wear a mask/ facial covering.
  • OUTDOORS: Spectators and chaperones, coaches, staff, referees, umpires and other officials who can social distance while outdoors, are not required to wear a mask/face covering.
  • INDOORS: Visitors, spectators, volunteers, and staff while indoors are required to wear a mask/facial covering.
  • Athletes participating in high school sports are considered youth and fall under youth guidelines.

Those students who feel more comfortable wearing a mask outdoors may do so. “As a community, we will support and respect all individuals,” read the statement. Students should continue to store their masks as they were doing during masks breaks and lunch/snack. Encouraging the student to bring in an extra labeled storage bag may also be helpfuls has been the case throughout the year.

The final decision for a school to partake in a particular sport and/or to follow more stringent guidelines belongs at the local level.

Belmont Ends Its COVID Emergency Regs; A Month To Plan Reopening Of Town

Photo: Belmont Town Hall which has been closed to the public for the past 14 months

On the same day Gov. Charlie Baker said the state would lift all remaining COVID-19 restrictions effective Memorial Day, May 29, the Belmont Select Board approved rescinding the town’s emergency regulations requiring residents to wear masks and social distancing.

“Belmont will end the temporary regulations to mirror the state’s mask guidelines,” said Chair Adam Dash at the Select Board’s meeting on Monday, May 17.

“The state will just be implementing a new advisory for face coverings that’s going to replicate what the CDC guidance is around face coverings for the moment,” said Diana Ekman, assistant director of the Belmont Health Department. Residents who are fully vaccinated don’t have to a need to wear a face covering indoors except under certain circumstances such as schools, using public transportation, visiting child and elder care settings, said Ekman.

Those who have yet to be vaccinated should continue to use mask, said Ekman. In addition, Belmont business owners can still require customers to wear masks.

The town and the board can now begin the work to reopen town’s offices and revert back to public meetings once the Massachusetts state of emergency – in effect since March 10, 2020 – is lifted on June 15, approximately a month after Monday’s meeting.

“So we have a lot of planning to do in a very short amount of time,” said Dash. “We’re going to have to start meeting in person sooner than later which overall is a good thing except we weren’t really prepared” as Baker said last month it would be mid-August when the state of emergency would be retracted.

One event that will not take place will be Town Meeting which will take up the budget segment beginning June 2.

Town Administrator Patrice Garvin said after speaking to Wes Chin, Belmont’s health director, once Baker issues the order to lift the emergency order, “Town Hall will most likely be open.” As for a return to board and committee meetings and the open of locations such as the Beech Street Center, “we have to figure this all out,” said Dash, which will include maintaining a virtual presence at meetings which have been popular and a success in upping public participation.

“It’s going to be a bit of a transition back to the old ways with hopefully some taste of the new ways … but we have a little time to play with it.”

Letter To The Editor: Belmont Help Asks Residents To Keep The Numbers Down

Photo: Belmont Helps Free Masks table during Belmont Serves weekend. More than 2,500 masks have been gifted by our mask drive.

To the editor:

We keep hearing Massachusetts Covid-19 positives are escalating, and not everyone clearly knows what that means. As of Oct. 28, Massachusetts marked more than 150,000 people testing positive for Covid-19. The next day, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health marked Belmont as yellow – as a community at moderate risk for infection – for the first time with 16 cases confirmed the past 14 days and a 4.2 average daily incidence rate.

Belmont Helps has been tracking confirmed Covid-19 cases since it began. We track the numbers in Belmont, Middlesex County, and Massachusetts as published weekly by the Belmont and Massachusetts health departments. Before this week, Belmont has been in the green or gray category on the Daily Incident Rate charts, faring better than some of our neighboring towns. Belmont has registered 293 positive cases to date. Covid-19 often carries a variety of symptoms, and sometimes no symptoms during its contagious period.

Ways to help keep numbers down is to wear a mask, wash your hands often, limit your exposure to others, stay home if feeling any symptoms, and limit large group gatherings.

Feel free to check numbers anytime at belmonthelps.org, and click on Covid#’s.

Amy Kirsch

Lead chair of Belmont Helps