As District Works Towards Full-Time In-School For K-4; Phelan Commits To ‘Fully In-Person Start’ Of ’21 School Year

Photo: The Belmont School District is working to bring K-4 students back to full-time in-the-classroom instruction by April

Belmont Schools Superintendent John Phelan reiterated his stance from last week that the district is actively working to derive a program to safely send elementary school students back to the classroom full time in April, according to a press release dated Thursday, March 4.

Rather than add in-person hours to the existing hybrid plan for those attending Belmont’s four elementary schools, “we are now developing a plan for a full, in-person option for K-4 students,” said Phelan.

Phelan also used the release to acknowledge the strain the pandemic has had on residents and students for the past year and his personal pledge to “a strong fully in-person start of the school year in September 2021.”

“I am committed to finishing this school year better than we started. I am committed to returning students back to school as safely and quickly as possible starting with our youngest learners at the elementary schools,” he said. “I will be working tirelessly, along with the entire Belmont Public School community, to deliver on these commitments.”

As he stated in his release of Feb. 26, Phelan said the district has shifted its focus following the announcement by Department of Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner Jeff Riley who said on Feb. 23 that he will ask state permission to yank the hybrid option for the state’s youngest students.

In response, the district’s Return to In-Person Learning Working Group – the nearly 30 member group created last month to manage the transition to full-time in-school learning – had shifted its focus to now “building recommendations in subgroups which focused on physical distancing and classroom capacity, lunch and snack, specials and specialized instruction, remote-only options, and transportation,” said Phelan.

Monday, March 8: Working Group meeting and possible recommendations
Tuesday, March 9: Recommendations presented to at School Committee Meeting
Thursday, March 11: Q&A session with school administrators
Friday, March 12: Survey to all K-4 parents asking for remote/in-person choice
Wednesday, March 17: Survey due by 5 p.m.

And as Phelan promised when the group was formed, the working group has begun making “rolling recommendations” to the district on meeting his new goal. After its meeting on Monday, March 1, Phelan along with school principals and central office staff have begun reviewing emerging recommendations focusing on creating guidelines for social distancing in classrooms and non-learning spaces in the four elementary schools.

One of the leading constraints identified last summer hampering a return to full-time in-school learning throughout the district has been the lack of physical learning space required for 100 percent student participation with a required six-foot separation between students.

In addition to social distancing, the working group has also focused on addressing concerns related to the remote-only experience for those students and families that select to remain remote for the rest of the year, and taking stock of current PPE equipment, and make any recommendations so the schools are ready for a return to increased in-person learning.

The Working Group will meet again on Monday, March 8, and could issue recommendations at that time. If there are proposals from the Group, they will be made public at the School Committee the next day, March 9.

In an attempt to have families fully briefed on each learning option – in-person or remote – Phelan said the district will hold a Q&A session with school administrators on Thursday, March 11 at 6:30 p.m. 

The district will send a survey to parents on Friday, March 12, on whether they would like to choose the remote or in-person option for their child.  The survey will be due Wednesday, March 17 and this selection will be binding for the remainder of the school year.

After the Working Group has completed its K-4 recommendations, it will then move into discussions of how to increase in-person learning at the middle and high schools. Initially, the Working Group will start with grade 5 by leveraging their recommendations from the K-4 given the self-contained grade 5 model which is more similar to our elementary schools.

On a personal note, Phelan said he was well aware of the considerable hardship the school community – students, staff, parents – has taken on since the pandemic halted in-school learning in March 2020.

“I want to recognize that this has been a difficult year for students, as well as for parents and families. It has also been the most significant challenge our educators have ever faced. There are no easy answers as we battle COVID-19,” said Phelan.

“I appreciate and acknowledge that change can be disruptive and that these plans will be met with happiness by some and concern by others. I look forward to working together to deliver on three big commitments: finish the year better than we started; return more students to in-person learning this spring, and focus on a full in-person start to the year in the fall.”

“I … want to thank the families of Belmont for the grace they have shown–and continue to show–as we work through this devastating public health crisis,” said Phelan.

Final Day a Crowded One As Residents ‘Test Drive’ Underwood Pool

Photo: Lifeguard Elizabeth Levy, 17, watching over the wadding pool at the Underwood Pool on Labor Day, Sept, 7, 2015.

A line of nearly 20 people – young, old, families and singles – lined up outside the entry of the new Underwood Pool complex at around 5 p.m. on a hot and hazy Labor Day, Monday, Sept. 7.


The reason for the delay getting inside the one-month-old facility? Simple popularity. The weather and knowing it would be the last day residents would be able to use the $5.3 million double pool for nearly 10 months brought the crowds out to at least “test drive” the structure that replaced the former 102 year old outdoor “pond” once before it goes into hibernation. 

One lifeguard at the entrance said more than 1,000 people had come during the Monday holiday, causing the pool to be temporarily closed due to the sheer numbers enjoying the amenity. 

“This is great. We need to build another one,” said Adriana Poole of Belmont, as she made her way up and back in one of the lanes in the deep end of the pool. 


Another resident said he came “just to see what I paid for,” referring to the $2.9 million debt exclusion approved by Belmont voters in 2014.

The verdict: “Very nice, although I’d like it more if it was open tomorrow,” he said, noting Tuesday’s highs would top 90 degrees.


Excellent Educators: Inaugural Set of Belmont’s Outstanding Teachers Honored

Photo: The Foundation for Belmont Education’s “Outstanding Teachers of the Year Awards” (from left) Belmont Superintendent John Phelan, Suzanne Lijek, Audrey Ruddock, Steven Tenhor, Danielle Pandolfo, Ben Ligon, Katharine Caritey and Foundation for Belmont Education President Jamie Shea. 

The six teachers representing each of Belmont’s public schools are different in age and experience, what and who they instruct, and how they arrived at their careers in education. 

The one thing Katharine Caritey, Audrey Ruddock, Steven Tenhor, Danielle Pandolfo, Ben Ligon and Suzanne Lijek do have in common now is being honored as Belmont’s most exceptional educators.

On Thursday night, April 30, at Chenery Middle School, the sextet was recognized by the community at the Foundation for Belmont Education‘s inaugural “Outstanding Teachers of the Year Awards.” 

“It’s so great to shine a nice positive spotlight on teachers,” said Belmont School Superintendent John Phelan, whose experience with a similar awards ceremony in Milton where he was the assistant superintendent sparked the Foundation to start its celebration. 

“When I heard that … I said this is something that we have to do,” said Jamie Shea, president of the Foundation.

Nominated by students, parents and community members, the teachers were recognized for the extraordinary contributions they make every day to their students and the greater community.

“The mediocre teacher tells, the good teacher explains, the superior teacher demonstrates but the great teacher inspires. And I think what we are going to see tonight is teachers that are truly inspiring,” said Hal Tovin, executive vice president and chief operating officer of Belmont Savings Bank, the night’s sponsor which has given more than $40,000 to the FBE. 

With their families, town officials, colleagues and a smattering of the boisterous students they teach, each of the honorees spoke about being a teacher.

Katharine Caritey, Burbank Elementary, Grade 2

Katharine Caritey, Burbank Elementary, Grade 2

“I love being a second grade teachers because of my students, their families and my colleagues,” said Caritey, whose second-grade class from the Burbank Elementary – where she is known for her “unparalleled ability to deeply understand personal styles, personalities and needs … of every single one of her 23 children” – came en masse to cheer for her.

Audrey Ruddock, Butler Elementary, Kindergarten

Audrey Ruddock, Butler Elementary, Kindergarten

“People always asked me why I wanted to be a teacher and teach kindergarten and the only thing I always say is ‘Because I love it,'” said Ruddock, who not only teaches at Butler Elementary, but attended the school as did her three sons.

Steven Tenhor, Wellington Elementary, Grade 4

Steven Tenhor, Wellington Elementary, Grade 4

Called “engaging, understanding, effective and caring,” Wellington School’s fourth grade teacher Tenhor wanted to thank especially “my kids, because you guys are the reason I get up in the morning every day … and makes everything possible.”

Danielle Pandolfo, Winn Brook Elementary, Grade 3

Danielle Pandolfo, Winn Brook Elementary, Grade 3

“When I asked my students at morning meeting what to say tonight, one student said, ‘When in doubt, practice, prepare and then perform’,” said Pandolfo, who teaches third grade at the Winn Brook. She particularly thanked her teaching colleagues, “each one who could be up here” who “pushed me to become a better teacher … I would like to share this award with them, my friends who became family.” 

Ben Ligon, Chenery Middle School, Grade 6 (Math)

Ben Ligon, Chenery Middle School, Grade 6 (Math)

Ligon actually named the 12 fellow educators he worked with since coming to the Chenery 15 years ago to teach 6th-grade math after discovering how much he wanted to teach by speaking at a Career Day event. He said he loved the school community so much, “I married you,” referring to meeting his wife who was then a colleague. “How many people can say they met their spouse in sixth grade, raise your hand?”

Growing up, he said he never wanted to be a teacher seeing his parents, live long educators, always working and caring about students. “Any talent I have in the classroom was nurtured by them,” he said to his mother and father, who wore an “I’m Ben’s Dad” button. 

Suzanne Lijek, Belmont High School, Science (Biology)

Suzanne Lijek, Belmont High School, Science (Biology)

Belmont High School Biology teacher Lijek was in several other careers before noticing how much she loved creating “Science Camps” over the summer vacation for her two daughters and their friends.

The very first teacher to be awarded an “Outstanding Teacher” honor, Lijek said she “wished everyone could do this in their lives, finding a career that really makes you happy, and … share what you love with someone else.”

Belmont Schools Scheduled to Finish June 23, IF No More Snow Days

If – and that’s a big “if” – today, Tuesday, Feb. 10, turns out to be the final snow day for Belmont public school students this school year, the district is scheduled to close shop “on schedule” on Tuesday, June 23, according to Belmont’s school superintendent.

After declaring five “snow” days due to the two weeks of record snow fall, the reason the schools will not be closing with the Fourth of July fireworks in the background is that the school district “pockets” five days into each school year’s calendar for school closures, said Belmont Superintendent John Phelan.

“The district works backwards from the pending final day to determine the actual final day of school,” said Phelan.
“Right now, we are not adding any days,” said Phelan.

The final day, two days into summer, is the latest Belmont schools will close in several years. The last day in 2014 was Friday, June 20.

While parents and students will not have to make changes to summer plans, the most immediate effect of five snow days in the past fortnight “disrupts the rhythm of teaching,” said Phelan.

“It’s problematic for teachers and students to be removed from a planned schedule,” said Phelan, noting that teachers map out an educational program that leads to the February break then “smoothly transitions into seven to eight weeks of teaching until the April recess.”

And if additional snow days are destined for Belmont, don’t expect to see either the state’s school commissioner or the district stray from the 180 days of school required under state law.

Mitchell Chester, the state’s Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education, stated in a memo to school officials statewide that, “[s]chool districts may decide to cancel or shorten the April vacation period, convert scheduled professional development days into school days for students, hold school on Saturday, keep school open on Good Friday, or add days later in June beyond the originally scheduled last day of school.”

“We will have 180 days of school in Belmont,” said Phelan.