Belmont MCAS Scores Dip In Covid-19 Year; Performance Exceeds Statewide Results

Photo: MCAS scores in Belmont and statewide slumped.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the most recent MCAS test scores for Belmont students took a dip as the district struggled to provide a first rate education model during a worldwide pandemic. But with the exception of a sharp drop in the percentage of elementary and middle school students meeting or exceeding in math, the district performance held its own compared to scores for all Massachusetts students.

While the statewide scores showed some large discrepancies from grade to grade, “Belmont did not see the same degree of [downward] shift,” said Belmont Superintendent John Phelan at the Belmont School Committee on Tuesday, Sept. 21. Yet, Phelan said, “any shift is important to note.”

The statewide MCAS test results from the spring 2021 exam released by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education on Sept. 21 showed many more students had gaps in their knowledge of math and, to a lesser extent, English language arts, compared to students in the same grades before the COVID-19 pandemic, and fewer students meet or exceeded grade level expectations.

“Each percentage point is very, very important to us because they represent our students,” said Phelan. ”The real important work is to look at how each student … fared with this testing and use that data.”

“We tend to perform higher than the state average in all categories. So we’re thankful for that. But to be repetitive, we do have our own expectation of Belmont. We need to compare ourselves to what our goals are and that’s the work of the district moving forward,” said Phelan.

(The state did not administer MCAS tests in spring 2020, near the start of the pandemic, so the most recent year to compare with this year’s scores is 2019.)

In Belmont, 76 percent of students in grades 3-8 met Expectations or higher in English language arts in 2021, and 67 percent did so in math. Both of these represent a drop compared to 2019, when 80 percent scored at that level in English language arts and 81 percent did so in math. Still, Belmont’s 67 percent is nearly double the 34 percent of statewide students who are in the top two categories.

For 10th grade English language arts, 88 percent of students scored Meeting Expectations or higher in 2021, compared to 90 percent in 2019. In 10th grade math, 85 percent of students scored Meeting Expectations or higher in 2021, compared to 91 percent in 2019. These represent a slight drop when comparing 2019 to 2021. Like the elementary/middle school grades, Belmont high schoolers continue to exceed the scores of their state compatriots.

Phelan said the MCAS data will now be sent to the district’s academic directors and school principals to discuss how to utilize nearly $150,000 the district put aside to supporting students this year.

Having anticipated a likely drop in math scores in the early grades, Phelan said the district has allocated funds from its ESSR account – money sent by the federal government to school districts during the pandemic – to hire a pair of math coaches at the elementary level who will work primarily with third and fourth grade students. They also will be working at the middle school with students who need support.

Phelan said high school students will have less time to make up the drop in scores, the district will be reinforcing the skills all students have to know and be able to do before they leave Belmont High, said Phelan.

“We’ll be working with those students in those content areas moving forward,” he said.

Schools Mask Mandate Will Stay Until The New Year: Board Of Health Chief

Photo: A sign you’ll see in schools by the holiday break

Parents and students hoping for a quick end to the mask mandate in Belmont schools – specifically for high school students – saw their wishes dashed as the head of the Belmont Board of Health believes masks will be a part of the school day up to the holiday break in the last weeks of December.

The declaration by Chair Donna David came during the Board of Health’s Aug. 16 meeting during which the board clarify aspects of the town-wide indoor mask mandate that passed on Aug. 6 as well as make clear that the schools and town will have different standards of when to end mask requirements.

Based on public feedback after the previous week’s Belmont School Committee’s, there was a desire to clarify the confusion of when the town-wide mask mandate would end in the Belmont schools, said Wesley Chin, Belmont’s Health Department director. Under a sunset clause in the town-wide directive, the face covering requirements will be lifted when Middlesex county records two consecutive weeks of lower infection rates.

In the board’s new plan, the schools’ mask mandate is now a separate from the town’s document. “Pretty simple and straightforward,” said David.

The new regulation states: “Face coverings are required for all individuals aged two years and above except where an individual is unable to wear a face covering dude to a medical condition disability.”

Under the new regulation, the board will incorporate guidance and data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the state’s Department of Health to decide when the mask mandate will be dropped.

While the board will be monitoring the data and taking daily advice from the town’s health department, David said until the Covid-19 vaccine is available to children under 12 – both Pfizer and Moderna say they anticipate sharing results and seeking authorization for their vaccine in ages 5 to 11 as early as September or October – and the number of overall cases are declining, she doesn’t see a reason to remove the mandate and “this could easily be in effect through December.”

”This brings a little stability to what we’re doing and what our line of thinking is,” said David. Until the under 12 vaccine is available, “‘we’re kind of in a holding pattern because, in the schools particular, we’re doing this to protect those who cannot be vaccinated.”

The board also voted to bring greater clarity to the town’s mandate after receiving public comments on the document the Select Board approved last week.

The four clarifications are:

  • Indoor performers at public spaces such as the Beech Street Center, restaurants or schools are required to wear face coverings,
  • Private residences are excluded from the mandate,
  • Residents and employees in multi-unit homes and apartments are required to wear face coverings when inside common hallways and spaces, and
  • Members and employees in private membership clubs are required to wear face coverings while indoors.

“It’s not drastically different, just more detailed,” said Adam Dash, chair of the Select Board which reviewed the changes at its Monday night meeting.

Belmont Schools To Open Year Under Universal PreK-12 Mask Mandate

Photo: Belmont students will start the new school year wearing masks.

Belmont students and teachers throughout the district will be wearing masks to start the new school year beginning on Thursday, Sept. 9, after the Belmont School Committee at its Monday, Aug. 9 meeting accepted a town-wide universal mask mandate approved by the Board of Health and the Belmont Select Board on Friday, Aug. 6.

The committee will “revisit the mask policy and discuss strategies to increase vaccination rates” with the Health Board sometime at the end of September, according to the policy.

“I believe it’s really important to provide Belmont school families and staff with clarity about the masking plans and requirements for the beginning of the 2021-22 school year,” said School Board Chair Amy Checkoway.

Attended by approximately 200 via Zoom, the meet showed no sign of contentiousness or rancor seen at school committee meetings across the country – notably one held on Tuesday in Franklin, Tenn. – that resulted in anti-masking protests and threats of violence, while a Fox Entertainment personality claimed masking students is done to “terrify” them and anti-mandate decrees being issued by a handful of governors.

During the three hour meeting, Superintendent John Phelan presented the district’s proposed “Back to School Health/Safety Protocol Plan” for the 2021-22 school year created by the district’s Health Team. Its recommendations include:

  • Implement indoor masking for staff and students in accordance to the Aug. 6 town-wide decree.
  • Masks required on buses and at health clinics.
  • No mandate for outdoor activities or while students are at lunch.
  • Maximize distances in classrooms and cafeterias at the elementary and middle schools including providing outdoor space.
  • Encourage vaccinations for staff and students 12+ and host vaccination sites at schools.
  • Testing, quarantining and contract tracing is also recommended; the district is waiting for state guidance.

Phelan told the committee the district would be seeking direction on creating an indoor mask mandate for the entire student population and staff. The Health Team’s guidance would be provided by the state – using the Department of Public Health (DPH) and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) – the federal government’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Phelan noted “there’s a lot of similar guidance” from the three sources and that included masking for all preschool and elementary school students as they currently can not be vaccinated. The one area Phelan said where the three entities differed is in-school masking for vaccinated student in 7th through 12th grade. While the AAP and CDC recommend masks, the state’s DPH advise masks if the student lives with someone who is not vaccinated or immunocompromised while DESE would allow vaccinated students to remain maskless while indoors.

Masking challenge for High School students

Since half of the grades at the Belmont’s Chenery Middle School fall under the elementary policy and the other half in the 7th to 12 range, Phelan said it was best that all students remained masked as the four grades will come in contact throughout the day. This left the School Committee to determine the masking in the traditional 9-12 high school grades.

Adrienne Allen, the Board of Health’s observer at the School Committee, told the committee that as a physician she was “very hopeful” two months ago that vaccinations would create a situation where mask use could safety be reduced. “But then things rapidly changed before our eyes with [the] Delta [variant],” she said, with the most disconcerting part being vaccinated people can spread the variant which is nearly as contagious as chickenpox.

With the overriding goal of the School Committee and district is to “keep kids in school as much as possible” while mitigating harm as much as possible, said Allen. And masking protects people from a source; for example, “if I had Covid and I’m wearing a mask, you’re protected. But it also protects other people.”

So if you want to keep students in school and protected, the schools should have a universal mask mandate, said Allen.

It soon became clear the Committee’s consensus was to start the school year with grades Pre-K to 12 masked. And each of the members agreed there will likely be a time when the mandate will be modified or ended. Coming to what that point was where the committee split.

For Jamal Saeh, the answer, for at least 7th to 12th grade pupils, was already baked into the town-wide mask mandate. Rather than reinvent the wheel, Saeh pointed to the town policy that says the mandate will end when the level of community transmission for Middlesex county as recorded by the CDC is designated as either low or moderate for two consecutive weeks.

But the other members pointed to the unique nature of the schools where, unlike the town-wide impact on stores, eateries and offices in which people may spend a few minutes to an hour, students and staff in schools are inside and interacting with dozens of fellow students for six hours or more.

Committee member Mike Crowley what masking does is helps the district “avoid disruptions that so rattled the community last year.” And while it’s impossible to know with any certainty what the coming year will bring but masking seems to be a fairly effective strategy.” For Crowley and others, rather than have a “ridged” standard as the town-mandate, the policy should be reviewed on a regular basis.

The committee did agree with Saeh that the first review of the mask mandate should take place in late September and also to advocate for increased vaccinations among students – those in 9th to 12th grades have about a 80 percent fully vaccination rate – with future discussion on a possible requirement that staff be vaccinated.

”If we learned one thing from last year, it’s that people value in person schooling,” said Committee member Andrea Prestwich, and masking not only tamps down Covid spread but also the flu and other respiratory illnesses “and takes some of the load off of our nursing staff.”

Belmont Enacts Town-Wide Indoor Mask Mandate Starting Monday

Photo: A town-wide mask mandate takes effect in Belmont at midnight, Aug. 9.

Belmont will enact a town-wide indoor mask mandate starting at midnight, Monday, Aug. 9, after the Health Board voted unanimously to approve the requirement and the Select Board endorsed the decision 3-0 at an emergency meeting held on Friday morning, Aug. 6.

The mandate will impact all establishments that has public indoor spaces including stores, eateries and offices. (See the order below) The town-wide regulation comes days after the Select Board placed a mask mandate on town buildings.

Belmont’s order mirrors the order passed by the community of Provincetown after the Cape Cod community saw a significant surge in infected residents despite having a 95 percent vaccination rate.

The return of the covering ordinance comes as the Covid-19 Delta variant is sweeping across the country increasing the number of positive coronavirus cases. After nearly a month when the town saw a single positive infection, Belmont has seen a significant uptick of 18 new cases over the past two weeks, with several being “breakthrough”, in which a fully vaccinated person is infected. The CDC has designated Middlesex county as having substantial level of infection.

The town-wide mandate will end when the level of community transmission for Middlesex county as recorded by the CDC is designated as either low or moderate for two consecutive weeks. That information is released by the CDC on Sunday afternoon.

Indoor Mask Mandate At Town Buildings Return Wednesday; ‘Emergency’ Meeting Friday To Discuss Possible Town-Wide Order

Photo: Belmont welcomes back masks to town

Beginning Wednesday, August 4, visitors and employees in town offices and buildings will be required to wear a mask as Belmont responds to a recent surge of positive cases of Covid-19.

“It’s erring on the side of being cautious. It’s the best thing for the public health and safety of everybody,” said Health Board Chair Donna David as the Select Board approved the sudden return to a mandate after speaking to health and town officials at its Monday meeting. In addition, public meetings will revert back to being held via Zoom or other virtual software.

At this time, there is no scheduled date for the mandate to end.

On Friday morning, Aug. 6, the town’s health and select boards will hold an emergency meeting to discuss expanding the indoor mask mandate to local stores, offices and restaurants. While the town building mandate was a straightforward call, the Select Board appeared less eager to re-establish a full town-wide indoor mask requirement.

“I think the business community’s going to be really upset with us” if masks make a return, said the Select Board’s Mark Paolillo.

It appears Belmont’s schools will continue requiring masks indoors at the district begins the new school year in mid-September, according to Donna David, chair of the Health Board. “They are onboard,” she said.

Adam Dash, chair of the Select Board, told the meeting that in the past when cases were on the rise the town had followed closely recommendations from the state’s health department on mask “but now the state’s basically saying ‘it’s on you’. So here we are.”

At Monday’s meeting, Health Department Director Wesley Chin told the Select Board that after going more than three weeks without a case in early summer, the town has seen 20 Covid cases since July 4, half of which are “breakthrough” cases; when an individual tests positive after they’ve been fully vaccinated against the disease.

“So far, we’ve been lucky we haven’t had any hospitalizations or deaths with these breakthrough cases,” said Chin, noting that those exposed were in their 40s and 50s and relatively healthy. While Belmont has not entered the state’s designated “red” zone of new cases, David said it is moving into that range, with the added complication that within the next three weeks, children – many under 12 and unvaccinated – will be returning to town from family vacations and trips as they settle in before heading back to school.

David said since it has made a “very strong” recommendation to the School Committee to continue its mask mandate, he said her board was “pretty much in alignment that [masks] should extend to the town buildings and offices, whether you are vaccinated or not.”

The reason for being vigilant even with a majority of adults being vaccinated, said David, is due to what is being learned about the variant on a daily basis.

“Each day unfolds new information in terms of the viral load and how it spreads to others,” she told the board. “If you’re at work and you’re exposed and asymptomatic and take it home to your unvaccinated child or somebody who’s immunosuppressed.”

Paolillo said he would support masks for workers and those visiting town-owned facilities “as a way of protecting our employees” especially since the town will not ask who is vaccinated inside a building.

While Town Administrator Patrice Garvin had hoped to give the employees a level of expectation of when the order may cease, it will be up to the Health Board working closely with the town to determine when the mandate will end.

COVID Update: After Quiet Summer, Uptick This Week Of COVID Cases In Belmont

Photo: The number of positive cases has increased over the past week in Belmont

After a quiet past two months, Belmont has seen a slight uptick in positive COVID cases during the week, following the increase of new coronavirus cases in every state due to the spread of the highly contagious Delta variant.

After four weeks that saw a single new case, Belmont recorded five new cases in the week end July 16, according to information from the Belmont Department of Health.

But unlike some parts of the country where infection rates have increased by double digits, Belmont’s increase is lower than 1 percent of the average daily incidence rate per 100,000 people over the previous two weeks.

Belmont’s low infection rate compared other parts of the country is directly in line with the higher rate of residents who have been vaccinated. As of July 16, 19,044 Belmontians are full vaccinated making up 69 percent of the population. That is more than the rate for Massachusetts (62 percent) and the US (50 percent). The age group in town most fully vaccinated are those between 50-64 with 88 percent having received both shots.

Belmont Schools Change Mask Policy: Outdoors Athletes Can Ditch Coverings, Indoors Masks Remain On

Photo: Athletes no longer need to wear masks playing their sports outside

Effective Thursday, May 20, the Belmont Schools’ COVID-19 mask policy is being changed to follow newly announced state guidelines where students no longer have to wear masks when outdoors, even if the distance cannot be maintained, according to a joint press release from Belmont Superintendent John P. Phelan and Director of Nursing Services Beth Rumley.

Gov. Charlie Baker announced on May 18 that given the low rate of outdoor transmission of COVID-19, the state has updated guidance applying to recess, physical education, youth sports, and outdoor learning environments.

At this time, adults and students must continue to wear masks in Belmont school buildings. All of the Belmont Schools protocols for contact tracing indoors will remain in place until further notice from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, Massachusetts Department of Public Health, and/or Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Students will continue to stay in their class cohorts during recess for the time being. However, with lower case rates, this could change in the next couple of weeks. Adults on school grounds that can not socially distance themselves should continue to wear masks.  

Outdoor sports will no longer be required to wear masks. Sports that play/practice inside will still need to wear face coverings. Although these are minimum standards, face coverings can still be worn. Also, encourage social distancing and hand sanitizing as much as possible. For practices, students will practice in cohorts to limit exposure to each other. 

Adults must continue to wear masks outdoors if distancing cannot be maintained.

Here are the new rules for Belmont athletes:

  • Athletes on spring teams in active play outdoors are not required to wear a mask/facial covering.
  • Athletes when they are on the bench or in a dugout are not required to wear a mask/facial covering.
  • Athletes in low-risk sports when indoors where a distance of at least 14 feet or more is consistently maintained between each participant, are not required to wear a mask/ facial covering.
  • OUTDOORS: Spectators and chaperones, coaches, staff, referees, umpires and other officials who can social distance while outdoors, are not required to wear a mask/face covering.
  • INDOORS: Visitors, spectators, volunteers, and staff while indoors are required to wear a mask/facial covering.
  • Athletes participating in high school sports are considered youth and fall under youth guidelines.

Those students who feel more comfortable wearing a mask outdoors may do so. “As a community, we will support and respect all individuals,” read the statement. Students should continue to store their masks as they were doing during masks breaks and lunch/snack. Encouraging the student to bring in an extra labeled storage bag may also be helpfuls has been the case throughout the year.

The final decision for a school to partake in a particular sport and/or to follow more stringent guidelines belongs at the local level.

Belmont Ends Its COVID Emergency Regs; A Month To Plan Reopening Of Town

Photo: Belmont Town Hall which has been closed to the public for the past 14 months

On the same day Gov. Charlie Baker said the state would lift all remaining COVID-19 restrictions effective Memorial Day, May 29, the Belmont Select Board approved rescinding the town’s emergency regulations requiring residents to wear masks and social distancing.

“Belmont will end the temporary regulations to mirror the state’s mask guidelines,” said Chair Adam Dash at the Select Board’s meeting on Monday, May 17.

“The state will just be implementing a new advisory for face coverings that’s going to replicate what the CDC guidance is around face coverings for the moment,” said Diana Ekman, assistant director of the Belmont Health Department. Residents who are fully vaccinated don’t have to a need to wear a face covering indoors except under certain circumstances such as schools, using public transportation, visiting child and elder care settings, said Ekman.

Those who have yet to be vaccinated should continue to use mask, said Ekman. In addition, Belmont business owners can still require customers to wear masks.

The town and the board can now begin the work to reopen town’s offices and revert back to public meetings once the Massachusetts state of emergency – in effect since March 10, 2020 – is lifted on June 15, approximately a month after Monday’s meeting.

“So we have a lot of planning to do in a very short amount of time,” said Dash. “We’re going to have to start meeting in person sooner than later which overall is a good thing except we weren’t really prepared” as Baker said last month it would be mid-August when the state of emergency would be retracted.

One event that will not take place will be Town Meeting which will take up the budget segment beginning June 2.

Town Administrator Patrice Garvin said after speaking to Wes Chin, Belmont’s health director, once Baker issues the order to lift the emergency order, “Town Hall will most likely be open.” As for a return to board and committee meetings and the open of locations such as the Beech Street Center, “we have to figure this all out,” said Dash, which will include maintaining a virtual presence at meetings which have been popular and a success in upping public participation.

“It’s going to be a bit of a transition back to the old ways with hopefully some taste of the new ways … but we have a little time to play with it.”

COVID Update: Half Of Belmont Is Vaccinated; Out Pacing State, US

Photo: CDC vaccination card and sticker

Belmontians are outpacing their fellow state residents and US citizen in stepping up and being fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

As of the week ending May 11, approximately 51 percent of all Belmont residents are fully vaccinated, having received two doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccine or the one shot Johnson & Johnson dose, according to Diana Ekman, assistant director of the Belmont Health Department. Statewide, 47 percent of Massachusetts residents are fully vaccinated while 37 percent of US citizens have all their shots.

Belmont has recorded a total of 1,139 positive cases of COVID-19 since March 2020 with 80 deaths attributed to the coronavirus.

Nearly 2/3 of all residents (66 percent) and 84 percent of adults over 20 have received least a single dose of the vaccine, which can reduce household transmission of the virus by up to half. In Massachusetts, 63 percent and nationwide 48 percent of adults have had one shot.

For older adults in Belmont, the rate for those 65 and older to be fully vaccinated has reached 82 percent while 88 percent of 65-74 and 90 percent of those 75 and older have had received one shot.

“We got most of the folks in that category,” Ekman told the Select Board at its Monday, May 17 meeting.

While the number of children and young adults representing those 19 and under who have obtained the vaccine remain quite small, “[w]e have heard anecdotally from folks in the schools that there’s been a really good uptake rate in the older group of teenagers that been eligible for a little while and we hope that continues in the 12 to 15 groups as well,” Ekman said.

COVID Update: With J&J’s Return, Belmont Resumes Homebound Vaccinations

Photo: The latest update on the COVID-19 virus in Belmont

Three days after the CDC and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the resumption of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine in the general public, the Massachusetts Department of Health gave the “green light” for Belmont’s Health Department to resume its homebound vaccination effort, according to Wesley Chin, director of Belmont’s Health Department.

Speaking before the Select Board at its Monday, April 26 meeting, Chin said the town has vaccinated 46 at home residents with the help of the Belmont Fire Department.

“I just to encourage any residents out there who are homebound, please call our office at 617-993-2720 and we can schedule an appointment to get them vaccinated in their home,” said Chin.

As of the latest data, 80 percent of residents 75 and older have been fully vaccinated. A third of all residents have had their two shots with 55 percent of the population having at least one vaccine jab.

The temporary halt of the J&J vaccine came after reports of adverse effects primarily an increased risk of blood clots with low platelets in adult women younger than 50 years old. It was resumed after the government said the vaccine’s known and potential benefits outweigh its potential risks.

According to the Health Department, as of April 23, Belmont has 1,106 cumulative confirmed cases of COVID-19, an increase of 10 cases since April 16. There have been a total of 80 COVID-19 related deaths to date, all of which are confirmed by filed death certificates with the Town Clerk’s Office. 

Due to the new case count over the past two weeks, Belmont’s average daily incidence of 8.1 per 100,000, and the .90 percent positivity, Belmont remains “green” according to the state’s color designation metrics.