OpEd: Is Remote Learning Model Safer And Does It Reflect Our Aspirations As A Community?

Photo: Remote learning

By: Jamal Saeh, Maysoun Shomali, Kelly Chiu

Advocates for reopening schools believe that Belmont is ready to open school per the Department of Elementary & Secondary Education guidance.  The majority of Belmont parents voted for the hybrid model.  A number of us have worked on solutions to improve the air circulation in Belmont school buildings, and proposed strategies for surveillance testing, and daily symptom reporting & temperature checks as tools to further reduce the risk of coronavirus infection for students and staff.  

Public schools should provide remote learning as an option for those families who have risk factors requiring them to keep their children at home.  It must not however limit the opportunities for the rest of the Belmont community who, in trusting the experts, believe that what is best for their families is a meaningful return to school. Similarly, remote learning cannot become the default option through measures that handicap the hybrid models, limiting in-person instructional time to six hour a week despite having initiatives like surveillance testing that can help increase the number of hours students can safely spend with their teachers and peers.  Advocates for remote learning say “remote is an extreme action to an extreme situation;” we say solutions built on extreme fear beget extreme policies, and are rarely effective.  

The Boston Globe reported on how state emergency child care centers managed the COVID-19 infection risks. By following the state guided risk mitigation countermeasures, only nine out of the 550 centers had more than a single infection between March and May 2020. Remarkably, this was both during a time when the state was practically in lockdown, and at centers that were catering to children of essential workers, who are perceived to be at the highest risk of infection. This good news suggests that the state guided risk mitigation plans enable the safe reopening of Belmont schools.  

A recent publication in Science questioned the effectiveness of school closures. Researchers observed that “given the near universal closing of schools in conjunction with other lockdown measures, it has been difficult to determine what benefit, if any, closing schools have over other interventions.” Further, they conclude “[t]here is now an evidence base on which to make decisions, and school closure should be undertaken with trepidation given the indirect harms that they incur. Pandemic mitigation measures that affect children’s wellbeing should only happen if evidence exists that they help because there is plenty of evidence that they do harm.”

Some claim that remote learning options are the safest option for families and teachers, but what does the evidence tell us?  Scientists at Stanford University analyzed real-world-evidence of Covid-19 infections after schools reopened around the country.  Data collected over a two week period from 598 schools in 46 states, 353,311 students, and 41,628 staff show that the risk of infection to students and teachers is low across all school opening plans.  The data were reported by 64% of public schools, the rest were by private or independent schools.  To a large degree, the mitigation plans implemented in these schools were similar to Belmont Public Schools (BPS).  Mitigation strategies reported included less than 90 percent of students and staff masking, 79 percent of schools reported increased ventilation and 72 percent reported cohorting. Only 8 percent of schools had staff tested before the start of school. The summary in Figure 1 shows that the risk to teachers and students are not too dissimilar across models. The suspected and confirmed COVID-19 infections among staff in Remote and “All In Person Full Capacity” was 0.37 percent and 0.31 percent respectively.  Said differently, staying at home does not appear to reduce the staff risk of infection to zero and is likely similar to the risk of going to school in person.  Risk mitigation measures at schools are effective in reducing the risk.  Further, it suggests that children are not vectors of community infection, consistent with a body of evidence that indicates that infection rate in K-12 schools reflects the prevalence in the community. This is reassuring data and supports the reopening of Belmont schools. It also invites the Belmont School Committee, the administration and the community to examine other risks and issues specific to the remote learning model.

Figure 1: Incidence of Covid-19 infection published in  National COVID-19 School Response Data Dashboard accessed 27Sep20.

It will take years to fully assess the impact of remote learning on children’s emotional and physical wellbeing.  The American Academy of Pediatrics led a push for students to be physically present in classrooms rather than continue in remote learning and was reflected in the CDC recommendation.  A CDC report revealed that as of late June 2020, anxiety disorders had tripled compared to 2019.  A survey of case studies in local hospitals and schools suggest that “Boston has a looming public health crisis” and that “children are not OK”. There is published data that support the AAP position to send kids back to school.  One study showed the risk of depression and suicide in children decreased when schools reopened. Another study showed that during quarantine, home had become more dangerous than schools.  More domestic accidents were reported requiring emergency visits, with a higher incidence of accidents than in the previous three years.  With the Covid-19 infection risk being so low to both children and teachers, the school committee and the administration must confront how their school opening plans are compromising the mission of public education.

It is important that we reflect on less technocratic critiques of remote learning that are fundamental to our aspirations as a public school system and a country. Remote learning rewards the economically privileged and disadvantages the rest, particularly people of color.  Consider the solutions that are at the disposal of those more able to manage the negative aspects of remote learning: the formation of “pandemic pods,” hiring professionals to quarterback their children’s remote education, and staying at home to supervise their children’s learning are just a few examples.  While we may want to consider these as personal and benign in nature, they exclude the people that public education was designed to support, and worse, have the potential to perpetuate racial inequities.  In an era when, rightly, Belmont Public Schools has championed a focus on equity and restorative justice, we must consider the placement of remote learning in the troubled history of public schooling in this country: It is part of a continuum of “white flight” that weakens public schools and presents obstacles to integration efforts and equity.  

By choosing hybrid, Belmont is saying we’re better than this.

Jamal Saeh, PhD is the Executive Director and Global Program Leader in early clinical oncology group at Astrazeneca. He is a Belmont parent to two Belmont High students.

Maysoun Shomali is a principal scientist and lab head at Sanofi. She is a Belmont parent to two kids in the public schools.

Kelly Chiu, MD FAAP is Assistant in Medicine, Division of General Pediatrics and Instructor in Pediatrics, Harvard Medical School.  She is a parent to two school aged kids.

Former Belmont High Boys’ Swim Coach Charged With Taking Inappropriate Photos

Photo: James Saidnawey during his time as head coach of Belmont High Boys Swim team

The coach who in 2018 led the Belmont High Boys Swimming and Diving team to its first Middlesex League regular season title in two decades was arrested last week in Eastham, Mass on charges that he took inappropriate photographs of teenage girls, according to a report in SwimSwam.

James Saidnawey, 29, has been charged with two counts of posing or exhibiting a child in a state of nudity or sexual contact, Eastham police said in a statement. They also indicated that the investigation is ongoing and that additional charges may be filed.

Saidnawey was arraigned on Sept. 23 in Orleans District Court and was released on $1,000 bail. He is set to return to court on Nov. 23 for a pretrial hearing.

Police seized several electronic devices from Saidnawey’s home and interviewed multiple potential victims before making the arrest, according to the news report.

According to SwimSwam, Saidnawey was hired during the summer as a 4th grade teacher at Eastham Elementary School. Nauset Regional School District Superintendent Thomas Conrad reported that district officials knew about the investigation before classes started on Sept. 16, and while he participated in some staff meetings, Saidnawey never had any contact with students.

After his one year at Belmont High School, Saidnawey worked as a 5th grade teacher in Newton Public Schools and coached the Newton North High School girls swim team.

Wednesday’s High Winds Create Outages In Belmont

Photo: Downed trees due to high winds are causing power outages this morning

Gusty winds are the cause of a number of moderate sized outages throughout Belmont on Wednesday morning, Sept. 30.

Belmont Light reported two distinct outage areas on the east and on the west side of town. One is located in and just to the south of Belmont Center while the other is in the Bright Road/Concord Avenue intersection.

Outage map of Belmont, Sept. 30.

“The outage on the west side of town was caused by a fallen tree on Concord Avenue,” reported the utility. It said customers in the Douglas and Gale area will be out longer as additional repairs are made.

Most customers in the Bright Road/ Baker Street neighborhood should have the lights back on by 9:30 a.m.

Belmont Superintendent John Phelan issued an email saying that the district was aware of a power outage impacting several neighborhoods in Belmont with power to be restored by approximately 10:30 a.m.

“The School Administration, principals, and teachers are aware of the inability of some students to access the internet due to these outages. Please know there is no culpability for students who are in this situation, and when power is restored, they can return to their classes,” said Phelan.

The National Weather Service issued a Wind Advisory early this morning that will last until 1 p.m. It said for residents of Eastern Massachusetts to expect southernly winds between 15 to 25 mph with gusts between 40 and 50 mph.

If you are experiencing an outage, CALL 617-993-2800

Penny Schafer, Economist and Civic Leader, Dies at 76

Photo: Penny Schafer (family photo)

Penelope “Penny” Schafer, a well-respected environmental economist who lived most of her life on Lewis Road, was known by her family and friends for being “generous almost to a fault,” willingly providing her time and energy to the service of her church, community and civic groups in her hometown of Belmont.

Schafer – who always went by Penny – died on Aug. 26, 2020 in Portland, Me. She was 76. The cause was a stroke suffered at her vacation home in Jefferson, Me.

“She leaves behind a legacy of making the world a better place at both the national and local level,” remembered one of her clients who she worked with at Cambridge-based Abt Associates.

Schafer’s colleagues at Abt recalled her as an amazing mentor, smart, funny, and, most of all, wise. She had an amazing capacity for kindness, while pushing her colleagues to be better than they knew they could.

Schafer was nationally known for her work on the dangers of lead paint and their abatement, working principally with the US Environmental Protection Agency. She conducted risk assessments of the environmental impacts of lead and other pollutants such as mercury and asbestos on the environment, and performed impact and cost-benefit analyses of proposed environmental regulations. She also developed an early Web-based lead database which provided organizations and families with access to data on childhood lead poisoning and facilitated interdisciplinary collaboration in the effort to prevent childhood lead poisoning.

Although she never sought the spotlight, Schafer was dedicated to her community and invested great time and energy in making it a better place for all. She served as an elected Town Meeting Member for 38 years. In addition, she was on the town’s Warrant Committee, which oversees the town budget, including chairing the committee for a period. She also played a vital role on Belmont’s Senior Center Building Committee and the Council on Aging including being its president. 

Schafer was also a dedicated member and officer of the Belmont League of Women Voters, most recently serving on its board and as its treasurer. She also devoted serious time to the First Church in Belmont, serving in various roles since joining around 1978, including most recently on the Parish Board and a just completed six-year tenure as its treasurer. She was an active long-term member of her Radcliffe College Class Reunion Committee.

Schafer was born on April 10, 1944 and grew up in LaGrange, Ill. She graduated from Radcliffe College in 1966 and earned a doctorate in Urban Planning with a concentration in Economics from Harvard University in 1976. 

While in graduate school she fell in love with Robert Schafer, and they were happily married for 50 years, celebrating their golden wedding anniversary on Aug. 23, three days before she died.

Schafer is survived by her husband, a son, Karl, and two brothers, Gale and Brad, and their families.

The family is establishing a Penny Schafer Memorial Fund at the First Church in Belmont, 404 Concord Ave., Belmont, MA 02478, to which contributions can be made in lieu of flowers or other gifts. A memorial service will be held once the Covid-19 virus subsides and in person gatherings are again possible.

Positive COVID Case Detected At Winn Brook

Photo: The Winn Brook Elementary School

A member of the Winn Brook Elementary community tested positive with COVID-19, according to the Belmont Department of Health.

The Health Department confirmed on Monday, Sept. 28 that either a student or staff member at the school located at the corner of Waterhouse Road and Cross Street has been diagnosed with the coronavirus, according to Belmont Superintendent John Phelan.

“I am grateful for the proactive, swift, and responsive measures that have been taken to ensure the safety of everyone in the Belmont Public Schools community, and I thank you for your partnership,” said Phelan in an email to the district and community

According to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health guidelines, the infectious period for COVID-19 is two days prior to becoming symptomatic or, if asymptomatic, two days prior to testing. Beth Rumley, Belmont Public School’s director of nursing determined the school community member was not present at school during their infectious period. Therefore, no close contacts were identified among the school community in this situation.

Phelan said the district has taken the following steps after the notification:

  • The Belmont Department of Health and Rumley immediately began case investigations.
  • The district has planned for such a scenario during its reopening planning process and have a comprehensive plan in place. All of those protocols have been implemented.
  • To further prevent transmission of the virus to other staff and students, the district sanitized the school with a focus on the areas frequented by the community member that tested positive.
  • The Winn Brook student body and staff that are in school have been closely adhering to the safety protocols, including mask wearing, hand washing, and physical distancing. 

“We are grateful to our families for their continued efforts to keep students at home at the first sign of symptoms.  These measures, taken in combination, greatly reduce the risk of additional transmission.

Spit, ‘Poop’ Or Both: School Committee Explores Testing Options In Push Towards In-School Learning

Photo: Mirimus Labs image

The Belmont School Committee took the first steps in implementing a testing regime that could spur students to return full-time to the classroom.

Promoted by School Committee Chair Andrea Prestwich and a group of parents acting as ad hoc advisors, testing would provide students and teachers the necessary “peace of mind” as they prepare to reenter schools.

“One thing that will add considerably to the safety of in-person learning is surveillance testing,” said Prestwich, as the committee unanimously supported a proposal for the school administration to look at the feasibility and logistics of surveillance testing at Belmont Public Schools.

The School Committee will update the testing proposals at its Tuesday meeting, Sept. 29.

Kate Jeffrey, a Harvard-affiliated academic scientist and the parent of a Burbank first grader, presented a plan created by fellow parents, Jamal Saeh and Larry Schmidt, that recommends the district continue its safety and health protocol such as proper social distancing and wearing masks with weekly surveillance tests and contract tracing through the town’s Health Department.

Both Jeffrey and Prestwich said the lack of guidance by the state and the federal government on the use and type of surveillance testing has forced Belmont’s hand on moving on its own to establish its own standards.

Unlike diagnostic tests that are performed on individuals who have symptoms, surveillance testing seeks out the infection within a population which in Belmont’s case will be the school district.

While the CDC does not promote its use, “surveillance testing is the only way to bring [the school district] back to normalcy,” said Jeffrey.

Not that Belmont is that far from putting students back into the classrooms. With biweekly community data showing a less than one percent infection rate per 100,000 residents and school-age rates less than a half of one percent, Jeffrey said the anticipated current number of positive COVID-19 cases of the 5,000 students in the district would be three.

And while it would be optimum that there would be no risk, Jeffrey said that is simply unrealistic so the best can be done is to reduce the overall risk with surveillance testing to increase the amount of time students can stay in class.

While most people will associate COVID-19 testing with a swab rammed into the nasal cavity, methods have advanced where saliva – drawn into a straw than placed into a container – is used to extract the RNA that are highly specific pinpointing the virus. While there are false positives at about 3 percent – Jeffrey noted half of peanut allergy tests produce false positive results – they can be detected when the individual goes to their physician.

The recommended affective options available would be fast test produced by Mirimus Labs which will analyze a pool of 25 saliva samples, about the size of a classroom, with the ability to identifying a positive case within 12 hours. The Brooklyn-based firm can breakdown the large sample into pairs and determine which students will need to seek treatment.

Jeffrey said Mirimus can begin sample testing within two days after being selected. It would need two volunteers to collect the saliva and fill out the data forms for every grouping of 250 students.

After the first week in which all students and teachers would take the test to establish a baseline number, each subsequent week 10 percent of students – approximately 500 students – and all educators would be tested. The baseline test will cost $80,000 and the subsequent cost for the school year will be approximately $500,000.

Fundraising, possible federal or state expenditures and future lower cost testing could fund the proposal.

Jeffrey’s recommends the district start with the available Mirimus lab-based technology, than switching to a cheaper point-of-care approach when one becomes available likely by the end of the year.

While this new testing remains important for the community by supplying information on COVID, its greatest benefit “really has to be in returning students to the classroom,” said Jeffrey.

A second testing scheme – reviewed by Prestwich and Dr. Kate Rodriguez-Clark – is to sample the wastewater at the six school buildings. COVID is present in fecal matter so testing would involve the weekly collection of sewage from each school. The samples would be tested by a company like Biobot Analytics that can identify a single infection from the samples. The cost would be $8,500 a week for all buildings.

The advantage of using wastewater testing is it works well in tandem with the saliva testing in tracking the virus and it is easier to collect a sample. One negative is a person with the coronavirus must use the restroom at the school for the sample to register a positive case. Describing the dilemma resulted in Prestwich likely uttering the first mention of the slang definition of solid waste from the body in a future school committee minutes.

“The bottom line is that if the person who was infected with COVID doesn’t poop at school then we will not detect it … and that’s a drawback,” said Prestwich.

While calling the overall testing proposal “an exciting opportunity” to increase the peace of mind of educators and the public, Belmont Superintendent John Phelan said it will be a challenge to see how the district “operationalize” testing with the knowledge that the district has 4,500 student and 625 staff member between the ages of 3 and well past 60.

School Committee member Kate Bowen wondered aloud how necessary a costly surveillance testing regiment is for Belmont after the school district had “taken great steps in improving the buildings” including increasing the air flow in all school rooms and as the community has a very low rate of infection.

Prestwich noted that while the town’s “rates are low at this point … COVID increases exponentially if you don’t keep a lid on it.”

“Hopefully the precautions that we can take will prevent the numbers from shooting up,” she said.

Belmont Sees Uptick In COVID-19 Positive Cases But Town Remains In State’s Green Zone

Photo: COVID-19 update

Belmont has seen an uptick in the number of positive cases of COVID-19 over the past two weeks but it has not effected the overall risk level in contracting the coronavirus according to the state.

According to the data from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health COVID-19 Dashboard, Belmont has reported 264 positive cases as of Sept. 23, an increase of eight cases in the past 14 days. The latest data from the state shows a noted rise in cases from previous two week totals. Fore instance, from Aug. 29 to Sept. 11, Belmont had a single positive case.

As a result of the increase in positive cases, the town’s average daily incidence rate per 100,000 rose from below one percent to 2.1 percent. The jump in infection rates in Belmont is following the over all trend of greater positive cases in the state and in the US.

Despite the increase in mid-September, Belmont remains as a state designated “green” community with an infection rate of less than four percent per 100,000,

The color assigned to a community is based on the average of daily cases per 100,000 residents, red being the highest risk level followed by yellow, green, and white.

The number of COVID-19 deaths registered in Belmont continues to remain level at 60, with the last two deaths coming in late May.

Select Board Withdraws Civil Service Article Due To ‘Technical Error’; Others See Folding A Losing Position

Photo: Roy Epstein, Chair of the Select Board

In a surprise that no one saw coming, the Belmont Select Board voted unanimously to withdraw its controversial article removing civil service for Belmont’s Police and Fire departments mere minutes before it was to be presented before a contentious Special Town Meeting on Wednesday, Sept. 23.

Roy Epstein, Select Board chair, told the members the reason for the removal of the article was due to a “technical error” involving rank and file members taking civil service tests for promotions in the coming months.

“I think this sort of last minute change is one that forces our hand in this case. And I would say a postponement at this stage is certainly the prudent approach,” said Tom Caputo of the Select Board.

Because the article was never read into the warrant, there would be no debate and discussion by the Town Meeting members so Town Moderator Mike Widmer quickly dissolved the assembly as the article was the final item on the warrant.

The withdrawal of Article 10 removed what many predicted to be a heated debate on the future of civil service in Belmont.

Supporters of ending civil service, which included town officials, Select Board and the leaders of both fire and police, contend the town would see significant cost savings by ending a 105-year-old arcane system for hiring and promotions, replacing it with an efficiently run locally-focused practice.

Opponents made up of the rank and file of Belmont Fire and Police and resident supporters ask why throw out the baby with the bathwater as changes to civil service – such as altering age limits and increasing diversity in the number of candidates – can be made by changes to the existing language of the agreement. Several Town Meeting Members also questioned the validity of the supposed financial savings with such a move.

Paul Roberts (Pct. 8), a vocal critic of the town’s and Select Board’s tactics said Wednesday night’s board vote had more to do with folding from a losing position.

“My belief is that [the Select Board] did some hasty vote counting  and decided to turn back and live to fight another day. Overall, I think it reflects a haphazard effort all around on Article 10,” he said.

During a meeting of the Select Board that occurred during a break after the Special Town Meeting approved Article 9, Epstein said the board was informed late in the afternoon that Article 10 included a “drafting error” which involved setting the effect date of March 1, 2021 to end civil service protection. It was also assumed this date would protect the interests of police and fire department personnel who were taking civil service promotional exams this fall.

“And we wanted them to have full civil service protection in their new position. And that was always our intent,” said Epstein.

But when the article was reviewed, it was determined that March 1 “was not sufficient,” said Epstein. Because the results of the civil service exams could take longer than previously thought, the board was advised that July 1, 2021 was a more appropriate date to protect any future promotions.

“The idea was not to cause a problem for anyone or to be unfair to anyone who was studying for an exam and then pull the rug from under them by yanking civil service before they had a chance to actually take the test and get the results,” said the Select Board’s Adam Dash.

With the new effective date for leaving civil service being pushed back well passed the scheduled date for the annual Town Meeting in early May 2021, the board decided to allow the members to vote on the article in the coming year.

“Patrice [Garvin, the town administrator] and I recognized if it’s going to be as late as July 1, 2021, we may as well withdraw this article tonight and then we’ll see where we’re at in the spring regarding civil service,” said Epstein.

“We don’t want to do something that did not reflect our true intention. And at this late date there was no cure that other than to withdraw the article,” he said.

Roberts provided his own advice to the those supporting the end of Civil Service in Belmont.

“It is my hope that the Select Board use this extra time to properly study the issue, learn from the experience of other communities and – if they intend to bring this forward again – do so with a plan that addresses the issues raised by our public safety professionals and Town Meeting members. A Town Meeting vote should be the last step in the process, not the first,” said Roberts.

Town Meeting: Limits Placed On Civil Service Debate; Clarifying Amendment Added To Civil Service Article; 9 PM’s The Limit

Photo: Mike Widmer

Due to what nearly everyone at the Special Town Meeting expects to be one of the most contentious articles for many years, Town Moderator Mike Widmer this afternoon, Wednesday, Sept. 23, has placed a limit on the scope of debate on Article 10, the measure which would end civil service for rank and file Belmont Fire and Police personnel.

Here is Widmer’s announcement: 

One of the most important responsibilities of the Moderator is to determine the scope of permissible discussion under any article. In the vast majority of articles that determination is straightforward. But in a minority of instances, often the most controversial issues, it takes considerable research and consultation to determine the approach that is in the best interests of Town Meeting.

In terms of Article 10, I have probably spent more hours considering proper scope than I have with any other article in my 12 years as Moderator. As part of this process I have had extensive discussions with Town Counsel George Hall.

My conclusion is that the only correct and fair way to proceed with Article 10 is to limit discussion purely to the merits of the proposal advanced by the Select Board:

Should the Belmont police and fire departments be withdrawn from Civil Service? Only the merits of this policy proposal are the province of Town Meeting.

The process by which the Select Board decided to bring this article forth is not an appropriate matter for debate. Much of the public discussion, certainly brought forth by the unions, is that the Board should have negotiated with the unions before bringing this issue to Town Meeting. But how are Town Meeting Members to know the unbiased facts of what happened at the negotiating table since those are legally mandated to be private matters? Process issues between union and management are inextricably tied to collective bargaining which definitely is not the province of Town Meeting.

Our role as a legislative body is to debate issues advanced by the executive branch or by citizens’ petitions. We have no authority to insert ourselves into the collective bargaining process. Those questions are clearly out of scope of the article as well.

This reality may be frustrating to individual Town Meeting Members, and Members are free to vote yes or no based on whatever factors they choose. But I am sure you all agree that we should not break longstanding and bedrock principles of the separation of powers.

Mr. Widmer can be reached at mike.j.widmer@gmail.com

A clarifying amendment for Article 10

Roy Epstein, Chair of the Select Board and Precinct 6 Town Meeting Member has moved to amend the main motion under Article 10 by adding to the end of the motion the following clause: “,said revocation not to take effect until March 1, 2021.”

The resultant motion will now read: 

Motion: That the Town remove the Police and Fire Department from the provisions of the Civil Service Laws, and the rules and regulations relating to the same, by revoking the Town’s acceptance of Section 37 of Chapter 19 of the General Laws voted under Article 15 of the Warrant for the 1915 Annual Town Meeting and of Section 48 of Chapter 31 (as both have been recodified in G.L. c. 31, § 52), said revocation not to take effect until March 1, 2021.

The rationale for the clarifying amendment is to correct a drafting error in the motion. The intent of the motion is to allow anyone promoted, as a result of taking a civil service exam in 2020, to remain grandfathered in civil service after their promotion.

A Town Meeting session too long? Pumpkin time is 9 p.m. Wednesday

Town Moderator Mike Widmer will be keeping a watch on the clock on the wall at Wednesday’s Special Town Meeting:

On a related matter, some Town Meeting Members have expressed a concern that the meeting went too long on Monday night. I do want to emphasize to Town Meeting Members that we time every speaker; presenters have specifically assigned time limits. Town Meeting Members have three minutes as their limit. Tonight we have two important matters to discuss and I want to allow for a full discussion of Civil Service. If we are able to complete action on Article 9 by 9 p.m, I think it makes sense to proceed to Article 10. However, if it is after 9, I will ask for a vote of Town Meeting Members whether we continue with Article 10 or whether we adjourn to Sept. 30.

Hybrid Learning For K-4 Pushed Up To Oct. 5; Calls For Grades 5-12 To Follow

Photo: Hybrid plans accelerated

The Belmont School Committee approved moving up the date kindergarteners and elementary students will begin full hybrid learning by two weeks to Monday, Oct. 5, allowing nearly 2,000 students to start partial in-school learning.

“Two weeks is tight but we’re committed to hearing the feedback and responding to the school committee’s desire to have this happen sooner than later,” said Belmont School Superintendent John Phelan.

At another marathon committee meeting held remotely on Tuesday, Sept. 22, Phelan told the six member board the district accelerated the start date for K-4 students “reacting and responding to the community feedback that has asked to tightened up” the time between entering each new phase.

Earlier in the meeting, the committee approved the kindergarten and elementary school hybrid schedule which will be used by students. It consists of two cohorts of students attending school three half dsfdays the first week while spending two other days online.

Phelan said the school district is now following a newly redesigned four phase approach, removing the recently installed “bridge” phase and beefing up Phase 2 to include full K-4 hybrid learning. Middle and high school students will remain learning remotely.

While not yet approved by the school committee, the district showed on a PowerPoint slide that grades 5-12 could anticipate entering their hybrid phase on Monday, Oct. 22.

The district’s discussion to accelerate the move to hybrid learning is due to a pair of good news on the health and safety front. Despite a recent uptick in positive COVID-19 cases in the past week, Belmont remains on the “good side” of the state’s health metric. The district is also nearly complete with its project to increase the air flow to all rooms in each of the six school buildings. By meeting these two measures, the district can now move towards hiring the needed teaching staff to handle remote learners and create schedules for children who require transportation.

Current K-4 teachers will use the next two weeks to prepare their classrooms for learning, said Phelan.

Since the start of schools last Wednesday, between 120-130 pre-kindergarteners, students designated as having “high needs” and English language learners are being taught in the four elementary schools with full day instruction, said Phelan.

Under Phase 2, an additional 100 students with special needs and English learners who will be attending both the Chenery and the High School. “This next phase is a real scaling up not just for the elementary schools in full but also for another layer of student at the middle school and high school,” said Phelan.

While praising the work the district has done in getting “our K through 12 students in the door,” School Committee member Michael Crowley asked if there was some possibility to bring the remaining students back into the classrooms “a little bit earlier.”

Saying he might be receiving emails that “won’t be happy with what I’m about say,” Phelan said the scaling up behind the scenes what needs to be done for the middle and high schools – placing students and siblings in cohorts, making sure transportation can be done safely, hiring teachers for remote learners – “is infinitely more complex” compared to the elementary schools.

“We’ve accelerated [the date to enter hybrid learning] twice already and the educators are already very concerned about their ability to complete this task to the satisfaction that everybody would like so we are trying to meet in the middle and respond accordingly,” said Phelan.