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.

Hybrid Learning Returns To Belmont Grades K-8 On Monday; HS Enters Hybrid Thursday, Dec. 10

Photo: A hybrid schedule at Belmont schools

It’s hybrid week at the Belmont Public Schools as the entire student population will be either returning to or begin for the first time hybrid in-person learning schedules.

In an email to the community from John Phelan, superintendent for Belmont schools, grades K-8 will resume their hybrid schedule on Monday, Dec. 7, while “we are happy to report Belmont High School students, grades 9 to 12 will start -person hybrid on Thursday, Dec. 10.”

The schedule for the Belmont High School hybrid schedule can be found here.

Phelan noted that principals from each of the six public schools will have sent out a communication to parents of children with more details on returning to the classroom.

“We appreciate the patience of our students, parents, faculty, and staff in pivoting to remote learning after the Thanksgiving holiday weekend,” said Phelan.

“We feel these proactive measures help keep the school community safe and give us a chance to assess and ‘reset’ the buildings for a healthy return to hybrid in-person learning,” he said.

Phelan said the district’s goal is to proactively and strategically pivot the instructional model for elementary, middle, and high schools when needed during the current pandemic environment while trying to limit disruptions to teaching and learning.

Belmont School’s Remote Learning To Begin This Week, Lasting Until May 4

Photo: A photo of Belmont Superintendent John Phelan via the internet.

Assignments, reading and a “regular” school day.

Those are the highlights of the new way of education as Belmont School District begins this week “Phase 2 Remote Learning” for the nearly 5,000 students enrolled in the town’s public schools.

The change to learning through the internet and email, which will run until May 4, is another way the COVID-19 novel coronavirus has fundamentally altered the norm.

In an email dated March 30 to the community, John Phelan, Belmont district superintendent, provided a timeline for the next month detailing the approach Phelan and the district leadership team, made up of principals, teachers and directors, are taking in creating an off-campus curriculum for K-12 following the guidelines from the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

The “Phase 2” will emphasize “reinforcing skills, curriculum advancement, and new and meaningful learning opportunities [in] remote learning,” wrote Phelan.

The timeline for Phase 2 is:

  • On Tuesday, March 31, Belmont’s six school principals will hold faculty meetings to outline the framework of Phase 2 Remote Learning.
  • Those specific details will be emailed by the principals to families on Tuesday, March 31 following the faculty meetings.
  • Principals will set times for staff to access their school and classrooms to gather needed materials during the remainder of the week.
  • Educators will spend time working to review, plan, and prepare for this work with the goal of contacting students and families starting this week and no later than Monday, April 6.
  • The enrichment and re-teaching work “Phase 1” provided students and families for this week should remain in place unless your students/teacher(s) are prepared to move forward with the Phase 2 plan.

The timeline for Phase 2 will be in effect at least until May 4.

Unlike Phase 1 which was student-led reteaching and enrichment of what was learned during the school year, Phase 2 will be teacher-directed with pupils will be expected to spend at least three hours a day working on the reinforcing skills and new and meaningful remote learning opportunities.

Under Phase 2, students in 5th to 12th grade will:

  • Complete and submit work within a set deadline.
  • Open and address daily morning emails from educators.
  • Read for an hour a day.

Younger students, from K-4, will:

  • Engage in daily activities that their families will receive daily via email.
  • Read for a half-hour a day.

Teachers will be tasked with doing what they have been previously, just doing it through the internet. Those tasks include being an instructor and facilitator, collecting and grading assignments, creating resources for students, and even hold “office hours” to allow for a more personal “human touch.”

For more about Phase 2, head to the Belmont Public School link.

Phelan also apologized for the delay in communicating how the remote learning process was being developed and implemented.

“I take responsibility for the role of communicating the hard work we have engaged in over the last week, in order to provide a more direct form of Remote Learning in Belmont,” he said.

Moving forward, Phelan said the district is meeting the challenge the community is facing.

“The community of Belmont has always been a great supporter of public schools. This support has always been valued and appreciated by the faculty and staff in Belmont. Please know that your teachers, directors, and principals have been working hard and will continue to do so on behalf of their students,” said Phelan.

Dogs And Mini Horses – But Not Pets – OK’d As Support Animals In Belmont Schools

Photo:

In Sarah Hale’s nursery rhyme, Mary’s lamb followed her to school one day and “[t]hat was against the rule.”

While that remains the case for lambs, snakes, rodents, llamas and most other mammals and reptiles, Belmont students can now bring dogs or miniature horses to class after the Belmont School Committee approved policy allowing “service animals” to assist pupils inside the town’s six school buildings.

According to School Superintendent John Phelan, the policy was driven by a request from a student and their parents, the first time anyone has sought to use a service animal in Belmont schools.

Following existing guidelines in use at nearby towns and state and federal law, the committee’s policy subcommittee created very specific wording on what constitutes a service animal, so the family pet is unlikely to make the grade. “A service animal performs some of the functions and tasks that individuals with disabilities cannot perform themselves,” reads the new policy. Under the new rules, these animals will need to certified and trained to handle their duties.

Examples include guiding the blind, alerting the deaf, pulling a wheelchair, assisting those who hav’e seizures and alerting a diabetics who experiencing the effects of low blood sugar.

If the animal’s task is not readily apparent, such as those that provide emotional and anxiety assistance, the parents of the student will be required to answer a pair of questions: 1). Is the animal required because of the student’s disability, and 2). What work and task has the animal been trained to do for the student with the disability.

The role of animals as emotional support services has come under fire this week as the US Department of Transportation is ready to permit airlines to stop accepting those animals on planes, only allowing service dogs. Airlines have argued that many passengers are using the currently loose rules to claim household pets are service animals which allows them to ride for free.

The school district is requiring that all animals comply with rules and standards:

  • the animal must be harnessed, leashed or tethered unless those interfere with do its job.
  • the district doesn’t assume or take custody of any part of the animal’s care – it won’t feed it on school grounds.
  • And it must be housebroken for obvious reasons.

The mini horses will have their own regulations including if the equine is too big or heavy for the building and if it ”compromises the legitimate safety requirements” necessary for the safe operation of certain schools. In addition, if the horse causes others to have an allergic reaction, the animal will be located in a specific area of the building.

As for other animals, future requests for an emotional support peacock (United refused the bird from flying in the cabin) or pot-belly pig (Websites exist to do just that), Phelan said each request would be handled individually and only if they are accepted, will the school’s policies be altered.

Winn Brook’s Carey Stepping Down As Principal, Search For Next Leader Underway

Photo: Winn Brook Principal Janet Carey

Janet Carey, Belmont’s longest tenured principal, has announced that she is stepping down from leading the educators at the Winn Brook Elementary School at the end of the 2020 school year.

“Filled with mixed emotions, I am writing to let you know that this will be my final year as principal of the Winn Brook School,” Carey wrote in a letter to parents and students.

“Almost eighteen years ago, I came to Belmont as a novice principal. I have cherished my time here and have grown as a result of it. The journey has been challenging yet fulfilling, exhilarating yet exhausting, and constantly changing while unwavering guided by our core values. If I can credit myself with anything, it is hiring well and keeping children central to all decision making,” she said.

While it may seem early to make this announcement, Carey said principal searches typically start in January.

“As I said to [Belmont] Superintendent [John] Phelan, my priority is to give you time to find the right person to lead your school community, the privilege that I’ve so enjoyed.”

Speaking after Tuesday night’s School Committee meeting, Dec. 10, Phelan said Carey put off her retirement for a year as the district welcomed three new principals in the ’19-’20 school year.

“She’s truly a dedicated educator who was really excited to stay one more year with us.” said Phelan.

Search For Next Principal Now Underway

The district posted the Winn Brook job this past Friday, Dec. 6, as Phelan has reached out to the PTO and the Belmont Education Association asking for volunteers to serve on a search committee made up of two parents, two teachers and several administrators.

Phelan hopes to begin the process in mid-January then “whittle the applicants” from about 20 who make the first cut to four or five who will meet with parents, students, educators and administrators. That group will be cut to two finalists who will be interviewed twice by Phelan and Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction Janice Darias who will then make an offer to the one they feel will be the best fit for the position.

Phelan said he’d like to hire internal candidates “because we know who they are and their character, their work ethic and we have them as part of our family. In turn, they know our culture and all that adds a value to hiring for leadership positions.”

But unlike the recent search for the next Belmont Police Chief which focused on in-house applicants, “we are not just looking internally or just externally,” said Phelan, who was on the chief’s screening committee.

“We let the process take itself through and find out who the best candidate is and move from there,” he noted, pointing to Chenery Middle School Principal Mike McAllister as an internal applicant who beat out a large pool of outside contenders and Heidi Paisner-Roffman, the Wellington’s new principal who was an external candidate from Wayland who “knocked our socks off.”

“If you’re an internal candidate, you might have a slight edge but you’ve got to prove yourself,” said Phelan.

First Day Of School Goes To Plan As Key Construction At High School Site Nears Midpoint

Photo: A third of the piles have been installed in phase one of the Belmont Middle and High School project.

It was a long Wednesday, Sept. 4 for Belmont Superintendent John Phelan.

After a busy Tuesday welcoming teachers and staff back to the district after the summer recess, Phelan’s Wednesday began bright and early at Belmont High School where he joined staff and Belmont Police in a new role, as traffic monitors to assist students and parents with the first new parking and drop off scheme since the school opened 49 years ago in 1970.

With the access road which once allowed parents to drop off students at the high school’s main entrance before exiting onto Concord Avenue now a fading memory, cars, SUVs and minivans clogged Underwood Street before doubling back onto Hittinger Street and out through the Trowbridge neighborhood due to the large scale construction of the new middle and high school at the west end of the project.

But with so much that could go so wrong, opening day of the 2019-2020 school year went “very, very well,” said Phelan during the meeting of the Belmont Middle and High School Building Committee on Wednesday.

“The wait … was not too long into the [high] school” due in large part to the team of officers from the Belmont Police along with signs produced by the Department of Public Works and balloons used to identify where vehicles could come and go.

“It was good to see the kids back at school,” said Phelan, who when not running a school system of 4,200 students was also tasked with supplying the Building Committee with pizzas and drinks.

“All in a day’s work,” he said pushing a chart into the Homer Building.

While the work of bringing a new class of 9th – 12th graders, the largest and largest construction task to date is moving along quickly as 133 concrete piles have been driven into the ground to anchor the high school wing of the building. Just on Wednesday, 27 “corner” piles were secured, marking out the rough outline of the high school section, according to Mike Morrison, project manager for Skanska, the general contractor.

“We are one-third of the way in Phase 1 of the building,” said Morrison, noting that debris and soil is being removed from the site as construction beginning in and around the site of the school’s pool.

“All is going well,” said Morrison.

District Enrollment Keeps Marching Higher as School Year Begins

Photo: More students have entered Belmont schools in the past three months.

The news on student enrollment levels in Belmont’s six public schools from School Superintendent John Phelan continues along a familiar theme of the past five years: more are still coming.

At the Sept. 8 School Committee meeting, Phelan reported that between June 1 to Sept. 3, 72 net additional students in Kindergarten through 12th grade entered the system which now serves a total enrollment of 4,362.

Since 2009, approximately 400 additional students have been added to the district’s rolls. 

Phelan said he is “very optimistic” of the total figure as it was close to actual number of children counted on the first day of school, Wednesday, Sept. 2, which saw an attendance rate of 97.5 percent.

“Everyone came and were welcomed to class,” said Phelan.

Notable in the new enrollment data is the jump in the number of students at the Chenery Middle School which crossed the 1,300 student mark with 1,320 pupils, an increase of 38 students in the past 90 days.

But Phelan said he’s confident that total and middle school numbers will rise as every day “two or three more students” were being enrolled in the first week of school opening.

To keep up with the rising numbers, Belmont High has converted existing modular space behind the school into classrooms, the only school that will be using non-permanent structures this year. In June, Phelan said it looked increasingly possible that added physical space will be required in the 2016-17 school year to accommodate the new students. 

Schools Budget Deficit Fix: Teacher Layoffs, Increased Class Sizes, Lost Ground

Photo: The Wellington Elementary School will lose a third-grade teacher with the acceptance of the available revenue budget in fiscal year 2016.

When asked her reaction to the presentation by Belmont School Superintendent John Phelan on the details of cuts facing the district, Jamie Shea at first just shook her head.

For Shea and others who attended the Belmont School Committee meeting Tuesday night, Feb. 24, the impact on education in bridging the anticipated $1.7 million facing the district in the coming fiscal year was akin to listening to an eulogy for the reputation of a proud district.

“It’s extremely sobering to hear the potential cuts we all are facing,” said Shea, who is the current president of the Foundation for Belmont Education, the group that supports excellence and enrichment in Belmont’s six schools.

“It would be transformative to the district. It will impact every single student in the district. Every single one,” she said.

Phelan said the district – which he has been in charge since July – will not be the same to the one which many families moved to Belmont to attend.

“The Belmont Public Schools will struggle deeply to meet the expectations of their students and families that they so rightly deserve. If there were a headline from this presentation, it would be ‘Available Budget Impact Students Experiences Negatively,” Phelan told the Belmontonian after the meeting.

The cuts are necessary due to a historic surge in enrollment, higher expenditures for special education and unfunded state mandates.

During Tuesday meeting, Phelan walked the committee and residents through the components in each school group – elementary, middle school and high school – where savings will be made.

The cuts, which were compiled by the Leadership Council – made up of school principals, senior staff and curriculum directors – are significant and deep by most measures.

(The presentation can be found on the school district’s website.)

Most of the retrenchment, $1.3 million, will come in personnel with the elimination of 22 full-time equivalent professional positions, with the remaining amount coming in less support for instructional material, personal development and facilities and increase fees for student actives and full-day kindergarten.
The cuts include:

  • In the elementary schools, the elimination of more than seven aides, the Butler, Burbank and Wellington will lose guidance counselors, a reduction in music education and physical education and the firing of a third grade teacher at the Wellington.
  • At the Chenery, there will be wholesale cuts to the long-standing team teaching model in English, math, science social studies and world language in sixth through eighth grades, the eliminate of all eighth grade music and art electives, cutting sections of small group reading and a large reduction in library services.
  • Belmont High School will see the elimination of English, math, social studies and fine and performing arts teacher while all the World Language teachers will be reduced to part-timers.

District wide, the science director will be let go as will a preschool teacher. A reduction of instructional material and supplies, facilities, and professional development while student and rental fees are increased.

In total, Belmont will lose more than 14 teaching positions and nearly ten aides.

For classroom teachers, the cuts will fundamentally change the relationship with their students, said John Sullivan, the president of the Belmont Education Association, which represents Belmont teachers and aides in salary negotiations.

“You can’t get to know [your students] personally, to know when they are upset about something and then reach out to support them. It changes the entire student experience,” said the Belmont resident who teaches at Belmont High School.

While the cuts in teaching staff and other savings will drain the system of its red ink, the impact on students will be significant, said Phelan. For example:

  • Three of every four elementary students, about 1,300, will be in taught in classes exceeding the school committee’s guidelines for effective education.
  • Junior and seniors in high school – more than 600 pupils currently enrolled – will be limited to five courses in a seven-course schedule.
  • The average class size for math and English at the high school will be more than 27, effecting 1,250 students.
  • More than 300 seniors will be unable to take courses that will impact their chances being accepted at high-performing colleges and universities.
  • More than 300 students in the middle school will be heading to study halls due to the cuts in fine and performing arts.

The cut of the science director will seriously delay the district’s plan to move forward with STEM (science, technology, engineering and math)-related courses which national leaders are calling crucial for all citizens to know.

And the loss of aides and guidance councilors in the four elementary schools will reduce the effectiveness of the district’s Response to Intervention services that identifies educational challenges for young students as well as addressing the social and emotional needs of students.

The magnitude of the cuts was unsettling for those who oversee education in Belmont.

“I think it has the potential to really decimate the system,” said Laurie Slap, School Committee Chair.

“What struck me was that one of our colleagues said that it was so sad to see educational opportunities just shrink for our students from K to 12 especially in the high school. Five courses? That isn’t what anyone expects from this district.”

Phelan said the district, and especially Belmont High School, has been worn down over time by trimming courses and reducing staff. With this major hit

“The reductions we are proposing and the elimination of positions are rooted in the methodology in what we need to do first and what we would like to do second. Our ‘likes to do’ are now are stables and cores – the everyday things – in districts that surround us. We will lose even more ground with the proposed budget,” said Phelan.

For Phelan, the School Committee and many attending the meeting, the only way to preserve the district’s reputation is for the passage of a $4.5 million Proposition 2 1/2 override recommended by the Financial Task Force in January.

“I support the Task Force’s recommendation for the fiscal health of the entire town. If that fiscal health is brought back to a certain level through an injection of funds that goes to sidewalks streets police, fire, and schools, the whole town is a better place,” said Phelan.

At the end of the meeting, Slap said that everyone in town needs to know what the choices they face and everyone needs to get informed to understand what the cuts means to the district.

“It’s important that people get informed and understand what the reductions will bring if we do not pass the … override and get to the polls,” Shea told the Belmontonian.

“Hopefully we can get a coalition of different coalition of different constituent groups that can work cooperatively to make sure our students get the best education they can,” said Sullivan.

It’s Official: School’s Snowed Out for Tuesday. But Wednesday …

Only the most wildly optimistic of parents would have thought Belmont District schools would be opening on Tuesday. 

And now it is official. Below is the note sent to parents from Belmont’s Superintendent of Schools, John Phelan. 

Dear Parents, Guardians and Staff:

Due to the impending storm, all Belmont Public Schools will be closed tomorrow, Tuesday, January 27, 2015.

Due to the Governors “State of Emergency” all buildings will be closed for the day.

If school needs to be cancelled/delayed for Wednesday – I will email you with further instructions.

I hope you stay safe during this storm.

Coffee Talk with Belmont’s New Schools Super This Monday

A tip of the hat to Belmont resident and author of the Blogging Belmont website Paul Roberts for this information. Newly-installed Belmont School District Superintendent John Phelan has been holding coffees with residents through the summer with the next date on Monday, Aug. 18 from 4:30 p.m. to 6 p.m. in the Conference Room in the School Administration building located in the Town Hall complex in Belmont Center.

Phelan, who has a quarter century of experience as a teacher, principal and an assistant superintendent in the Boston and Milton Public Schools, has been organizing the forums to hear from parents and community members to help get up to speed on the issues of concern to community members while formulating a plan for the district going forward.

If you can’t attend Monday’s coffee, more are expected to be scheduled in September. In addition, residents can make an appointment to meet with Phelan individually by calling Cathy Grant at 617-993-5401.