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.

‘Let’s Make It Work’ COVID-19 Surveillance Testing: Another Parent-led Solution To Re-open Belmont Schools

Photo: Testing is around the corner

By Jamal Saeh, Kate Jeffrey, Larry Schmidt

The last academic year left many parents and students full of anxiety. Will remote learning work? Why can’t schools start with hybrid now? How can we help remove obstacles for increased in-person learning?

School started this year a little rocky despite heroic efforts by teachers. Technology did not always cooperate, some kids were in tears, and parents’ work schedules were disrupted. Some were luckier and fared better.  As part of the next phase, the school administration presented a hybrid model that involves approximately six hours of in-person learning per week and trimmed curricula. Little has been presented by BPS leadership about the constraints behind this model or the rationale for the timetable for the hybrid.   

In stark contrast to BPS, multiple K-12 systems have initiated full four to five day in-person models owing to thorough planning geared at removing obstacles such as air quality issues and Covid-19 surveillance. It’s therefore not surprising that many Belmont parents remain worried that their children will continue to fall behind when compared to their peers around the country who will benefit from more robust in-person learning.

All school administrators and committees are grappling with the question: “How do you maximize education while minimizing the risk of infection?” Inherent in this question is an acceptance of risk. While the risk can never be zero, science can help us quantify the risk and guide our strategies for maximizing educational opportunities. 

Recent quantitative analysis of various school opening scenarios, including one similar to the Belmont Public Schools hybrid model, suggests that the risk of infection is very low and supports schools opening in hybrid now.  For example, based on Glanz et al., the risk is low for a BPS student to come to school with the virus. If some do, with current risk mitigation countermeasures, Cohen et al conclude that the cumulative risk is also very low.  

To further reduce the risk and to better enable more in-person learning opportunities, multiple K-12 schools have initiated surveillance testing (e.g. Wellesley, Belmont Hill, Boston Public Schools,  NH, UN Int). A parent-led proposal will be presented at the upcoming School Committee meeting advocating for a cost-effective surveillance strategy. 

Two key barriers preventing routine testing are cost and logistics, and we believe we’ve made progress on both fronts. We’ve identified a promising ready-to-deploy solution from Mirimus labs that couples the gold standard RT-PCR test with a strategy to pool saliva samples from multiple individuals followed by a deconvolution step to identify the infected individual. The saliva collection is easy, results are provided within 12 hours for approximately $15/person. However, the estimate for the often requested weekly testing of the 4,800 BPS community is more than $2 million for the academic year, and more prohibitive for twice weekly.

We propose a pragmatic, scientifically driven solution.  All 4,800 BPS members can be tested ahead of the start of the hybrid phase for approximately $75,000. This will allow the identification and quarantine of infected individuals while students are in remote thus minimizing disruption. Once the hybrid starts, weekly surveillance is possible via random sampling of the BPS population. Random testing is a well-established scientific alternative to testing everyone. Experts recommend(1,2) that, for a district like BPS, a 7.5 percent sampling threshold can be adopted as an effective surveillance metric, a rate consistent with the surveillance plans implemented in independent schools.   We estimate the cost of weekly testing to be $325,000 for the entire year, which ignores the likely possibility that costs will decline going forward. The cost includes testing teachers.

In conclusion, our view is that a robust surveillance testing regimen is within reach financially for BPS and can be implemented in days. However, the surveillance testing should not be viewed as a prerequisite for executing BPS’ existing reopening plan given Belmont’s very low rates of community spread. Such a program makes it easier to track conditions in real time and reduces risks of larger outbreaks.  It should be implemented along with a broader set of changes to the BPS reopening plan which enable much more substantial in-person instruction opportunities for our students. If the extra peace of mind this provides enables our students and teachers to have much more robust face-to-face interactions, this will be money very well spent.

Jamal Saeh is the Executive Director and Global Program Leader at a local pharmaceutical company. He is a Belmont parent to two BHS students.

Kate Jeffre is an immunologist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School. She is a Belmont parent to a first grader.

Lawrence Schmidt is the Victor J. Menezes Career Development Professor of Finance at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management. He is a Belmont parent of three children.

Letter To The Editor: School Re-Opening Less Than Ideal But Pandemic Limits What Can Be Done

Photo: Return to learning has been less than ideal

Dear Belmont Parents and Community:

As a member of the School Committee, I’m fully aware that many parents are deeply unhappy with the fall reopening plans for our schools. Based on the volume of emails and phone calls, it’s also clear that many people do not think the School Committee is listening. I can assure you that we are.

Many parents want a return to in-person learning as quickly as possible. Rightly, they point to good health metrics and the probability that we could begin using many classrooms in hybrid with safety. Yes, the metrics are good and we probably can begin using many classrooms but it will be a few more weeks before we do that.

I have been a proponent of a quicker move to hybrid reopening for Belmont’s schools. Not everyone agrees on the timetable, and I understand that. It’s not an easy thing to gamble with people’s health, but that’s essentially what we do when we proceed to reopen schools without due caution during a pandemic. Between myself, other members of the School Committee, the Superintendent, and our educators, there are some differences of opinion about what “due caution” means. In every negotiation, there are differences of opinion. When decision making depends on satisfying many different and very reasonable concerns about health and safety, some flexibility is needed. At the end of the day, no one wants to be responsible for opening in a way that leads to anyone getting sick, being hospitalized, or even dying.

We’ve just gotten summary feedback from our consulting engineers who have been evaluating our air handling systems in the school buildings. We’ll get the full reports in days. So far things look pretty good, as long as we plan to open windows in our classrooms or use air purification equipment that we’ve bought. But we’ll be proceeding to in-person learning in our school buildings in a deliberate and orderly manner only after the consultant reports have been received, fully digested, and responded to in a way that mitigates any problems with space that needs to be used. It would be unwise to do otherwise. Because the school buildings are not ready, there has been no other option – to be clear, absolutely no other way to proceed – but to begin the school year in remote mode. We’ll get the schools opened for in-person learning, but it just will take a little more time. 

Apart from getting back to in-person learning, we are getting lots of feedback about the remote school plan, which has been adopted by the School Committee, as well as the hybrid plan, which is still under discussion. Not everyone is happy with the remote schedules, including school start times, lunch breaks, and time between classes. It is a complicated negotiation to build out these schedules, and not all needs can be satisfied. Similarly, to try to undertake school in a hybrid fashion AND provide remote-only for those parents needing that option for their children necessarily means that there will be more asynchronous learning (e.g., taped lessons, students working on their own, etc.). The school district does not have enough resources to do much better than this. 

It is deeply unfortunate that our children will continue to experience school in a less than ideal way this school year. I know that our school administrators and educators – and every member of the School Committee – is deeply regretful for this. We all recognize that this isn’t the way school should be done. But we also know that there are limits to what can be done during a pandemic with the kinds of resources that we have. Everyone, too, is committed to making this the best experience possible for your children.

I know that parents will continue to be concerned about our schools and I hope that you’ll continue to share your concerns with me and other members of the School Committee. At the same time, I hope that we’ll have your patience as we work to change what we can AND your understanding in realizing that there will be limits to what can be done for your children with the resource constraints that our schools operate under.


Mike Crowley

Member, Belmont School Committee

Opinion: An Open Letter To School Committee On Delaying A Vote On Proposed Hybrid Learning Option

Photo: Wait on voting for a hybrid model

To Andrea Prestwich, Chair, Belmont School Committee

I understand the Belmont School Committee needs to ratify the Belmont Public School’s remote learning plan in some form or fashion before school starts. Prior to voting, I would urge you and the other members of the committee to address the following aspects of the proposed Remote Learning plan in a clear and concise manner:

1) There has been no clear and precise estimate given by the BPS for the amount and types of family support that will be required for students at different levels to be successful in remote learning, nor has there been any assessment that I am aware of that gauges the degree to which the required and expected levels of support are feasible for families at the outset of this Phase or sustainable for any duration of time.

2)  There has been no clear and compelling rationale that has been offered to explain why start times can’t be later in remote learning. Belmont Schools Superintendent John Phelan has spoken a few times to the complexities of transportation, but as far as I’m aware there are no transportation issues during Phase 1 and very few parents and caregivers representing less than 500 out of 4,000 students indicated an interest in or reliance on bus transportation when asked. One of your core campaign issues when you originally ran for BSC was for a later start time. If we are ever going to explore and experiment with later start times, which the vast majority of families and students support, this would appear to be the moment. If we are not going to start later, especially at Chenery Middle School, I would expect that the particulars of why we cannot do so would need to be presented to the committee and the public before a vote on the remote schedule.

3) There has been no clear and compelling reason for why lunch schedules can’t be adjusted to accommodate family lunch at the same time both within Chenery and across school levels. Doing so would be the most convenient thing for families and would be best for the social-emotional wellbeing of students and families during Phase 1.

All of these issues relate in some form or fashion to the degree of responsiveness of the BPS and BSC to core concerns of and feedback from Belmont families, especially given the shift in the degree of responsibility for students’ education that families will bear in Phase 1 and all of the proposed phases until full in-person learning resumes.

Regarding the proposed hybrid plan, I strongly oppose and do not understand the idea that we need to rush to a vote next week given that the proposed hybrid plan, which is radically different from all previous models of hybrid learning that have been presented to the BSC and the public, has not been properly vetted by the public nor the BSC and given that hybrid learning is not likely to start in whatever form it takes until October at the earliest. 

To understand this issue more deeply from the perspective of Belmont parents and caregivers, it is useful to review the timeline of the process of exploring hybrid models so far:

  • June 29: of the 900 survey respondents, only 42 percent of respondents indicated support for a hybrid when the idea of the hybrid model was fairly abstract and when families might have conceived of the question as being in distinction to the possibility of a full in-person return to school.
  • July 16: though the total number of survey respondents is not clear from the slide deck from the BSC meeting, only 9 percent of families preferred full remote learning; 91 percent of respondents preferred full in-person learning or hybrid.
  • Aug. 4:  Superintendent Phelan presented 7 hybrid models to the public, all of which have significantly more in-person learning opportunities for students than the current proposed hybrid plan, which offers far fewer in-person options for many fewer students.
  • Aug. 6: the current “Return to Learning” phased plan is reviewed for the first time, marking a sudden and significant reversal in the direction of the public discussion about options for returning to school without a very clear rationale for why we are moving in this direction.
  • Aug. 11: at a BSC presentation representing the perspectives of approximately 3,000 of the 4,000 Belmont Public School students and the last time families were invited to express a point of view about hybrid learning, there was overwhelming support (2,138 of 3,152) for more and more frequent in-person learning opportunities (hybrid + full in-person) than is currently proposed.
  • Sept. 2: the current proposed hybrid models are presented to the public for the first time along with information about the “remote-only” option; the proposed models for students allow for significantly less in-person learning (2-3 mornings a week for most students) than had been previously discussed, not in keeping with expectations of families. In addition, the concept of a “Bridge” phase (“Phase 1.5”) is introduced for the first time to BSC but not voted upon.
  • Sept. 3: a survey is distributed to BPS families to choose between the current proposed hybrid model and the proposed remote model with the expectation that families will choose by Sept. 17 between these two models, neither of which approximates families’ expectations or resembles previous hybrid models under consideration. The survey does not contain a “none of the above” option or an option to indicate support for a different hybrid model if one would be available.  In the meantime, families are asked to articulate questions they have about the proposed models vs. feedback and there is a precipitous drop in family engagement as represented by the steep decline in the number of families who respond to surveys.

I would submit to you and other members of the committee that neither you nor Belmont families have had the opportunity to vet properly the details of the proposed hybrid model such that families would have a basis for making a choice on the one hand and that you would be informed enough about the perspectives of families on the other to vote next week.  Indeed, I would go further and say that, notwithstanding the very real need that the BPS has to engage in staffing projections, families should not have been asked to indicate a “choice” between two models they mostly do not want without further examination by BSC and BPS of whether adjustments can be made to the proposed hybrid model that would be in keeping our recently agreed-upon metrics for each Phase and more aligned with what families want and expect for their children.

Under those circumstances, I urge you to delay a vote of the hybrid model, to encourage BPS leadership to add more in-person learning opportunities whenever we move to Phase 3 and to extend the deadline for families to submit their preference sheets until modifications to the hybrid model can be more fully explored and articulated.  

Jeff Liberty

Worcester Street

Opinion: It’s Time To Move On From Columbus

Photo: Welcoming Indigenous Peoples’ Day

Some have called it a “white supremacist’s holiday.” For others, it’s a reminder of the atrocities and genocide that took place on this land about 500 years ago. Let us stop celebrating violence, and move to celebrate the diverse and culturally rich native peoples by renaming the holiday on the second Monday of October to Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

Follow this link to our Change.org petition.

On the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s arrival to the Americas, Berkeley, California, declared Oct. 12 to be a “Day of Solidarity with Indigenous People.” As such, Berkeley officially became the first municipality to celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Since then, at least 10 states and 130 cities have made the transition as well. Our neighbors in Cambridge, Brookline, Somerville, and Marblehead have moved forward. If we want Belmont to live up to its promises of inclusivity and progressiveness, it only makes sense that we follow the footsteps of our neighbors and rename the holiday to Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

For more than 500 years, indigenous peoples have been oppressed by European settlers. This began with Columbus. Upon his arrival to the Bahamas – he never stepped foot on the continental US – Columbus infringed on the territory of millions of indigenous people, especially that of the Taino people, whom he shortly enslaved. Hundreds were sent back to Spain while thousands of others were forced to scavenge the land for gold. He mutilated the Tainos who didn’t fulfill their quota of gold. He sent dismembered Taino bodies through the streets to assert his superiority. Michele de Cuneo, one of Columbus’ royal companions, wrote in his journal about how Columbus raped and tortured a Taino woman. It is much unsaid about what Columbus did to the Taino people, but these few examples give the essence of his disgusting treatment of them. 

We would also add that his actions didn’t impact only the Taino people. His arrival to the Americas began the Columbian Exchange, which brought the irreversible impact of diseases like smallpox to the indigenous people. An estimated 90 percent of Aboriginal Americans died of smallpox. Altogether, his actions set into motion what would become a mass genocide of the indigenous people of the Americas. 

Early on, students learn of Columbus as a great hero and the discoverer of America; the reason for where we are today. But celebrating him as a hero misses the point. He did not discover the Americas; he merely stole them. It also leaves out a far more important half of the story. Celebrating him serves as a reminder of how he took away the land and lives of countless native people. And while it is important to acknowledge his mistreatment of natives, we must not honor violence. By celebrating Indigenous Peoples’ Day, we can honor the traditions and culture of the indigenous peoples of America, instead of a merciless outsider. 

After a year of consideration and planning, we have launched a town-wide petition to rename the holiday to Indigenous Peoples’ Day. We ask that you share it with anybody who supports the change so that our town government officials can see the interest our community has in taking such an action.

Alex Fick

Lora Ovcharova

Opinion: It’s Time to Reopen Belmont Schools

Photo: One hundred years ago, New York City schools opened school building windows to effectively fight the “Spanish flu” pandemic. (Library of Congress)

In a recent survey of Belmont parents, 67 percent were in favor of opening the school in hybrid or in-person. Questions remain: Is the time now to reopen Belmont school in the hybrid? Is there a right way for opening Belmont schools?  

The case for reopening schools is simple. Kids learn better in schools; remote learning is less effective and is disproportionately felt by lower-income students and students with fewer resources. The CDC and mental health experts agree that schools should open this fall. The psychological toll on children is mounting, and school closing, quarantining and isolation are contributing to long-lasting effects on children. The data from Europe and Asia are encouraging. They reopened schools and, while they’ve seen cases of COVID, they haven’t seen schools as major vectors of infection.    These offer real-world evidence to inform our strategies for school opening.   In a recent analysis of the risk associated with school opening, the authors concluded that reopening schools will not significantly increase community-wide transmission, provided sufficient school-based interventions are implemented. Moreover, when the incidence rate in the community is at or below 20 per 100,000, Belmont is significantly lower than this threshold, the risk of infection in schools is less than one percent.

How we reopen schools matters. Florida is a great example of how NOT to reopen schools given its rising levels of infections. We support the risk assessment metrics set by Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker for school opening. The rate of infection in Massachusetts is low despite the fact that more people are socializing outdoors, going to restaurants and nail salons, driving to work, shopping, or leisure. While there will never be enough testing, we can’t let perfect be the enemy of the good. There has been an uptick in testing in Belmont and the State, and, importantly, the rate of infection remains low and stable since June (Figure 1). At the local level, Belmont and all the neighboring towns remain in “green” or “white” (see Table 1) further reducing the risk of infection at schools. These are all encouraging signs and if Belmont were to follow the DESE recommendation, schools would reopen now.  So why is Belmont not opening in hybrid?

It’s Time to Reopen Belmont Schools

Figure 1. (WCVB)
TownRisk based on average daily cases per 100,000Positive cases last 14 days% positive last 14 days% Trend
BelmontGreen90.66No change
CambridgeGreen340.88No change
WalthamGreen340.88No change
ArlingtonWhite50.21No change
LexingtonWhite30.24No change
Table 1: Average daily COVID-19 case rate per 100K over the past two weeks.(WCVB on Sept. 1)

It is not lost on us that assessing the risk-benefit of opening schools in the middle of a pandemic is as much a scientific and policy question, as it is personal. At the heart of it, advocates of opening the schools are looking at the data and are saying we are making the uncomfortable judgment that taking a risk with someone’s health is OK in order for us to have these benefits. In the middle of an acute crisis, history has taught us that there is a tendency to be overly conservative and want to institute extreme safety measures. On balance and with the benefit of retrospective analysis, extreme measures have rarely been effective at keeping us safe. The question is therefore how much risk are you willing to tolerate? Zero risks are not only unachievable, but it rarely makes for a good strategy or informed public policy.

As Belmontians, we make these calculations all the time. We allow our teenagers to drive cars, our pre-teens to walk to Belmont’s Underwood pool, ride their bikes to the town center, and partake in a variety of other activities that have some inherent risk. So in trying to answer how large are the potential health risks, we need to anchor the discussion in what the evidence above says, how large are the potential benefits, and the long-term impact on kids, in addition to the immediate impact on their parents, their teachers and the economy.  

We take the risk to teachers and staff seriously. To that effect, we want to end with a positive example that showcases the power of engagement with the Belmont parent community.  

Much of the discussion, especially in Belmont social media circles, has been productive, but understandably visceral when it comes to how much risk people are willing to take and how it affects teachers and staff. The school district, the Massachusetts Teachers Association, and the Belmont School Committee have identified air quality as an area of major concern for opening the school. This is not an unexpected request given that the District has already run similar analyses in the past. A solution that requires the building of new schools or upgrading all HVAC systems is costly and unrealistic options as preconditions for opening schools. Two Belmont parents authored a well researched white paper that suggested a simple, cost-effective solution to mitigate the air quality concern. To his credit, Belmont School Superintendent John Phelan met with the parents and ordered 150 portable commercial filters that can be deployed as early as next week. Further, the group highlighted the results of a study done by a group from Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health that showed that opening a window as little as six inches can provide superior air exchange and be used as an effective strategy to augment mechanical-based solutions to air quality control. In listening to issues like air quality that are central to the School Committee, the superintendent, and the MTA decision to reopening schools, the community has demonstrated how it can act as an effective resource to solve critical problems and support the need for a resource-constrained school district.     

The community is actively listening and wants to be part of the solution. The time is now to go to hybrid. We urge the school committee to accelerate the timetable for opening the school in hybrid. Let’s give our kids an opportunity to work together with their peers and their teachers, even if it were for a short time while Belmont is in the “green” zone. The benefits to their psychological well being and educational equity will be immeasurable. Let’s avoid creating obstacles that are red herrings, and keep the decision for opening the schools science-driven and anchored in the state guidelines and local data.

Jamal Saeh, Larry Schmidt, Martin Zwierlein, Kerry O’Grady, Maysoun Shomali, Patrick Whittemore, Christine McLaughlin, David Thesmar, Mikhail Zaslavsky, Ron Creamer, Carrie Bryan, Christine Regan, Liane Brecknock, Pamela Schmidt, Valerie Krempus, Robi Krempus, Danielle Lemack, Karl Ivester, Sonya Santos, Maíra Rejane Marques Samary, Alex Danahy, Olga Shyshko, Kelley Moriarty, and Alicia Dimitruk

Letter To The Editor: Belmont Against Racism Asks ‘Why And How We Can Accept This?’

Photo: A vigil at First Church Belmont

To the editor:

The Board of Belmont Against Racism is saddened, anguished and, yes, angry at the taking of Black lives in our country by law enforcement officers over these past several weeks, culminating in the death of George Floyd. The COVID-19 pandemic will be overcome by our scientists, medical leaders and public officials. We ask why this same focus and determination has not and still will not be applied to eradicating racial hatreds, injustice and violence. 

Belmont Against Racism was begun 28 years ago as a sad, anguished and angry response to the police brutality directed at Rodney King on another spring day in Los Angeles. And many of us in 1992 recalled too well the events of the 1960s and the Kerner Commission report which declared that “our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.” So very little has changed and so it is time that we ask each other and our civic and community leaders why and how we can accept this and call ourselves a civil society whose laws and structures protect everyone, not just those whose skin tone happens to be white.

Stephen Carter, a Yale Law Professor and former clerk of Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, stated in an interview on NPR this week that this hatred, injustice and violence will continue until our country can forsake our belief in the inherent superiority of white people and inherent inferiority of black people. We believe he is right. In “These Truths,” her history of the country, Jill Lepore observes the many ways we have failed to ever really be faithful to the words from the Declaration of Independence in each generation as nativism, nationalism and white supremacy have too often contradicted the aspirations that neither the founders nor we have ever lived up to. She quotes Abraham Lincoln, who said in 1862, “We must disenthrall ourselves and, and then we shall save the country.” More than 150 years later, it seems we have barely begun to do this.

Some will be tempted to focus on the protests, riots and burning. While we too regret that so many small businesses and communities are ravaged as well by the rages that are swirling, this is not the core problem now, nor was it in 1992, nor in the 1960s. It is too easy to let our sympathy and support for those who are the rage’s victims become “the story” and not the underlying cause of racism. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar makes this point in his op-ed piece in today’s Los Angeles Times. He quotes Langston Hughes’ poem “Harlem:” 

What happens to a dream deferred?

…Maybe it sags

like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

We are fortunate in Belmont to have leadership in our Town’s Police Department who have embraced The 21st Century Policing Principles and are demonstrating their commitment to anti-racist policing in our town.  Some in BAR can recall times and incidents when such principles were not adhered to as well. But, we have made progress in our community. Belmont is not Minneapolis, LA, St. Louis or any of the larger cities where police violence against blacks are too common and until the age of the smartphone often unseen, unless you happened to be the black victims. 

But, if we can make progress in our small town, we must retain some hope that it can be done elsewhere. However, focusing just on law enforcement is also a mistake. We who are white must continue the work to become disenthralled. It is done in small and large ways. We must pick ourselves up from these ashes and recommit to creating a country that someday will see beyond the color of our skins.

Michael Collins

BAR Board Member

We Are All In This Together: Coexisting with COVID-19

Photo: Team work will get us through

By Lisa Gibalerio, Prevention Specialist, Wayside Youth and Family Support Services and Corinne Jackman, Belmont High School Nurse

It’s been almost two months now.

Two long months of physical distancing, of adhering to Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker’s stay-at-home advisory, of working from home while assisting our kids with online instruction, of acquiring and wearing masks, and of keeping a distant but worried watch over our own parents, many of whom fall smack dab in the middle of the most vulnerable age group.

Most of us have been managing at least some level of anxiety. Over the health of loved ones, over the harrowing plights faced daily by front line workers, over the stress of an overwhelmed health-care system, job insecurity, safely acquiring groceries, and of kids who are also scared, missing meaningful milestones, longing for their friends, and adapting to a virtual school world they never signed up for.

How much longer will we need to do this?  

While experts are working around the clock to develop a safe and effective vaccine, we are told it could be mid-to-late 2021 before that vaccine is ready to inoculate seven billion of the planet’s inhabitants.

Does this mean we stay hunkered down for another year or more?

Most likely no; it’s not sustainable on almost every level, e.g., economically, emotionally, educationally.

The best strategy that seems to offer hope for a safe emergence back into the world includes wide-spread testing, isolation of those who test positive, and contact tracing. Countries who have employed this strategy have been successful because only those who test negative are allowed out in public; all positives are instructed to isolate at home. Wouldn’t it be helpful to know that everyone in line at the post office had tested negative?

Alas, the accessibility of widespread testing has remained elusive in Massachusetts, as elsewhere. So, here we are, collectively contemplating how we will tentatively peek out from under our shells, and wondering how we will navigate the next year.

To get some insight into how to manage long-term stay-at-home experiences, we reached out to a parent whose child spent nine months in isolation following a bone-marrow transplant. She offered the following advice to parents:

  • Live life one day at a time.
  • Keep a positive mindset; it can really impact your emotional wellbeing. 
  • Limit any media intake that focuses on the negative aspects of this virus.
  • Be creative with your time.
  • Keep yourself and your family busy by discovering new hobbies.
  • Learn new skills, or master ones that you’ve already been developing.
  • Be thankful for the little things, no matter how small they may seem.
  • Take time out for yourself – and don’t feel guilty about it.
  • Take turns with your partner in entertaining the younger one(s) while the other takes a little time off for themselves.
  • Remember: things could always be worse; this too shall pass and we will be back to normal before we know it.

As the state begins to open up in the coming weeks, many people have said that, while they may venture out to a backyard barbecue this summer, they do not expect to sit in a crowded movie theater, take in a game at Fenway Park, or ride the subway. Not until there is a vaccine.

In the meantime, remember, the best protection we have right now, and in the months to come, includes frequent hand washing, physical distancing, and mask wearing. It is also important to stay up-to-date with guidelines from reliable sources, such as the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. These steps offer protection for ourselves and also for our fellow community members.

As Eugene Robinson said recently in the Washington Post: “We are all in this together. Some of us may not like that, but the coronavirus doesn’t care.”

An Open Letter to Belmont’s High School Seniors

Photo: Belmont High School graduation 2019

By Lisa Gibalerio

Dear Seniors:

When the news came down that schools across Massachusetts would not reopen for the rest of the school year, a collective thud of disappointment resounded across town from you and your parents.

The news confirmed what had been feared since schools closed back in March: there will be no spring athletic season, no awards ceremony honoring four grueling years, no prom, no Senior Week activities, and, perhaps most crushing of all, no Field House graduation ceremony and no All Night Party. All time-honored events. All canceled.  

How can you navigate so many losses all at once? 

Your disappointment is real and deserves to be validated. The events you will now forego are hallmarks; they celebrate the culmination of four years of arduous work, of lost sleep, of managing daunting amounts of stress, of sheer perseverance. You have every right to be sad that these events are unlikely to be held, or at least held in the traditional ways.

So go ahead and let yourself grieve; you won’t be grieving alone.

COVID-19 has wreaked devastation across the globe. More than 182,000 people have died, many alone, separated from loved ones, and hooked up to ventilators. The global economy may be careening into a depression unlike anything since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

But here’s the good news: this is a blip.

For sure, it’s big and it’s painful. But the life that lies ahead for each of you is bigger than this crisis. Your life will soon enough be graced once more with joy, with other celebrations, with toasts for goals accomplished, and with high fives for jobs well done.

You are amazing and I am so proud of you – all of you!  You are hard-working, smart, kind, and strong. 

So, take a deep breath and know that this will not be your last disappointment: this will soon become just another chapter in your life.

You’ve lived long enough to know that life is a kaleidoscope, sometimes landing on pain and sometimes on joy and often on just a whole lot of mundane moments. Pause and embrace the good stuff when it comes your way. Take in the beauty of a sunset, a full moon, a perfect daffodil. And go out there and give something of yourself to others. As Barak Obama once said: “The best way to not feel hopeless is to get up and do something.”

To the Class of 2020: your journey continues. I know you’re up for it. Make us proud. We love you.

Opinion: Let’s Keep Soccer Fun For All In Belmont

Photo: Belmont High School Girls’ Soccer.

By: Adriaan Lanni

As a Belmont soccer mom and former college player, I am incredibly proud of the U.S. World Cup team, which stands up for equality off the field and plays the game beautifully on it. But the inspiration of the Women’s World Cup obscures a troubling trend in American youth soccer—one that has a particularly strong impact on affluent towns like ours.

There is an arms race to produce future World Cup stars that filters down throughout the system. When I drive by Belmont High School over the summer, I often see private coaches leading young kids in one-on-one workouts. My family is not immune; we pay $3,000 a year for my 12 year-old daughter to play on a club soccer team. In a sport which relies on the slow acquisition of uncanny foot skills, club soccer has come to feel nearly obligatory for kids aiming at their high school varsity team. State and national rankings are available for club teams starting with the under-11s. And this competitiveness is tied, inevitably, to anxiety about college admissions. The surest path to a college scholarship is offered by “development academy” teams, which are so serious that players are not allowed to play for their high school (i.e., with their friends). 

This pressure might be OK for kids who have a shot at playing at the very highest levels.  But it’s terrible for everyone else. Regular participation of 6 to 12-year-olds in the U.S. dropped 14 percent between 2016 and 2018, as kids who can’t afford or don’t want to join the arms race quit. Even the club soccer “success” stories come at a price. I played in the Olympic Development Program and was recruited to play college soccer, the Holy Grail for many club soccer parents today.  But the game had begun to seem like a job, and I quit my college team after two seasons.  And this was when the soccer arms race was in its infancy before it sucked in players unlikely to advance in the sport. 

Watching my daughter today, I worry that many kids are missing out on the game’s real greatness.  Soccer is one of the few sports that people of all ages play on a casual, “pick-up” basis.  It is also a game that, unlike basketball or softball, typically requires intricate teamwork to produce even a single goal.  And because a good goal is like a little work of art that we create with other people, there is nothing I know of that brings people together so quickly.  You can see this in what Megan Rapinoe called the “explosion of joy” that often accompanies a goal—and not just in the World Cup.  I met my husband playing soccer, and I have joined pickup games all over the world with complete strangers.  In a world of careful, cultivated relationships, the impromptu fellowship of casual soccer is a wonderful thing. 

Without all the external pressures, and now well into middle age, I have rediscovered my love for soccer. The Boston area has outdoor and indoor leagues for women of all ages and skill levels (if you want to play let me know: I’ll gladly help you find a team or a regular pickup group). This month, Lancaster hosted the Soccerfest, a national tournament with women’s divisions ranging from over-30 to over-70 (!); teams travel from as far as Texas and Hawaii.  I am as excited to play with my over-40 team of local moms as I have been about any soccer game.  Recently I was playing in a pickup game in Lexington, mostly with women of a certain age.  My teammate had the ball on the sideline, and I ran (some might say lumbered) toward her, calling for the ball.  But I had an intuition that another teammate, Jeri, would sprint into the space I left vacant.  I let the ball pass between my legs and Jeri was there, unmarked; she hammered the ball into the goal.  It made our day.  My daughter now often plays pickup with us precisely because of this joy and camaraderie, which often seems absent from competitive youth club games.  

A few years ago, the Belmont Soccer Association started an in-town small-sided coed league for fifth through eighth graders. Affectionately called the “Rogue League,” it’s an organized version of the coed, multi-age, wide-range-of-skill-level pickup games that my brother and I grew up playing at our local park alongside club soccer. My daughter played in the Rogue League this spring and loved it. I highly recommend it.  

Like many others, I am willing to part with shocking amounts of time and money to support my daughter’s desire to become a better player.  But what I ultimately want for her has nothing to do with playing at an elite level.  I want her playing pickup in 20 years, savvy enough to make that run that Jeri made—and to feel that same “explosion of joy” that Rapinoe and all the rest of us feel when you play the Beautiful Game right.

Adriaan Lanni lives on Watson Road.