With Concerns Heightened, Belmont School Committee Will Host Community Safety Forum Tuesday, May 31

Photo: The Belmont School Committee will host a virtual community safety forum on Tuesday, May 31

After a pair of alarming incidents directed at and in Belmont schools and the recent mass murder of students and teachers at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, the Belmont School Committee will host a virtual community safety forum on Tuesday, May 31, at 6:30 p.m., according to an email from Belmont Superintendent John Phelan.

  • To join the Zoom video meeting, click this link:https://us02web.zoom.us/j/83217919060 Webinar ID: 832 1791 9060
  • To join by telephone:Call: (929) 205-6099 and enter this PIN: 83217919060# To ask a question or raise your hand, enter *9 on your phone.
  • The meeting will be cablecast live on channel 8 (Comcast) and channel 28 and 2130 (Verizon) and online at belmontmedia.org/govtv

The meeting comes after a bomb threat on May 11 was directed at Belmont High School and “concerning” social media messages accompanied photos of the interior of the Chenery Middle School has raised tensions among residents and parents of school-age students.

The meeting, which will be attended by Belmont Police Chief James MacIsaac, Fire Chief David Destefano and Facilities Director David Blazon, will be an opportunity for public safety and town officials “to update on our protocols and to listen to concerns and feedback,” said Phelan.

“As most of our students have exposure to technology, news media, and social media, many of them have likely heard about the tragedy in Uvalde,” said Phelan.

“This topic will no doubt be top-of-mind among families throughout the nation for days to come. Our staff and counselors are available for students in school as needed. Please reach out to one of your child’s teachers, counselor, or principal if you feel your child needs specific support in processing this incident.”

Belmont Schools ‘Strongly Recommend’ Masks for Students, Visitors For Indoor Activities

Photo: Masks are being strongly recommended when visiting or attending Belmont Public Schools

With increasing positive cases of Covid-19 within Belmont schools and after the CDC declared Middlesex county’s community level of Covid cases to be “high”, the Belmont School District is following the lead of the town’s Health Department to ”strongly recommend” everyone wear a mask regardless of vaccination status when indoors at the district’s six public schools.

“We ask for your continued support in this effort, particularly at times like this when we experience increasing cases,” said Belmont Superintendent John Phelan in an email released on Monday, May 24.

While many mandated mitigations have been lifted and as COVID cases continue to rise, Phelan said parents and students should consider the following recommendations as an added layer of protection:

  • Consider having students wear a mask while in school. “We are not mandating but strongly recommend this added layer of protection,” said Phelan.
  • Wear a mask if any symptoms are present, even if antigen tests remain negative.
  • Wear a mask for 10 days if you have been exposed to someone with COVID-19  regardless of your vaccination status. This includes cases within the home. (Per CDC guidance.)
  • Parents, guardians, and family members are strongly encouraged to wear a mask when visiting Belmont public schools. Masks will be made available at all schools.

“With the end of school comes important milestones for many students, whether it is graduation, a moving up ceremony, classroom showcase, performing arts program, or school event; please help us hold these special events without disruption and as safely as possible,” said Phelan.

As Covid Cases Surge, Belmont Schools Asking Students To Consider Going Back To Masks

Photo: Belmont schools are suggesting students consider wearing masks as Covid cases surge

The Belmont school district is suggesting students consider going back to wearing masks as the number of positive Covid-19 cases in the schools, town and county have spiked in the past two months.

“We are not mandating but simply recommending this added layer of protection,” said Belmont Superintendent John Phelan in an email to the school community dated Monday, May 9.

Phelan said that since the April break, the district has ”seen an increase in cases and this is most likely due to the contagiousness of the Omicron variant, as well as, increased social gatherings and travel.”

The surge of local cases has resulted in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to raise the Covid-19 Community Level for all of Middlesex County to the “high” level on May 5.

In Belmont, the number of new weekly positive cases in schools reached 93 as of May 4, a significant increase from previous weeks, shadowing the jump in the general population as the state reported 165 positive cases in the past two weeks. Using the Average Daily Incidence Per 100,000 people, 14 day period measurement, Belmont has gone from a low of 6.8 incidences on March 4 to 43 on May 4.

“We continue to work closely with the Belmont Health Department to monitor cases and keep our students and staff safer. We ask for your continued support in this effort, particularly at times like this when we experience increasing cases,” said Phelan.

Noting that many of the past mitigation measures Belmont and its schools had implemented since March 2020 have been lifted – the town’s mask requirement was ended in the first week of March 2022 – Phelan asked parents and students ”consider” mask wearing as an extra layers of protection and when symptoms are present and antigen tests remain negative.

Belmont’s Last Day Of School Falls On The First Full Day Of Summer

Photo: Last day of school for fourth graders at the Wellington Elementary School

How can it be any more appropriate that the final day of school in Belmont falls on the first full day of summer?

After using two of the five “snow” days built into the 2021-2 calendar, the Belmont School Department determined the district will reach the 180 days of learning required by the state on Wednesday, June 22.

The date was approved unanimously by the School Committee with the hope there will no plowable snow events after April 12 and families can begin making plans for trips, camps and vacations.

Despite Gov. Baker Ending State Mask Mandate Feb. 28, Belmont Schools Will Wait Until School Committee Decision March 8

Photo: Belmont School Committee will likely vote on the future of the mask mandate on March 8

The Belmont School District will keep its mask mandate in effect until at least Tuesday, March 8 despite Gov. Charlie Baker’s recent announcement calling for the lifting of the state’s school mask requirement on Monday, Feb. 28.

Belmont Schools Superintendent John Phelan said in a press release the district will wait for both the Belmont Board of Health and the School Committee to discuss and then possibly vote on the future of its mask mandate on Monday, March 7 and Tuesday, March 8 respectively.

At its Monday, Feb. 7 meeting, the Health Board said it would be revisiting the issue at its next meeting on March 7 when it will review the latest state and county data on Covid-19 infection and hospitalization rates with the goal of possibly lifting the town-wide mandate which includes the six Belmont public schools.

Two days later, on Wednesday, Feb. 9, Baker and the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education announced the end of the state mask mandate, at which time, “masking policies will revert to local control.”

“In response to this updated information and given the Board of Health’s schedule, the School Committee plans to discuss this matter at their March 8, 2022 meeting,” said Phelan.

A New York Times article, “Why Liberal Suburbs Face a New Round of School Mask Battles” dated Feb. 10 points to the competing camps and difficult decision the Health Board and School Committee will face on the future of masks in Belmont schools.

Maskless in March? Belmont Health Board Moving Towards Recommending Lifting Town, Schools Mask Mandate Next Month

Photo: This sign could be obsolete in March.

With nationwide positive rates of Covid-19 infection are falling as quickly as they skyrocketed two months ago, the Belmont Board of Health declared it will take a vote on lifting the town-wide and school mask mandate in the next month.

“That’s our intent,” Board of Health Chair Donna David said affirming the board’s decision. “We see masking coming to our March meeting” after the board appeared ready to change how it will determine the green light for ending the mandate.

When David asked the town’s Health Department Director Wesley Chin if he will provide a heads up to Belmont Superintendent John Phelan to prepare for a possible lifting of the school mandate put in place when students came back to class in March 2021, an unknown resident who had not muted themselves after speaking earlier, spouted out “Yes! Yes!”

The Board of Health has sole responsibility on imposing and ending mask mandates in public schools; the Select Board will take the Health Board’s recommendation into consideration whether to move on cancelling the mandate for businesses, town buildings and other public locations.

Starting the portion of the meeting, David proclaimed “Let’s talk about masks, Wesley” who said his office has been receiving “a number of calls” on the subject.

The Health Board’s “update” comes as states and municipalities across the country have suddenly begun dismantling mandates and other preventive measures.

Health Agent Lindsey Sharp told the board the latest Covid infection data is showing “a definite down swing” in the past month as the number of positive cases has fallen from more than 200 a week two months ago to 156 last week and 86 for the current seven days while 80 percent of those infected have been vaccinated.

But while saying the “numbers are better, we’re not there yet,” said Chin, stating he would not recommend voting Monday to take down the mask mandate as February vacation week is about to occur and Chin wanted to see the numbers of infections. He also noted that there has not been a vaccine approved for the youngest residents under the age of five.

The meeting witnessed a coordinated group of residents whose mission was to press the point that requiring masks indoors in buildings and the six town schools had passed its expiration date. Pat Whittemore, who said his opinions on masks “are very well known” claimed children with positive cases are not likely to be hospitalized when infected with Covid. He advocated “a nice middle step” of making mask wearing voluntary in schools.

John Link said mask wearing is not effective for children as “kids have zero chance to die” when they catch the coronavirus. He also said mask wearing by children can potentially lose 10 points from their IQ. Rather than an “onerous regime of wearing masks,” he also believes masks should be up to the discretion of the parents. In the same vein, David McLaughlin said there is a greater danger for children to be masked than being stricken by the Covid Omnicron variant. (Board member Adrienne Allen noted approximately 800 pediatric deaths in the US have been caused by Covid “so it’s not trivial.”)

Other residents was concerned about the town mandating vaccine passports (the Health Board and Select Board have not considered a vote on these regulations currently used in Boston) while other pointed to the high rate of student vaccination – in the higher grades up to 90 percent – as being enough to deter Covid’s debilitation effects.

Some residents wanted to take a slower approach on ending the mask mandate. “Thank you for following the science,” said Marina Atlas who felt really confident by the board’s appropriate use of data that show that masks work on Covid and other air pollutants.

It soon became clear that the board would not take action at its meeting but “we should consider another few weeks” after the February break to review the Covid data in Middlesex country.

“But [mandates are] not going on forever,” said David, who suggested taking a vote at the board’s next meeting in a month’s time.

“I agree this is not forever, as long as [the data] improves,” said Allen. Member Julie Lemay suggested the board change the data rubric for ending the mandate from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention rates and rely on one which uses number of hospitalizations to cases as a possible standard.

”I like that,” said David.

Belmont Schools, Library Closed Friday Due To Winter Storm, Hazardous Roads

Photo: Hazardous weather closed schools Friday

While it’s not a snow day, Belmont public school students will be sleeping in Friday as school has been cancelled due to bad winter weather.

“Due to the storm and the projected flash freezing of roads, Belmont Public Schools are closed on Friday, February 4, 2022,” reported John Phelan, superintendent of schools on Thursday.

The Belmont Public Library will also be closed on Friday.

The National Weather Service issued a Winter Weather Advisory in effect from 4 a.m. on Feb. 4, until 7 p.m. for eastern Massachusetts. The forecast calls for rain changing to freezing rain and sleet between 4 a.m. to 8 a.m. impacting the morning commute as roads become hazardous as surfaces will be impacted by flash freeze as temperatures drop into the 20s by late Friday morning.

COVID Vaccine/Booster Clinic For Belmont Students 12+, Staff On Jan. 31 At Chenery

Photo: Vaccine/booster shots will be provided to public school students and staff on Jan. 31. (Credit: Wikimedia)

The Belmont Public Schools, working with VaxinateRx and Healthcare Family Pharmacy, is offering the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine/booster shot to eligible students ages 12 and older at the Chenery Middle School on Monday, Jan. 31 from 8 a.m. to noon in the school’s Large Community Room.

Students are welcome to register to receive their first, second, or booster dose at this clinic.

IMPORTANT THINGS TO KNOW

VaccinateRx staff request all signed consent forms to be submitted to the school nurse by Noon Friday, Jan. 28. A Parent or Guardian signature is required for any students under the age of 18. 

Parent/guardian does not need to be present as long as the child has a signed consent form

Remember to bring your vaccination card from the previous vaccination(s) and submit a signed consent form to the school nurse.

  • Students who received their first dose of the Pfizer series at another location are welcome to register to receive their second dose at this clinic as long as it has been at least three weeks since their first dose.
  • If you are 12-17, and received the Pfizer vaccine, you can get a Pfizer booster dose six months after your second dose.
  • If you are 18+, and received the Moderna or Pfizer vaccine, you can get a booster dose six months after your second dose. *Booster shots can be any of the approved COVID-19 vaccines for those 18+, regardless of your original dose. The Pfizer vaccine will be provided at this clinic.
  • If you are 18+, and received the Johnson and Johnson vaccine, you can get a booster dose two months after your original dose.

If you experience any issues with the registration process, please email info@VaxinateRx.com to resolve any issues.

All students will be vaccinated free of charge regardless of insurance coverage. If insured, please enter insurance information in the online registration. Once registered online there is no need to bring an insurance card to the clinic. 

Phelan: District At ‘Breaking Point’ As Covid Cases Skyrocket In Belmont Schools

Photo: Belmont Superintendent John Phelan

A snow day this past Friday couldn’t have come at a more opportune time for the Belmont District Schools.

As the Omicron variant of the Covid coronavirus sweeps through Belmont schools after students returned from the winter recess, absentees among educators and staff has placed the district close to a breaking point whether there’s enough teachers in each building.

The numbers say it all.

In the final week of 2021, 16 Belmont students, educators and staff reported being infected with a new case of COVID-19. A week later, on Jan. 5, that tally exploded to 228 novel positive cases across the district’s six schools.

New Covid positive cases
(students, staff, teachers)
Week endingnumber
01/05/2022228
12/29/202116
12/08/20214
11/17/20216

“The impact of the staff attendance and staffing levels is a real concern of the district,” Belmont Schools Superintendent John Phelan told the School Committee on Tuesday, Jan. 4 as 72 and 73 staff members were out on Monday and Tuesday respectively. And while praising substitute teachers and district employees for stepping up and filling in, Phelan told the committee the current patchwork approach for cover classrooms “is not sustainable.”

On Monday, Jan. 3, a staggering 605 district students (out of a total of approximately 4,600) were not in class while Tuesday showed an improvement where 473 were out due to Covid, traveling and those waiting for results of Covid tests. The usual number out on an average week is about 275. This is occurring in a system that has impressive numbers of vaccinated students. (See chart below)

“We believe that that we haven’t seen the worst of this phase of the virus at this point in time,” said Phelan, with the next weeks seeing staff and families make some “truly hard choices” related to going to school. Friday’s snow storm was a blessing for many teachers and family as it provided an extra day away from the classroom and added a day towards a quarantine total.

Phelan and his leadership team calculated teacher attendance would hover just below 90 percent which posed significant challenges requiring the district to set up a educational “triage” system to allow school to open on the first Monday of the new year.

On Sunday, teachers and staff came to Belmont to receive take home tests while on Monday the start of schools were delayed by one hour so teachers could receive KN95 masks, “ensure that we had time for our educators to get together, our principals with teachers and other administrators to support the setting up of the school day.”

Staff, central office personnel and other non-educators were redeployed and placed in classrooms to support teachers. The district also doubled its rate for substitute teachers while proactively recruiting to ensure it has sufficient numbers to place before students arrived on Monday

But even with adults in the classroom, Phelan said certain aspects of the school day have been lost such as small group instruction and parts of the traditional school day schedule that teachers can best perform effectively.

The challenge of lunch

Phelan also pointed to student lunch time as “one of the largest challenges moving forward.” With the large tents at the elementary and Chenery schools allowing for an outside option taken down for the winter, Phelan said he is attempting to balance Covid safety with feeding students. That will require keeping masked in the cafeteria, assigned seating, shortening lunch times by sending students to recess early, keep talking to a minimum and keeping their distance.

Sports and extracurriculars will soon see restrictions on the number of who can attend contests, restrictions on using locker rooms and a greater emphasize on proper mask wearing during play. This comes after a growing number of student/athletes and at least two sporting events were cancelled due to Covid outbreaks.

Phelan has been in discussion with his fellow area superintendents on possible changes to the schedule or length of the school day for elementary, middle and high schools as a way of keeping them safe from spread while providing adequate education.

“We want to keep our options open,” Phelan told the committee. Moving forward, the district will be keeping an eagle eye on in-school transmission rates, new positive cases in the community and keep appropriate staffing levels to allow schooling to take place.

While more parents and guardians are calling for the district and committee to consider the role of remote learning during this surge, Belmont – along with school districts statewide – finds itself between a rock and a hard place. Districts are prohibited by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to return to full-time remote learning. And while DESE has established a protocol for when a school or entire district can seek permission to re-impose virtual learning, it has been done only in “a very few cases,” in the past months, said Phelan.

“{DESE) is keeping a very tight rein on [granting waivers],” he said.

Please Remember

When asked by the Belmontonian if the district has set a benchmark of when it would be prudent to close schools due to staff shortages, Phelan said there was no set percentage.

“We will assess our staffing levels daily to determine our coverage models. This looks different at each level. We need to assure that all students are engaged and properly supervised,” he said.

If a school or district simply must close due to staffing shortages, Phelan said DESE has informed districts they will need to use a “snow day” with the requirement it is made up at the end of the school year.

The district’s actions this week are at best a stop gap until the pandemic peters out which health experts said will not happen soon enough. All this is being played out as the district is facing ever “shifting guidance” from state and federal agencies on Covid safety.

Phelan told the committee the recommendations from the CDC and DPH are, at best, “inconsistent” such as the CDC requiring 10 days out of class and DESE five; no requirement for testing to return that many parents and school administrators find and DESE and CDC not on the same page on contract tracing (Belmont has abandoned it due to staffing issues).

The district will also step up its promote parents to sign up their students for pool testing, which “is more important now than ever for us to get a very clear picture through pool testing mechanism … for this upcoming year,” said Phelan.

While it has a plan in place to continue in-school education, Phelan said the new reality of variants and their impact will remain with the district when this current surge subsides.

“This is only one step in a long journey,” said Phelan.

Snow Day: Belmont Schools Closing On Friday Due To Pending Winter Storm

Photo: Snow day in Belmont

Belmont School Superintendent John Phelan’s Thursday afternoon announcement was short and concise:

Due to the storm, Belmont Public Schools will be closed on Friday, January 7, 2022.

The storm is also moving the scheduled Boys’ and Girls’ away varsity basketball games up a day to Saturday, Jan. 8 vs. Woburn.