As Omicron Waxes and Wanes, Belmont Schools Adjusts Covid Standards To Meet State, CDC Changes

Photo: The FAQ page on the Belmont Public Schools’ website

As Belmont continues to see Covid-19 positive cases reach record numbers in the past week, the Belmont School District has adjusted the best practices in its attempt to mitigate the virus’ opportunity to spread through the six public school buildings in town.

At its Tuesday, Jan. 18 meeting, the School Committee heard from Belmont Superintendent John Phelan who came with a few changes from the proposed guidelines presented the week previous after the state made changes to its priorities on keeping schools open during the recent surge in Covid cases.

“We are dedicated to keep schools open for students and in person learning. I think we weathered the first two weeks for winter break relatively well … but not past [the Omicron surge] yet,” said Phelan, who added that staff and student attendance has reached 90 percent, a marked improvement in the past fortnight.

What parents and students can do in school and at home to dampen the spread of Covid-19

But Belmont continues to show unpresidential numbers of new cases: 759 in the fortnight ending Jan. 14, a 15 percent positivity rate of those tested. In the schools, the numbers are also daunting with 127 positive Covid cases effecting both teachers and students in the six schools “community as of the week ending Jan. 19. That is down from Jan. 3 number of 229 which was the first reporting date after the winter holiday break.

With cases expecat high levels to last for the next few weeks, Phelan said the school committee should codify much of what was discussed on Jan. 11.

School Committee discussed this updated guidance and approved the following for students and staff who test positive for Covid-19:

  • Fully vaccinated students and staff may return to school on day six after a five-day isolation period, as long as they have been fever-free for 24 hours and experienced improvement in other symptoms. They must mask when around others for the five days following their isolation period, according to Department of Elementary and Secondary Education guidelines. Fully vaccinated is two weeks after receiving the second dose of Moderna or the Pfizer vaccine or two weeks after the single dose of Johnson & Johnson. A booster shot is not required to be considered fully vaccinated.
  • All unvaccinated and partially vaccinated students and staff may return to school on day 11 after a 10-day isolation period. Students in K-8 will be provided tutoring due to their quarantined and or isolation status.
  • Students and staff will not be required to have a negative COVID test after their isolation period to return to classes.

One of the changes from the Jan. 11 recommendations was the committee exploring purchasing in conjunction with the town antigen tests as a screening tool for students who have tested positive after their five-day isolation period has expired. Phelan said that is likely “a moot point” as the state and federal governments are committed to providing tests to local school districts.

“So we’ll keep that motion at heart and we will continue to keep that in mind,” said Phelan, who called the initiative “great news … to have every staff and student who wants to take part to be able to take home their own test and test at home weekly.”

He also pointed to an extensive Frequently Asked Question (FAQ) page sent to parents and guardians and on the district’s Covid webpage with questions ranging from what is the best way to screen children for Covid and when can students return to school.

The school committee on Jan. 11 asked its policy subcommittee to develop a vaccine mandate policy to be completed and voted on no later than June.

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.

Belmont Civic Group Donates 30K Face Masks To First Responders, Medical Facilities

Photo: Face masks are in urgent need worldwide. (Credit: Freepik)

Medical face masks are worth their weight in gold during the coronavirus pandemic.

With more than 21,000 cases of the coronavirus in the US as of Saturday with expectations that the number will skyrocket over the next weeks, the need for face masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE) such as gowns, gloves and face shields is critical of the care of patients and safeguarding the health of doctors and nurses.

But currently, there is an acute shortage of masks and other materials. Medical professionals have sounded the alarm since the virus first arrived in the US in February the supply would soon be wanting as states and local governments are scrambling – and at times fighting against the other – to obtain any number of masks.

So it came as somewhat of a shock when out of the blue, a local civic organization is providing Belmont and nearby medical facilities with boxes of masks for the asking.

On Thursday, March 19, Xinxin Guo, secretary for the Belmont Chinese American Association, contacted town officials to say a member of the association was offering to donate 100,000 face masks to those most in need of this resource.

“[They] kindly offer the help and resources of their group to our community as we all prepare to contend with COVID-19,” said Wesley Chin, Belmont’s director of health who the BCAA approached as they were looking for advice on who to donate the face masks.

Based on the town’s suggestion, the BCAA donated portions of the face masks to Belmont’s First Responders with the majority going to nearby healthcare facilities including Mt. Auburn Hospital and Belmont Manor, a 135-bed skilled nursing facility in Waverley Square. In addition Cambridge Health Alliance hospitals, Mass General Hospital, Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Boston Medical Center will also benefit from the supply of masks.

The donation is the most notable act by the BCAA known for its Chinese New Year’s celebration held at the Chenery Middle School.

“The BCAA is open to everyone in the Chinese American community in Belmont. There is no required formal registration or enrollment process. The BCAA is a volunteer-based, non-profit, non-political organization, with a leadership team of 30 or so key volunteers,” said Guo.

According to Guo, the Chenery parent, identified as Ms. He is a partner in a publicly listed Chinese company. One category in the firm’s product line is medical personal protective equipment which includes a line of masks.

China is the largest supplier of masks in the world, manufacturing half, approximately seven billion annually. In an article in the New York Times dated March 13, Chinese companies cranked up the production of masks by 12-times since the coronavirus was identified, with nearly all used internally.

But within the past two weeks, as new COVID-19 cases in China have fallen to manageable numbers, there has been a surge in the US. As manufacturing capacity keeps picking up in Asia, there is now an abundant supply “and they do want to ship them out to help other countries who is currently undergo the COVID-19 outbreak,” said Guo.

“When the COVID-19 breakout in Boston got reported in the news in early March, [Ms. He] shared her concern of the shortage of masks in the US in an online group of CMS parents, and eventually got introduced to the BCAA,” he said. “We then started working out the logistics of shipping the masks from China to the US.

Approximately 30,000 face masks were donated on March 7 with BCAA responsible for arranging the masks shipment from China. To ensure quick delivery, the items were made in two shipments, the first batch of 10,000 and second batch of 20,000.

In addition to the masks, BCAA is working on supplying medical N95 respirators for surronding hospitals.

“Many people have contributed their time and efforts to make this happen – the first shipment was delivered [Thursday]. It was indeed very fortunate for us to have these masks at this critical time,” said Guo.

BREAKING: Belmont Resident With Coronavirus Flies To Bejing, Now Under Investigation By China

Photo: Beijing Capital International Airport (WikiCommons photo)

In a case that has many scratching their heads, a Belmont resident is under investigation by the Chinese government for flying with her family last week back to her homeland without informing the airline, Chinese officials that she had recently tested positive for the highly contagious coronavirus by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.

Jie Li, who lived with her husband and their son on Sharpe Road since 2015, landed in Bejing from Los Angeles on March 13, according to the Xinhua News Agency, the official media outlet of the Chinese government.

During the flight, Li, who is reportedly a Chinese citizen, began showing flu-like symptoms associated with the virus and was escorted to the rear of the plane for the remainder of the flight. Once on the ground, Li and her husband tested positive for the virus.

Since her arrival in China, Li has become a cause célèbre in the local news as she has been pilloried for allegedly “impeding the prevention of infectious disease” after her case was made public early in the week, according to an article in the Boston Globe.

Tensions between the US and China has been intensifying during the spread of the Coronavirus into a global pandemic with President Trump and many of his supports – a noted conservative attorney has filed a $20 trillion suit against the Chinese government – calling the novel virus the “Chinese” flu while the Bejing government notes there are no new cases in China as opposed to hundreds daily in the USA

Li was one of three Belmont residents who have tested positive by the state for the COVID-19.

Until this month, Li, who earned a Ph.D. in statistics at the University of Iowa and taught a decade ago at Virginia Tech University with her husband, was working as the associate director for biostatistician at Biogen for a little more than a year.

While an investigation determined that Li did not attend the Biogen-sponsored sales meeting at the Boston Marriott Long Wharf in late February which has become ground zero for the coronavirus in Massachusetts, she had been in contact with fellow employees who were there.

In a comment to the Boston Globe, the biotech firm said it was unaware Li would be traveling to her homeland. Li has been fired this week from her position.

Li also did not tell the Belmont Health Department of her travel plans after the town was notified by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health that she had tested positive for COVID-19 just days before, according to a press release from Wesley Chin, director of the Belmont Health Department, dated March 19.

In fact, Li had been quite unaccommodating with the town from the time earlier this month when Belmont Fire Department EMS crews responded to a call for a person experiencing flu-like symptoms.

After Li asked to be taken to a Boston-area hospital for testing, the EMS crew contacted Medical Control which advised them that Li could and should self-transport to the area hospital. When told of the decision. Li informed the EMS crew to leave and she would drive herself for care, according to the press release.

According to Chin, two days after the incident, the Health Department was notified by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health that Li tested positive for COVID-19. With that information in hand, Chin tried to contact Li and her family via phone and text messaging, as well as, by going out to the home and knocking on the door. In each attempt, Chin did not receive a response.

Chin continued his attempts to make contact including reaching out to the healthcare provider that conducted the testing. But the testing agency was also unable to reach Li.

Then last week, as Chin still tried to notify Li, a resident informed him press reports from China spoke of a traveler from the USA who had entered the country wit the virus. The resident believed that person was Li. Chin then called the MDPH of the new information on Li who contacted MassPort – the agency that runs Logan International Airport – who began a contact investigation of all personnel that may have come in contact with Li.

It is not known when or if Li and her family will return to the United States. Currently, there is a ban on travel from China.

Playgrounds Now Off Limits As Belmont, State Shuts Down Public Gatherings

Photo: PQ Parks Playground is now

Playgrounds – but not parks – throughout Belmont are the latest areas to be officially closed by the Belmont Health Department in an effort to slow the spread of the Coronavirus pandemic.

In the latest public health update issued Monday, March 16, Health Department Director Wesley Chin focused on actions taken by the state and his office over the weekend and today.

On Sunday, March 15, Gov. Charlie Baker announced additional measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 (Coronavirus) within the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.  The Governor’s Order includes the following restrictions throughout the Commonwealth that will go into effect on March 17.

  • All public and private schools will be closed through April 6.
  • All restaurants and bars will be prohibited from the on-premise consumption of food.  However, restaurants may remain open for now to provide food through take-out or delivery service.  These restrictions extend through April 17 but may be extended based on the spread of COVID-19.
  • Gatherings of 25 or more people are also banned. This includes all community, civic, public, leisure, and faith-based events. It also applies to gyms, private clubs, and theatres.

Chin announced that Belmont is taking additional precautions and instituting the following actions that will be effective on March 16

  • All Town of Belmont public playgrounds (specifically playground equipment) are closed.  At this time, open spaces such as fields remain open. However, the Belmont Board of Health and its staff ask all residents to engage in the social distancing practices detailed below.
  • Field use permits are suspended to discourage social gatherings. We are strongly discouraging activities that promote the gathering of people.
  • Public meetings and hearings will be limited to those that are considered necessary for the purposes of maintaining essential Town of Belmont government functions and that are mandated under federal, state, or local law/regulation.
  • Town Hall Offices are closed to the public. At this time access to these facilities will be limited to staff only.  Residents in need of assistance are encouraged to contact respective Town departments by phone and/or email
  • Important updates about COVID-19 and its impact on the Town will be posted at .

The Belmont Board of Health and its staff ask all residents to immediately and seriously engage in the practice of social distancing. Social distancing means staying out of congregate settings, avoiding mass gatherings, and maintaining a distance of 6 feet (minimum) or at least an arm’s length away from others when possible.

This means:

  • NO small gatherings (even though the state has capped gatherings at 25 people).
  • NO playdates (for individuals of any age).
  • NO sharing of childcare responsibilities with other families, unless you have been deemed an essential worker (i.e. Police, Fire, EMS, medical professional).
    • Essential workers should make every attempt to stagger their schedules with partners to allow for coverage of childcare.

Chin is advising residents to:

  • Stay home.
  • Minimize the number of trips you take to the store for food and medicine.
  • Avoid close contact with people who do not live with you.
  • Show compassion for your neighbors.
    • Make a plan with your elderly neighbors to check in with them on a daily basis via phone or email to help monitor their health and to see if you can help them obtain any food, prescriptions, or other basic needs.

Help save lives:

  • It is important that we all take social isolation seriously to help slow the spread of COVID-19. The transmission of this virus grows exponentially and will soon overtake our healthcare system. We must all work together for the common good of society. This is our chance to come together as a community to stem the spread of this virus. If we are all successful at social distancing, we will slow the spread of COVID-19, and this will give our healthcare providers and hospitals a chance to prepare to be able to treat people who may need scarce medical resources to survive the pandemic.  

Two More Cases Of Coronavirus In Belmont, Raising Total To 3

Photo: Belmont now has three confirmed cases of the Coronavirus.

The Massachusetts Department of Public Health has informed the Belmont Health Department that two more residents have been declared “presumptive positive” for the COVID-19 virus, according to an email dated Friday, March from Wesley Chin, director of the Health Department.

Belmont now has a total of three MDPH confirmed cases of the stain of the Coronavirus which has developed in just four months into a global pandemic. As of March 13, there are 123 cases In Massachusetts.

MDPH defines “presumptive positive” as a person that has tested positive by the Massachusetts State Public Health Laboratory, while awaiting specimens sent to the US Centers for Disease Control for final verification.

Like the initial case, these residents are linked to the Biogen conference held in Boston at the end of February. Statewide 82 out of 108 positive cases are linked to the Biogen event that took place at the Boston Marriott Long Wharf Hotel.

The first person who contracted the virus is currently in isolation in their home, staying away from their family members who are self-quarantined in the same location for 14 days.

“Other members of the family, do not have symptoms of COVID-19,” said Chin.

“Local health departments, including the Belmont Health Department, conduct contact investigations of confirmed and presumptive positive COVID-19 cases, in collaboration with MDPH. This helps to prevent further spread by having contacts of cases self-quarantine,” read the email.

Breaking: First Coronavirus Case In Belmont Confirmed, Attended Biogen Conference

Photo: The Belmont resident with the coronavirus attended a Biogen conference at the Boston Marriott Long Wharf (Google maps)

Belmont’s first positive Coronavirus case in a resident has been confirmed by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, according to a press release dated Wednesday, March 11 from Wesley Chin, director of the Belmont Health Department.

“The presumptive positive individual is in good spirits and reports mild symptoms,” said Chin.

A parent of students who attend the Chenery Middle School and Belmont High School, the resident took part in a Biogen conference at the Boston Marriott Long Wharf in late February which is “Ground Zero” in the spread of the respiratory disease. As of Tuesday, approximately 70 out of 91 presumptive positive cases in Massachusetts are linked to that leadership meeting.

Only the parent has shown symptoms of the virus known as COVID-19; the students and other members of the family are symptom free.

The resident and the family are now complying with a 14-day in-home quarantine protocol provided by MDPH, said the press release. The individual is isolated in the home and is staying away from members of their family.

Even before the confirmation, the individual and its family have been out of school and work since the previous week as a preventative measure to reduce the chance of community spread.

In light of the first positive case in town, the Belmont Public Schools Facilities Department is cleaning and disinfecting the schools the children attend as well as the Belmont Public Library, which was cleaned prior to opening today.

The school department has strengthened cleaning protocols at all schools, with a focus on high touch points. It is also closely monitoring hand towel and soap dispensers to ensure regular refill and has ordered a large supply of hand sanitizer and disinfecting wipes to be distributed to all schools.

There are now plans to systematically disinfect all other town buildings moving forward, said Chin.

Local health departments, including the Belmont Health Department, conduct contact investigations of confirmed and presumptive positive COVID-19 cases, in collaboration with MDPH. This helps to prevent further spread by having contacts of cases self-quarantine.

The US Centers Disease Control (CDC) has updated recommendations for people at higher risk — older adults and people who have chronic medical conditions like heart disease, diabetes, and lung disease.

Breaking: Schools Cancelling ‘Large Events’ Due To CoronaVirus Emergency; Musical’s Fate Up In The Air

Photo: BHS-PAC’s spring musical “Shrek The Musical” is one event that will be decided on a case-by-case basis.

The Belmont Public Schools is canceling ‘large’ school-sanctioned events due to the spreading CoronaVirus pandemic, according to Superintendent John Phelan.

Speaking before the School Committee on Tuesday, March 10, hours after Gov. Charlie Baker declared a state of emergency for Massachusetts after the number of suspected virus patients doubled in one day, Phelan said the district will email a public statement on Wednesday, March 11, detailing the district’s decision and how it will impact the community.

Phelan said the school district’s action was done in coordination with the town’s Health Department and the Town Administrator Patrice Garvin. It also follows Baker’s declaration Tuesday in which he urged large organizations “[to] limit or eliminate large events where possible.”

Examples of “large public gatherings” include the 7th and 8th grade band concert on Thursday, fundraisers such as the Wellington Carnival, public lectures and field trips.

“We’ve had a lot of feedback from our families that they were worried about larger events,” said Phelan.

Phelan also said principals will “have at their discretion” the ability to cancel smaller events at the schools. Those could include a PTO meeting where a few dozen parents and school administrators are attending in a classroom or a “Meet the Kindergarten teacher” event, said Phelan.

Phelan would not comment on the possible cancellation or delay of the Belmont High School Performing Arts Company’s annual spring musical, this year “Shrek The Musical.” The popular yearly event fills the high school auditorium during three or four performances.

“We have to talk about the play,” said Phelan saying he is in discussions with Arto Asadoorian, the district’s director of fine & performing arts on the show’s future. “There is a substantial amount of money that it takes in and a substantial amount that’s put out to support it. We are taking some of these events on a case-by-case basis.”

“But we also want to be safe and be prudent so we’ll decide that in the upcoming days,” said Phelan.

Phelan told the committee the district has not joined other public schools or several nearby colleges and universities in permitting home learning or virtual classrooms to prevent the virus from spreading in Belmont schools.

But Phelan noted that the district will be realistic that distance learning may become an option as the effect of the virus on communities “changes by the day.”

While no Belmont resident or public school student have been diagnosed with the coronavirus as of March 10, “it will come here,” he said.

School Precaution: Staffer Who Self-Quarantined Back To Work, Trips Cancelled, And Disinfecting Schools

Photo: Belmont Public School Administration Building.

The byword for the Belmont School District on the expanding coronavirus epidemic is caution.

A female staffer who self-quarantined on Wednesday after returning from a conference in Italy over February break will return to work on Monday, March 9, according to an email from the Belmont School District.

Italy has by far the most cases of the coronavirus in Europe with nearly 4,000 cases and 148 deaths as of Friday, March 6.

Belmont School District Superintendent John Phelan said the staff member, who works at the Chenery Middle School and Belmont High School, placed herself in seclusion on March 4 after the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) updated its guidance that day asking people to self-quarantine if they have travelled to China, Iran, Italy, and South Korea.

“Once the CDC guidance was updated Wednesday, the staff member who had travelled to Italy self-quarantined, despite the fact there are no symptoms of illness showing,” said Phelan.

“Given this staff member’s return from Italy was on Sunday, February 23, the staff member will return to work on Monday, March 9, as this will represent the expiration of the two week quarantine period,” noted Phelan.

Belmont is just one of several eastern Massachusetts school districts in which educators and staffers have self-quarantined, including Watertown and Beverly.

Belmont High School students were informed this past week that planned school trips during the April break to Spain and China have been cancelled due to the virus. Spain has about 260 cases and 3 deaths while China has been the epicenter of the virus with nearly 81,000 with the virus and 3,045 deaths.

As Belmont schools are where the largest concentration of people congregate during the work week, the district have begun disinfecting and sanitizing high-touch surfaces in the district’s six schools with hospital-grade equipment.

“As you know this is the season for the common flu and our efforts will help reduce the spread of a number of problematic pathogens,” said Phelan.

Earlier this week, Belmont Health Director Wesley Chin said there was a low risk of Belmont residents catching the virus.