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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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