Opinion: A View Of Holidays and Freedoms On This 4th Of July

Photo: Veterans Day and Memorial Day are our holidays to remember those who have served and those who have given their lives to win and protect our freedom.

By Will Brownsberger

The recent hate crimes in Belmont, Winthrop, and Brighton, so close to home and so near the Fourth of July, have me thinking about the meaning of our national holidays.

Seven of our eleven federal holidays celebrate our struggles for freedom and justice. Each of our national struggles have occurred in the context of broader international liberation struggles. 

Independence Day and Washington’s Birthday celebrate our declaration of independence from King George III and honor those who fought our revolutionary war to uphold that declaration. Our revolution was just the first of many revolutions to replace the autocratic rule of European monarchs with government by the people.

Our new holiday, Juneteenth, celebrates the final end of slavery in the United States. More than 600,000 died in our Civil War. By comparison, only 25,000 died in our revolutionary war. Almost as many soldiers died in the Civil War as in all our other wars combined. Roughly 10 percent of the men between 18 and 45 died in the Civil War and many more were maimed for life. The union soldiers sacrificed to free four million people from slavery.

It took a horrific convulsion to expunge the stain of slavery that ran so deep in our nation and to enshrine liberty for all in our constitution. It is fitting that we finally have a holiday that specifically celebrates that milestone in our progress. 

Martin Luther King Day celebrates a great leader and those who struggled alongside him to make freedom real for African Americans by dismantling the state and local laws discriminating against them.  

The struggle for universal civil rights and freedoms continues to this day, but it is broader and more complex. It is not just about changing laws. It is about changing the behavior of individuals and institutions who may discriminate against not only African Americans but other minorities and/or women. All nations that are committed in good faith to basic human rights continue to struggle to realize those rights universally for their citizens.

The recent hateful incidents diminish the freedom of all minorities. Whether one is visibly Black, visibly Asian, visibly an orthodox Jew or visibly transgender, one should be able to walk the streets free from the fear of random violence.

Many people who commit hate crimes may suffer from some form of mental illness, but it is hateful ideology that leads them to translate their inner struggles into hateful actions. All of us, whether healthy or unhealthy, act based on the ideas we are exposed to. That is why it is so important that all of us speak out against violence and broadcast our appreciation for diversity.

We celebrate and thank the law enforcement officers who respond when hateful violence unfolds. They, like our soldiers, put themselves in harm’s way to protect our freedoms. Veterans Day and Memorial Day are our holidays to remember those who have served and those who have given their lives to win and protect our freedom. On those days, we also honor our public safety personnel.

Labor Day honors public safety personnel, teachers, and other unionized workers, but more broadly honors all those who fought for better wages and working conditions in the international labor movement. It is easy to forget across the distance of years just how low wages often were and how cruel the workplace could be. The labor movement fought and won great victories to create the relative comfort that many of us now enjoy.  As in the civil rights movement, there is more to be done.

Columbus Day has become controversial for good reason. Columbus’ revealed the Americas to Europeans, but he did is so in the service of a monarch bent on acquiring resources for royal aggrandizement. Those who came after him destroyed the great pre-Colombian civilizations in the Americas. I support rethinking that holiday to align it better with the consistent values expressed by our other holidays.

The remaining three federal holidays — Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day — bring families together to enjoy the freedoms we have been blessed with.

Opinion: Come Together Belmont, Right Now

Photo: The cover of the Beatles album “Abbey Road”

By Mary Lewis

On April 5, Belmont’s elementary school children will have the opportunity to attend school in-person and full-time for the first time since March 12, 2020. Middle and high school students will follow later this spring. On May 3, Belmont Center will resume the outdoor dining it first launched due to COVID last year. And on June 23, the pool will reopen – albeit with some limitations on numbers. These are opportunities for us to come together, hopefully mostly vaccinated, as a community. There’s a lot to look forward to after an excruciatingly difficult year. I can’t wait to reconnect with people I’ve barely seen for months.

Here is what I don’t want to overhear at an outdoor table in the center or poolside: arguments about what sports should be cut from the middle and high schools, whether theater is more important than music or vice versa, and which days the library should cut hours, or why there is trash overflowing at Joey’s, Pequosette, and Grove Street Parks on the weekends. If this happens, it will mean that the override has not passed, and while other towns are busy bouncing back from a horrible year, we will be compounding our public health crisis with a fiscal one that further divides our town.

It doesn’t have to be that way. If we acknowledge that acting now saves taxpayers money. Belmont’s multi-year structural deficit will not magically disappear if we ignore it. In fact, it will just get bigger. And, as welcome as the news is of federal aid for our small businesses, renters, and others facing difficulty meeting housing costs, we must face the fact that regarding the other aid promised to the town, only a very small percentage will be unrestricted or not allocated for COVID-related expenses.   

If you put off painting your house because of sticker shock, you may have to replace rotting wood and paint your house – at much greater cost. We’re in the same situation with our town. Deferring maintenance and routine expenses makes things cost more, not less. Likewise, cutting first responders means paying overtime if those who are left are needed in an emergency. Failing to hire a procurement officer means we spend more, not less, on supplying our schools and town with the things they need to function, whether its road salt or school desks. Let’s not delude ourselves: as counterintuitive as it might seem, deferring a tax increase does not help our most vulnerable residents. It just makes our collective costs snowball, burdening us all more. Like a routine paint job before rot sets in, the override saves money in the long run.

This spring, let’s come together as a community again – finally – at school, in town center, at the pool, in our parks. And let’s come together as a community that assumes responsibility for maintaining and sustaining what we have before it falls apart.

Please join me in voting Yes on Question 1 on April 6.

Opinion: Protect Our Town Employees and Seniors With A ‘Yes’ Vote On The Override

Photo: A vote to pass the override will ensure seniors and town employees are protected

ln his guest column in a local publication dated Feb. 18, “Please Join Me ln Voting ‘Yes,” former Selectman Ralph Jones suggests ways of reducing town expenses including asking town employees to help pay for them. He wrote “reducing compensation through union negotiations would depend on the expiration dates of existing contracts.”

ls it fair or appropriate for Jones, or any elected official or administrator in town including the Select Board or the town administrator, to expect town employees, through a reduction in compensation or benefits, to help pay for the ongoing increases in town expenses?

Residents, administrators and elected officials regularly advocate for new services and facilities but we are reluctant to pay for them and are dismayed when we receive our new real estate tax bills. We, as a town voted, through our town meeting members, for an expensive new high and middle school. Now we have to pay for it.

Regarding additional school services, Jones writes “increasingly, schools also are not simply educating students, they are also caring for their social and emotional needs. This expands the type of employees that must be part of the school system.” I agree with him and will be voting for the override in April.

As residents, we Belmontians want excellent services and top flight facilities and we have them. We want our schools to be among the best in the state. As taxpayers many of us are shocked and angry at how expensive our excellent quality of life costs us.

The town has a limited commercial tax base so we residential taxpayers have to rely on ourselves to fund the facilities and services we choose to have. Going forward, I see overrides every several years as an uncomfortable but routine aspect of living here.

For years there has been talk of helping seniors, who may be having trouble paying their real estate taxes, stay in their homes but I’m not aware of any follow through regarding this issue. ln order for overrides to be successful I believe this issue needs to be effectively addressed.

Our town employees are an integral and valued part of our community. They contribute to our quality of life in ways we often do not notice. I’m in favor of the police and fire department employees keeping their Civil Service protections and of fair compensation and benefits for all town employees.

Dick Madden
Retired Town Meeting Member
Pleasant Street

Opinion: At This Crossroads, Why School Funding Matters

Photo: Why school funding is critical now

By Stephanie J. Crement

I have been a public-school educator for the past 22 years and currently work as a middle school special educator. I have two children at Butler Elementary School, where I believe they have received and continue to receive an excellent education. However, we are now at a crossroads in our town, and I am very concerned that if we do not pass the override on April 6, our schools will be unable to maintain the high quality of education from which my children and many others have benefitted.

We talk about how we value education in Belmont, yet Belmont spends less than other towns in Massachusetts in nearly every category of the school budget. Belmont is already in the bottom three percent in Massachusetts in number of teachers per 100 students (class size) and in the bottom six percent in Massachusetts in per pupil expenditure. A failed override would make our teacher-student ratio even worse. That funding – or lack thereof – plays out in real ways in the classroom.

One way funding plays out is with class size. In my experience, class size DOES matter. To be sure, highly skilled teachers know how to manage large classes and to differentiate to meet the needs of many students with various needs. But those who say that the size of the class does not significantly affect the experience of the student and the teacher have spent little time in actual K-12 classrooms. The more students there are in the classroom, the less individual attention each student receives during the school day.  During a 57-minute class period, there simply isn’t time for a teacher to check in with 28 students individually. Large class sizes mean fewer opportunities for students and teachers to connect, for students to get feedback, and for students to ask questions and have those questions answered. There is less time for teachers to discover students’ passions and to assess where students might be struggling.  

What is less obvious is that with each additional student, a teacher’s workload increases exponentially. It can mean an additional 30 minutes per child spent reading an essay or grading a math assessment and writing constructive feedback. It can mean an additional hour preparing for, holding, and following up after a parent-teacher conference for each additional child. It’s not that teachers are unwilling to do this. In fact, every Belmont Schools educator who has taught our two children has worked well beyond contractual hours to prepare lessons, communicate with us, and give our students feedback. Moreover, children’s needs extend beyond academics. When our high school cannot hire a social worker, it doesn’t mean that children don’t bring their concerns to school.  It means that helping students work through problems is another part of what teachers and other school-based staff members do, putting additional stresses on their time.

What Belmont doesn’t have in dollars, my children’s dedicated teachers at Butler make up for in energy, hard work, and time.  However, time is a limited resource.  At some point, it just runs out. With increasing enrollment, we will not be able to maintain the quality of education upon which Belmont prides itself, and we certainly won’t be able to make improvements and add new programs. If the override fails, it is our students who will suffer. 

Some might say that research about class size is inconclusive. Let me tell you what is NOT inconclusive:  the importance of the teacher. In fact, it is incredibly well-documented that the most important school-related factor that affects student achievement is teacher quality. Just because our Belmont educators and administrators have worked with fewer resources than our neighboring schools does not mean that we should continue to underfund our schools. Just because the best teachers make it look easy does not mean the burden isn’t heavy. Without this override, I fear that the work will be too heavy to bear, and our schools will not be able to maintain their reputation for excellence.  

We will not be able to retain high quality, experienced educators with large class sizes and without the resources that most other districts around us can offer.  We will not be able to attract more teachers of color to join an overwhelmingly white teaching staff when they can choose districts with smaller class sizes and more resources.

Our lean school budget is not a source of pride or a sign of fiscal responsibility. It means that our children, especially those with learning differences who often need extra time and specialized instruction, aren’t getting what they need and deserve. As a special education professional, I was particularly  shocked to learn that our elementary schools do not have Special Education Chairs. Children who receive special education services have Individual Education Plans (IEP), legally binding documents that outline how the child learns and the services, accommodations, and modifications the student requires as well as the goals that the child is working to achieve. Special educators spend time assessing students, differentiating for student needs, modifying curriculum, and providing accommodations so that students can be successful and master their IEP goals. These are practices in which all good teachers engage. Another facet of a special educator’s job is completing compliance related paperwork.  This paperwork is critical for our students on IEPs to ensure they are receiving the services they need. It is also very onerous and time intensive.  Without Special Education Chairs, those responsibilities fall solely on the teachers and school psychologists. This often leaves those educators with even less time to prepare lessons or provide feedback to students. Hiring special education chairs is not an extra; it allows classroom teachers to devote their time to the job of teaching. 

I hear people say: Belmont students have done well, so why do the schools keep asking for more? For my family, like many others I know, the excellent reputation of the school system is one of the reasons we moved to Belmont.  Many Belmont students do well on standardized tests, an important but very limited measure. However, I’ve spoken with many parents and caregivers of students who receive special education services, or even those who might not have been identified, who say their students are not receiving all the services they need. That’s not because the teachers who work with them are not excellent or hardworking. It’s because our system does not have the capacity to do more. An education system that prides itself on being excellent must be committed to serving ALL students, not just those for whom learning comes easily.  

For years, Belmont educators have done so much with very little, but this isn’t a trip to the dollar bin at Target. It isn’t a game where we try to get as much as we can with as little as possible. These are our children’s futures.  If we say we value education, it’s time that the funding we provide truly reflects that sentiment.  

Please vote yes for the override on April 6.

Stephanie J. Crement

Harris Street

Opinion: Systemic Racism in Belmont; Three Resolutions For 2021

Photo: Participants at a rally in Belmont’s Cushing Square condemning the murder of Henry Tapia

By Joe Bernard

One month has passed since Henry Tapia was murdered in Belmont. More than 100 of his friends and neighbors attended the vigil to honor his life and condemn racial violence, during which Kimberly Haley-Jackson, vice chair of the Belmont Human Rights Commission, memorably captured the weight of the moment with four sobering words: “Yes, Belmont, you too.”

At this point in our country’s history, it might be naïve to call a racist hate crime “shocking”, yet it undeniably sent shockwaves through Belmont. It should not have taken a murder for us to recognize that racism exists in our community, but that is what happened. 

What do we do next?

Prosecuting the racist who killed Henry Tapia is necessary, but it is not enough. Condemning overt racism and hatred is necessary, but it is not enough. Calls for justice will fall short of their goal if we do not acknowledge and disrupt systemic racism. We must find the ways that our structures and systems protect White supremacy, and we must resolve to change them.

Resolution 1: Empower a Diversity Director for Belmont Public Schools

Belmont Educators of Color and Allies (BECA) is a group of Belmont educators that was established in 2018 with the end goal of eliminating racism in our schools. During 2020, BECA conducted research and surveys with the specific intention of creating action items for the future of Belmont Public Schools. On Sept. 15, they presented their recommendations to the School Committee and heads of the School Department.

One of their recommendations was to hire a Diversity Director. This recommendation is foundational, provided that the position is granted sufficient power within the administration to implement the other recommendations: improving staff diversity, decolonizing the curriculum, arranging antiracist training, and more.

In the proverbial “American dream”, education is intertwined with character values like perseverance and grit. Conventional wisdom uses this paradigm to judge students and their families. Yet, for decades, Black and Brown students have faced more challenges and fewer opportunities, creating the feedback loop of White superiority and the model minority myth.

The impact of this cannot be ignored. In fact, it must be used affirmatively in future hiring decisions. In the words of Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley, “The people closest to the pain should be closest to the power.” Accordingly, Belmont Public Schools must commit to hiring a Black or Brown candidate for Diversity Director, whose lived experience can inform their approach to the real equity work of undoing and healing generations of violence, trauma, and inequity (for further reading, see We Want To Do More Than Survive by Bettina L. Love).

The good news is that the School Department’s preliminary FY22 Position Plan includes this position as one of 10.6 new full-time equivalent employees (FTEs) to be hired for the upcoming school year. But I have heard questioning from influential town leadership and town committees about whether or not to fund all new FTEs in the final FY22 budget, even before the presentations were made showing them as conditional upon a successful override vote.

As of now, there is no certainty that a Diversity Director will be hired anytime soon. Furthermore, there is no certainty that the Diversity Director will be given sufficient power to lead meaningful change, without which the position falls flat, little more than a token hire to check off a to-do list.

To address systemic racism in Belmont, we must ensure that the Diversity Director position is treated as the number one priority — not subjected to funding delays or budget cuts — and is promptly filled by hiring and truly empowering a person of color.

Resolution 2: Allow affordable housing, in addition to Affordable Housing

Chapter 40B, the state’s Affordable Housing law, is a frequent topic of conversation in town. For example, last September’s Town Meeting overwhelmingly approved, by a vote of 256–5, the McLean zoning amendment that will allow a new 40B residential development to proceed. This was great news, as research has shown that segregation is reduced by building a mix of housing types and ensuring that it is affordable to a more diverse set of residents.

But while we continue to acknowledge and act upon the importance of (uppercase) Affordable Housing, let’s not sleep on the impact of (lowercase) affordable housing. That is, allowing the construction or conversion of modest two-family dwellings in place of single-family dwellings, to make our town more accessible to moderate and middle-income residents, welcoming more diversity without using Chapter 40B.

Single-family zoning laws in America have origins in blatant racism. Across the country in the early 20th century, suburbs used this type of zoning to segregate their neighborhoods without the explicit racial zoning that the Supreme Court had ruled unconstitutional (for further reading, see The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein). Yet despite such disgraceful roots, single-family zoning is still venerated by some as the source of suburban “character”, vital to the very existence of suburbs. Similar rhetoric is commonplace in Belmont, and is even written into our Zoning By-Law, which states the purpose of our General Residence Zoning is “controlling density and preserving the character of the associated neighborhoods”.

The construction of a two-family dwelling is not allowed by right anywhere in Belmont. In Single Residence districts, it is strictly prohibited; in General Residence districts, it is allowed only under a Special Permit from the Planning Board, a deliberate extra hurdle. This zoning is a textbook example of what the Brookings Institution and the Boston Foundation recently called out as intentionally restricting the dynamic functioning of the Greater Boston housing market. “Greater Boston’s persistent residential segregation, both racial and economic, has been caused in part by legal prohibitions against the construction of diverse, lower-cost housing options like townhomes, duplexes and small apartment buildings.”

But while the Planning Board possesses a lot of power as the decision-making body, they are not making unilateral decisions to force housing production outcomes. Quite the opposite, I have observed that they are eager for public input and appreciative to receive it from any perspective. Therefore, it seems that some permitting decisions are simply reactions to the voices that they heard the loudest, which means that we need affordable housing advocates to be actively organizing petitions and attending public meetings.

To address systemic racism in Belmont, we must recognize that our 40B Affordable Housing projects are not “enough”, and actively advocate for more multi-family options that will allow an affordable housing market to function.

Resolution 3: Withdraw from Civil Service

The Civil Service system was established by state law in 1884 to eliminate favoritism in the hiring and promotion of public safety employees by providing a merit-based system for all municipalities that choose to participate. Belmont adopted Civil Service for our firefighters and police officers in 1915. The core components of the system are: 1) administering entrance/promotional exams and 2) restricting hires/promotions to a ranked list of candidates. Exam results are combined with other distinct criteria to generate the ranked list, from which a municipality is required to hire/promote from the top.

On its face, this may seem to be an equitable system. However, upon closer inspection of the criteria that are used, it becomes evident that the ranked list is more biased than objective. The demographics of law enforcement and firefighters skew heavily towards White males, which the Civil Service system does more to preserve than to change. Even departments that recognize their own lack of diversity and want to change cannot do so when they are legally bound to the restrictions of Civil Service.

In a July 2020 report and webinar titled The Diversity Deficit: Municipal Employees in Metro Boston, the Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC) detailed key findings and best practices from an analysis of municipal employee demographics. MAPC is a regional planning agency established by state law in 1963 to promote smart growth and regional collaboration among the 101 cities and towns of Metro Boston, including Belmont. Among the best practices they found to address barriers to diversity in municipal workforces was withdrawal from Civil Service.

Why does the Civil Service system have a discriminatory effect? One reason is the veteran preference, which ranks veterans that pass the exam above nonveterans who scored higher. Despite any merits of this preference, the fact is that our veterans are overwhelmingly White males: 72 percent of veterans aged 18–34, compared to 36 percent of the total population aged 18–34, according to statewide census data. Another reason is the residency preference, which gives preference to a candidate that lived in Belmont for a full year before taking the entrance exam. Considering the annual base salary for an entry-level firefighter or police officer in Belmont is approximately $50,000, the lack of affordable housing and the residency preference work hand-in-hand to perpetuate existing demographics in public safety departments.

Withdrawal from Civil Service does not necessarily mean that a veteran preference or residency preference have to be eliminated. Such preferences can be included in the hiring policy that would replace it. But this policy can weigh other important factors as well, and removing the strict legal requirement to adhere to a ranked list effectively addresses the barriers to diversity while providing a larger applicant pool.

Belmont’s withdrawal from Civil Service has already been considered very recently, when the Select Board placed a question to that effect on the warrant for Town Meeting in September 2020. Vocal opposition to this warrant article was heard across town, particularly from our local police and firefighters unions. But it doesn’t have to be so adversarial and divisive. Many other cities and towns have withdrawn from Civil Service in recent years, so Belmont has plenty of examples to use for mapping our path forward.

While we can hope that town and union representatives find a mutually agreeable way to do so, to address systemic racism in Belmont, we must withdraw from Civil Service one way or another.

Renée Graham, during her keynote speech at Belmont’s Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Virtual Community Celebration, observed that people tend to think that racism is a problem elsewhere, not in their own community. Well, the fact that racism is a problem in our own community was brutally exposed. And yet, beyond the hatred of overt racism, we must also see that seemingly race-neutral policies and decisions are not harmless.

Belmont’s systemic racism will not be eliminated by inaction or good intentions. Antiracist progress must be made with deliberate policy decisions. The three that I have outlined here are not an exhaustive list nor the end of the road — there will be more work to be done — but we cannot let the magnitude of the problem discourage us from taking steps towards progress. These steps must be taken in 2021.

Joe Bernard is a Town Meeting Member from Precinct 3. As the father of two Butler School students, his favorite community involvement is coaching youth sports, as well as volunteering for the PTA. He is an active member of Community Organized for Solidarity and Belmont Against Racism.

Opinion: What’s Happening With Our State Government?Massachusetts’ Secret State House And How To Fix It

Photo: Massachusetts State House (Wikipedia)

By Maya Chandrakasan, Sherman Street

In a few months myself and my fellow Belmont High School seniors will walk across a stage and receive our diplomas. It’s safe to say this past year has been difficult for all of us. But these challenges are only the beginning of what lies ahead for my generation. As we enter college and the workforce in a world ravaged by the coronavirus, government inaction will be blamed on “partisan gridlock.” Federal legislators may use their precarious majority to defend themselves, but for Democrats in the state house there are no excuses for inaction. 

The Democratic party holds a veto-proof supermajority in the Massachusetts state legislature which they have had for more than three decades. So why haven’t we been able to pass any significant climate legislation since 2008?

Despite being a relatively progressive state, Massachusetts has one of the least transparent statehouses in the country: bills die in committee, the public has little time to object to a bill before it is voted on, and recorded floor votes on legislation are not guaranteed. 

Massachusetts is in a minority of states in the country that do not publicize or disclose how legislators vote in committees. While that may seem like a technicality, most lawmaking is done in legislative committees, and most legislation is killed in committees. A popular 100 percent Renewable Energy bill, which took six years to write, was killed in committee without ever making it to the House floor for a vote. All of these barriers inhibit action and change: our democracy is dying behind closed doors. 

This isn’t to attack some of the great state legislators, many of whom truly care about their constituents. This is about a broken state house rules system that both blocks constituents from holding their reps accountable, and reps from countering powerful house leaders for fear of retribution.

Last month, myself and other constituents in the 24th Middlesex district joined our state representative, Dave Rogers, on a call asking he sign onto the following three transparency amendments:

• All votes held in legislative committees be publicly disclosed so that constituents have the opportunity to see how their representatives are voting.

• Each bill be made public 72 hours prior to a final vote (extending the current 24 hour window) to ensure that anyone who wants to discuss the bill with their representative has that chance.

• The threshold for a vote to be publicly-recorded in the House of Representatives be reduced to eight from the current 16 representative requirement so that more bills can be publicly voted on. 

Unfortunately Rogers has not yet given a public commitment to voting for these transparency amendments. In the past, Rogers has proven himself to be a progressive legislator responsive to constituent concerns. We are fortunate to have a legislator who will disclose his committee votes despite House rules. However, just because Rogers votes the right way does not mean that other reps will, and in order to pass a veto-proof bill we need more than just his vote; in other words, to actually pass the legislation he cosponsors and introduces, we need transparency. 

In the coming days, the statehouse will vote on a new set of rules for the upcoming legislative session. The various crises of this past year have proven that state and local governance matter. From comprehensive police reform to climate bills to eviction moratoriums, there are numerous life-saving policies that can be implemented on the state level. Unfortunately, none of those have, or will be passed without serious change and accountability. 

The rules voted on will be law for the next two years and will influence what can get done in this crucial time. As we turn the page on a bungled federal response to the most pressing issues of our time, we must begin to repair our government from the bottom up. That begins with a transparent Massachusetts statehouse. 

I urge anyone who cares about virtually any issue to contact Rogers by email (dave.rogers@mahouse.gov) or phone (617-722-2637) and ask him to vote for these three transparency amendments to state house rules for the next legislative session. Learn more about our broken state house at https://actonmass.org/the-campaign/ and join our district team to get involved in our final push for a more accountable state legislature. 

Opinion: Teens, Substance Misuse, and the Ongoing Pandemic

Photo: Comedian John Mulaney who entered rehab this week

By Lisa Gibalerio, Prevention Specialist, Wayside Youth and Family Support Network; Program Coordinator, Belmont Wellness Coalition

When my daughter told me last night that her favorite comedian, John Mulaney, had relapsed after 15 years of sobriety and had entered a rehabilitation program, I thought: he is not alone.

The disruption of life caused by the Covid-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on those with substance use disorders or mental health issues. Anyone who was already struggling with these challenges before the pandemic was catapulted into a perfect storm of increased stress, social isolation, and reduced access to care and support. Though relapse is often a part of recovery, 2020 has seen an uptick in both substance misuse relapses and mental health disorders.

How has all this impacted teens in Belmont?

When the Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS) was last administered in Belmont, in March of 2019, over 25 percent of teens reported drinking, vaping, and/or using marijuana. We do not have data since the start of the pandemic, but it’s fair to say that the stress levels on young people in Belmont have not abated. 2020 saw new fears of a potentially life-threatening illness, disruption of the school year, cancellation of long-awaited traditional celebrations like graduations and birthday parties, and a lack of job opportunities and curtailment of college experiences. How could they not be affected?

In such an environment, some young people may turn to inappropriate substances to cope. Some may gain access to substances, such as alcohol, via older siblings, older friends, or at home. In many instances, students reported, their parents do not even know that they are drinking – neither how frequently, nor how much.

What’s wrong with coping this way? The danger is that, due to their developing brains, when teens drink, they tend to drink too much. This puts them at risk for alcohol poisoning, car crashes, injuries, violence, and/or unprotected/unwanted sex.

As parents, we may feel helpless on how to impact this. However, there are concrete things parents can do to reduce substance misuse among their kids:

  • Talk with your kids about the impact of substance misuse.
  • Set your expectations in a clear and concise way.
  • Listen to your kids.
  • Reach out to their friends’ parents. If there is a gathering at a house (hopefully Covid-safe!) – text the parents ahead of the event: ask if they will be home and monitoring the event.
  • Wait up at curfew time.
  • Do not relax your family rules during the holidays; it can be difficult to return to previous expectations.

Remember, every year that a teen does not use alcohol, the odds of lifelong dependence decrease by 15 percent.

2020 has been an incredibly stressful year, for adults, for kids – for all of us. And, if we work together, we can help ensure that our kids stay healthy and safe.

If you have questions, please reach out to me at Lisa_gibalerio@Waysideyouth.org.

Wishing you all safe and happy holidays.

Opinion: Open Belmont High School With Livestreaming, A Solution That Can Be Implemented In Days [Video]

Photo: The Youtube video of the parents explaining its proposal

Belmont High School students can and need to return to in-person learning.  The hybrid model originally proposed and adopted by the School Committee resulted in an unacceptable loss of instruction time.  There is a simple, inexpensive solution that can bring our children back to school now: Extend remote livestream to hybrid livestream in days.  

Our proposal (by Sheryl Grace YouTube) is that teachers can livestream classes to all remote students so that both the in-person and remote students are learning together. Technically, this is no different than the Google Classes offered in the remote environment – teachers are using technology to teach their classes and they continue to do so. This approach has significant upside for both the students and teachers. Students are able to attend class in-person – they can see their peers and their teachers. They are in a more traditional school environment. Teachers can more clearly see their classes – what is working and what may need further explanation. And both groups are able to share an energy that cannot be transmitted online. Because the classes are live-streamed, teachers can avoid developing hours of asynchronous learning content. This model does not require months of meetings – it has been implemented by our fellow Middlesex County schools – it is working and it is ready for immediate adoption in Belmont.    

In a surprising reversal of the previous school committee vote, the committee voted to delay again the start of hybrid in high school to an unspecified time, at best January.  This decision was based on survey results which showed the community’s strong dislike of the proposed hybrid model and were willing to take a delay for a better model.  We agree that the original hybrid model removed too much instruction time, but do not agree that we need months to fix it.  Instead of looking to surrounding communities – many of which have brought their high school students back to school – the school committee decided to implement a task force with the goal of reopening in January – almost a full year after our schools were shut down.   

A number of public schools have implemented a more comprehensive hybrid plan than BPS. The delay of Belmont hybrid affords us the opportunity to “copy&paste” rather than reinventing the wheel. Key to all these hybrid models is live streaming that maximizes in person learning and instructional time, while maximizing teacher safety by allowing those teachers who require it to teach from home. Some of us have implemented live streaming in our classrooms using solutions that are within the abilities of teachers, as well as the financial and technical support available in the district. Reducing instructional time is burdensome to teachers as it requires them to retool their lesson plans and curriculum. As teachers get visual feedback from students attending in-person, they are able to be more effective for the remote students as well. This is a solution where everyone wins.  

The fear that drives school closures is understandable, but may also be exaggerated. In the past week, the infection rate among approximately 450,000 students and 75,000 teachers attending classes in person in Massachusetts was 0.029 percent and 0.09 percent respectively.  The rate during the same period was similar to Massachusetts’ population at large and supports numerous studies that conclude that schools are not a vector of infection. A report in New York Times of COVID-19 infections in New York City public schools suggests that the risks in schools may be exaggerated.

Remote learning has many failings and asynchronous learning will only exacerbate the outcomes. In an interview with the Harvard Gazette, Prof. Joseph Allen, the lead author of Harvard’s T. H. Chan report, argues that remote learning is leading to a new phenomenon of “virtual dropouts” that will have lasting impact on children’s outcomes. “[W]e have virtual dropouts. We have major school districts in the U.S. where a third of the kids are not logging in every day.” The virtual dropout” and lack of engagement is evident in Belmont High School which led the school principal to abruptly mandate students to turn the cameras on during class time.

We propose that Belmont adopt a tried and true hybrid plan now. This gets our students back to school while preserving their instruction time. It makes the jobs of our teachers easier and it does not cost the district much, if any, money. We can proceed with the task force to improve on this plan – but there is no reason to wait months when we have the answer. Time is of the essence for our children – we need to act now while the health metrics are good. 

Jamal Carlos Saeh, Sheryl Grace, Danielle Lemack, Larry Schmidt, Christine McLaughlin, Martin Zwierlein, Anja Genia Meichsner, Patrick Whittemore, Karl Ivester, Maíra Rejane Marques Samary, Heather Ivester, Colleen Doherty-Minicozzi, Laurie Manjikian, Jane MacKinnon, Stephanie Hovsepian, Chris McLaughlin, Maysoun Shomali, Jill Callanan, Elizabeth Woo, Michael Callanan, Mikhail Zaslavskiy, Beth Halloran, Laura French, Ron Creamer, Nancy Quinn, Julie Meringer, Jacqueline Agular, Patrick J Murphy, David Thesmar, Fleur Thesmar, Olga Shyshko, Tamara Kefeyan, Katherine Hawko, Tim Halloran, Joe Quinn, Judy Dacey, Jennifer G. Ausrotas, Ray Ausrotas

Letter To The Editor: Parents Appreciate The Work Of Teachers In Age Of Pandemic

Photo: Thanks

Dear teachers, administrators, and staff of the Belmont Public Schools:

There has been a lot of talk and hand-wringing about the various plans for education in this age of pandemic. We would like to acknowledge that you are caught in the crossfire and that you are nevertheless performing an exceptional service in unprecedented times.

Many of us chose to live in Belmont because of its schools. Over the years, we have been impressed by the professionalism, dedication, and perseverance that you demonstrate every day. The move to remote schooling has also shown us that you have great resilience and
flexibility. We have been enjoying hearing our kids engaged during this time at home thanks to your efforts.

Many of us have chosen to keep our children remote during Phase 2 to help protect their health and yours. This choice was difficult and each family approached it differently, but whatever our decisions on the matter it is no reflection of our confidence in you. Some of us are transitioning to hybrid, but appreciate this remote time as a rewarding experience for our kids. This is a time of learning for all of us, thanks to our amazing teachers.

We recognize that many of you are struggling with the same decisions regarding your own health and safety. We know that these are very difficult choices to make, and we support your decisions. We hope that the schools will be able to make appropriate accommodations where needed.

We would like you to know that parents support and appreciate you and your work. We are glad to have our children in your care. We look forward to the day that the schools can safely open to all children, but we are very much aware that this will not happen soon. Until then please know that we feel you are doing an admirable job and that our children’s needs are being met.

Charles and Patsy Bandes, Butler grades K and 2
Amy & Dan Kirsch, Winn Brook grade 4 and Belmont High grade 9
Amy Frasco, two students, Wellington
Angela & Elshad Kasumov, Wellington grade 1
Diane & David Gold, Burbank Kindergarten
Claus and Barbara Becker Belmont HS and Butler grade 3
Kim and Chris Foster, Burbank grade 4 and Chenery, grade 6
Katy and Rob Yang, Winn Brook grade 1
Vikram and Parul Khemka, Winn Brook grade 1 and grade 4
Kimberly Blinn
Aaron Pikcilingis & Laura Burnes, Wellington grade 3 and Chenery grade 6
Lisa and Mark Murakami, grades 2 and 4 Burbank
Carolyn Stella, Belmont HS parent

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.