Letter To The Editor: Belmont Needs Common Sense Policy On Student Covid Vaccination Mandate

Photo: The author believes Belmont should adopt a common sense approach to student vaccinations

To the editor:

In the last year and a half, I’ve made it a point to call my elderly Aunt Helen every week. Our conversations touch on a wide range of topics: politics, stories about my parents I’d never heard before, and regular family updates. Lately, Helen has shared stories that are more personal: experiences with her mentally ill father and her unfaithful husband whom she divorced, and sexual harassment and gender discrimination as a working single mom. Recently, I asked her, “How did you manage to get through all of that?”  Helen laughed and said, “I just thought of the story about the little engine that could and I told myself, I can, I must, I will.”  

Belmont needs a little of my Aunt Helen’s can-do attitude right about now. For the third school year in a row, we’ve struggled to maintain focus on where we want to be in the future and how to get there from a policy perspective. To be fair, the national political and scientific landscape is complex, dynamic, and divisive, and “guidance” from the state has been slow to come and sometimes unhelpful. As a consequence, our small town has become torn about the best ways to keep everyone safe and to return to a “normal life” whatever that means going forward.

We can and must do better. For starters, as it did with the universal indoor mask mandate, the Board of Health should follow the advice of the CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics by enacting a policy that mandates vaccinations against COVID-19 among all BPS students who are approved for vaccines by the FDA, presently 16 and older. Based on recent data provided by Belmont Superintendent John Phelan, student vaccinations seem to be stuck at the 80 percent mark, which means that hundreds of students who are eligible for vaccines have not yet gotten them. This represents a significant risk to public health and must be addressed.  

A vaccine mandate for students who are 16 and older will not ensure that all age-eligible students will get vaccinated, but it will send a powerful message to students and families that vaccines are normal and expected for participation in the Belmont Public Schools for all age groups once the FDA determines that the vaccine is safe. The policy can be written in such a way that families will know that they need to prioritize getting their children vaccinated as soon as their age brackets are approved under Emergency Use Authorization because, eventually, all age brackets will be approved by the FDA. This kind of policy will make it unnecessary for the School Committee to make vaccine policy in an ad hoc way every time a new age group gets approved, leaving time to discuss other essential business, such as academic achievement and the social-emotional wellbeing of our students, both of which have suffered in the last two years. 

A vaccine mandate, especially if the policy is enacted with a deadline before Thanksgiving, will not only make schools safer for students and their families by reducing the number of students who will become seriously infected as we head into the winter, it will also be a sign of good faith to our school nurses, the members of the Belmont teachers’ union, and other bargaining units who have agreed to mandatory vaccines that the community cares about their workplace safety.  

More than anything, by using its authority to enact this policy, the Belmont Board of Health will help us take a step in the direction of a future we all want for our children and ourselves, a world in which our children can play and attend school largely without masks and without dread of serious illness and death. As a small town with a strong commitment to local governance, we don’t need to wait for the Massachusetts Legislature, which we heard recently from State Senator Will Brownsberger will defer to the state’s Department of Public Health, to issue this common-sense policy. We can and we must take this important step ourselves to protect our community.   

Jeff Liberty

Worcester Street

Letter To The Editor: Vote ‘Yes’ To Secure Our Shared Future

To the editor:

I’m a Belmont parent who likes clear and simple. For me, Tuesday’s override ballot question can be reworded simply: Do you support funding smaller classes for students?

After a long, hard year, my son goes back to school in-person full time on Monday. Finally. He will have 23 students in his class, less than five percent of his teacher’s divided time. Without the override, smaller classes are impossible, there will be fewer teachers, and no math coaches. The past year has been hard, hard, hard. I’m exhausted by the slow pace of return-to-normal, and how it has affected us all. Yet the forward looking question remains: do we support smaller classes for all our students in 2021 and beyond? I say YES.

As a member of our connected community, the override could also be worded as: Do you support hiring a social worker for the senior center?

I say YES. Without the override, our seniors get even less support. I will be a senior one day in Belmont.

I’m hopeful for our future, and want to invest in our community. I like running our streets and trails, being outdoors, and the smell of grasses and pine trees on Lone Tree Hill. The override might be rewritten as: Do you support finding more green infrastructure opportunities in our town?

I say YES. Without the override, we will underinvest in sustainable infrastructure and our shared outcomes.

In running every street in Belmont, I’ve unblocked storm drains, tripped on too many sidewalks, and carried home the trash I found along the way. You might read the override as: Do you support hiring more DPW workers to help maintain our community? How about Police, and Fire?

I say YES. Without the override, we will fall farther behind in essential maintenance and public safety resources.

Many of those most affected have no choice, and no voice. Our school children cannot vote for smaller classes and more teacher time. Our non-US citizen neighbors cannot vote. We can choose. They are counting on us to invest in our shared future. Please vote YES with me on Tuesday.

Matt Taylor, Edgemoor Road

Letter To The Editor: A Yes Vote On Override Necessary So Students Receiving Special Education Services Can Succeed

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To the editor:

At a November Parent Teachers Organization meeting, a Belmont Public School administrator explained one of the rationales for the “WIN” (What I Need) blocks in students’ schedules: they provide the time needed to work with students who receive special education services. That prompted a parent to respond that never before had it felt that a minority of students were holding all the others back. The comment, no doubt born of the pandemic’s frustrations and miseries, highlighted a misconception. As the parents of children who receive special education services, we write to explain what really holds back every BPS student and how not passing the budget override on April 6 will only magnify the problem.

Many students have neurological conditions and other issues that necessitate having an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). An IEP specifies services, accommodations, and modifications required for each student and details goals. The document is legally binding, and no educator or administrator can cherry pick services to provide from the IEP or eliminate goals because staffing and funding are just too difficult.

Currently, our very lean school budget means not having critical special education positions for Belmont’s elementary schools. These positions are not “an extra,” as Butler parent and middle school special educator Stephanie Crement wrote in The Belmontonian. In other districts, people in these positions, among other things, complete legally mandated and time-intensive compliance paperwork. Otherwise “those responsibilities fall solely on the teachers and school psychologists,” Crement wrote, meaning less time for Belmont’s dedicated educators to teach all children.

In 2012, a Winn Brook School kindergarten class had fewer than 20 students. At Chenery Middle School, science classrooms have reached or exceeded 30 students in recent years. The Superintendent’s recent budget report to the School Committee details some BHS core academic classes already had as many as 35 students in 2019-2020. This alarming change in class sizes has occurred because from 2010 to 2020, the Belmont Public School total enrollment grew by 21 percent, an additional 823 students. Two Massachusetts Department of Education statistics testify to the effect of the surging enrollment: Belmont falls in the bottom 3 percent in Massachusetts for class size and in the bottom 6 percent in per pupil expenditure. Belmont’s per pupil expenditure falls behind Fall River, Holyoke, and Revere and far behind Concord, Newton, and Weston.

Providing the level of support, accommodations and modifications necessary for students with special education services in a class of 15 to 20 students gets significantly more difficult — and thus requires more individual classroom support — when classes reach 25 to 30 students. A student’s IEP legally binds BPS to provide this individual support. But legal mandate or not, we cannot realistically expect our children, or anyone else’s, to receive the same care and individual attention needed to thrive fully in a 57-minute class with 35 students compared to the attention received in a class of 15 to 20.

Here is what all parents need to know about a critical reason BPS could not provide live, synchronous learning for all students during the WIN blocks: it simply lacked the teachers to do so. Here is what all BPS students — regardless of receiving special education services — face if they return to school in September without an override’s additional funding: 22 fewer teachers and staff than if the override had passed and a $564,760 reduction in programs beginning this summer — arts, athletics and anything else that can be cut. However, with an override’s funding, BPS can hire elementary school special education professionals, teachers for CMS and BHS, and a high school social worker to help all students with mental health challenges. Shell-shocked by the pandemic, many kids will be crying out for a social worker’s help to reintegrate socially and academically.

As parents of children who receive special education services, we support the override because this funding is necessary for the success of our own children. We also know that passing the override is good for ALL of Belmont’s students. To conclude, we quote a recent Belmont Citizen Herald op-ed from BHS students appealing for parents to support the override:

“As of October 2020, the Belmont Public Schools had around 4,700 students. Fewer than four percent of these students are eligible to vote, making our voices almost entirely unheard in an issue in which each student is directly impacted by your vote.”

“The future of Belmont’s students lies in your hands. Please remember us when you vote.”

  • Roger Fussa, Chenery Middle School
  • Amani Abu Shakara, LABBB
  • Charles Bandes and Patsy Collins Bandes, Butler School
  • Amy M. Brown, Chenery Middle School
  • Amy Frasco, Wellington School
  • Helen Josephine, Chenery Middle School
  • Dawn Mampreian, Butler School
  • Kara Morin, Chenery Middle School
  • Abigail Myers, Butler School

Letters To The Editor: Election Endorsements, Upset And Voting For The Override; How To Select School Committee Members

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Supporting Saeh For School Committee

I am writing this morning as a mom and member of the business community here in Belmont. I am a local Realtor here in town and a 17-year resident.  Just as many people do, my husband and I decided to start our family here in Belmont solely for the public school system. The past year has made many parents and residents question that decision.  I am writing to give my full and enthusiastic endorsement for Jamal Saeh for School Committee. Jamal has committed himself to the difficult task of sitting on that committee.  It is a demanding and time-consuming endeavor that determines our children’s fate.

My experience with Jamal has been through his tireless efforts and our interactions trying to get our children back in school. He has proven to be a skilled problem solver while presenting endless solutions to the many challenges our current administration has proposed. His background and profession enable him to analyze and research the data and that translates perfectly for a position on the school committee.

He has worked and fought continuously to give our children the education they deserve here in Belmont. He is honest, transparent, fair, and approachable. Our children are worthy of so much more than what they have lost this past year.  There are many challenges for our school system that lie ahead.  Jamal will help preserve the integrity and standard of our school systems and ensure that all families are receiving the highest quality education that we expect from our town. Our children not only deserve someone like Jamal, but they also NEED him. A vote for Jamal is a vote for our children.

Melissa Maniatis, Country Club Lane

I’m Angry and I’m Voting for the Override Anyway

When our children were very young and just learning how to manage conflict and complicated emotions, my wife and I used to say, “When you’re tired, be careful of your body and the people you love.”

We are all tired now. Bone tired. Pandemic life is strange and unnatural.  After a year of isolation, little things like going to the grocery store or the park can feel stressful. Many of us are working from home and, at the same time, trying to make sure our kids continue to be educated and socialized in the ways that they can these days.

From last March to today, the School Committee and the Belmont Public Schools administration have not been up to the task of managing our growing, diverse, and under-resourced school system through the COVID crisis. Teachers have worked hard to learn new skills and to support students in new and creative ways, but the teachers’ union has run circles around the BSC and BPS leadership in negotiations, ensuring that even basic improvements to students’ opportunities to learn take forever to implement or never happen without state intervention. As a consequence, reeling from the chaos of the last year, families have formed insular factions that quarrel with one another online while others have lost hope that their kids can get even a semblance of a decent education this year and have become disengaged from the conversation about our public schools.  Many families have left the Belmont Public Schools altogether.  

And that’s just the schools. After 11 years, my street still looks like the surface of the moon and recently installed sidewalks are in need of repair.  We can’t seem to make simple municipal decisions like how to replace an aging fuel tank or how to collect trash from our parks without a resurgence of rats.

Then there’s the fiscal management of the town where it has seemed for a decade that no one has been able to develop a viable plan to permanently and comprehensively deal with the structural deficit we have inherited from previous generations by consolidating services and creating new and sustainable revenue streams that rely less heavily on residential taxes.          

It’s exhausting. All of it.  

This is the environment in which we are being asked to consider financial decisions with real consequences. After a year when so little has been in our control and after so many ineffective meetings, committees, communications, and decisions, it’s tempting to focus all of your tired rage on whatever decisions are directly in your hands.

Here’s where we need to be extra careful of our “body” and “the ones we love.” In this case, our body is the civic culture of our town and the way we relate to one another as neighbors. The ones we love in this analogy are the teachers and students in the Belmont Public Schools, our seniors, and other members of our community who rely on town services.  

The underfunding of our schools and our other town departments doesn’t explain away poor management, process, and communication, but it does make it more difficult for challenges to be identified and resolved effectively and efficiently. The low levels of staffing at the Chenery, for example, made it much more difficult for Principal Koza and her team to offer more synchronous learning time during the hybrid phase. I learned recently that the electrical system of our library, unlike Watertown’s which has been open for weeks, can’t handle running air purifiers so that we can enjoy our library safely.        

I’ve come to the conclusion that I can support the override on April 6 without signaling that I am satisfied with the performance of our town’s leaders.  I am not satisfied.  I am angry and exhausted.  There needs to be real accountability and real reform, especially in our school system, the School Committee, and the way that we plan for the future financially.  Through our votes for School Committee, Town Meeting, and Select Board and our engagement with our elected officials, we can express our righteous anger, insist on better local government, and fund services that are essential to our quality of life without hurting the ones we love the most. 

Jeff Liberty

Vote Jamal Saeh for School Committee

Belmont’s school system has always been a source of pride, yet it is in a state of crisis. We are enthusiastic that Jamal Saeh is offering his time and expertise to chart a better path forward. He is a strong leader with a vision, having tirelessly advocated for better, evidence-based decisionmaking in our schools.  
Why are we in crisis? Last summer, 70 percent of Belmont parents, consistent with recommendations of health experts, expressed a preference for in person/hybrid education for their children. We view in person interactions as crucial for children’s emotional well-being and effective learning. However, Belmont began this school year with remote-only instruction, forgoing two months with mild weather and low transmission, and leaving many details for the return to in person instruction unspecified. Results have been discouraging. Recently, Belmont ranked third from the bottom state-wide in terms of number of hours of in person instruction. Little has been done to improve upon initial hybrid instructional models selected with almost no parent feedback or public vetting of assumptions. Teachers have been forced to make major changes multiple times in mid-stream at short notice. Many of these problems felt avoidable, a symptom of a broken decisionmaking process.

Jamal offers a different model for approaching these challenges moving forward. Jamal proposed a plan for a pooled testing program which was easy to implement and cost effective, one which closely resembles programs eventually recommended by the state and adopted here in Belmont, albeit four months after his initial proposal. He has continually advocated for practical and thoughtful solutions. A common thread in these proposals — whether related to evaluating public health metrics, live-streaming for high school students, or better layouts under social distancing constraints — is their practicality. Rather than reinvent the wheel, Jamal studied successful solutions which worked elsewhere and adapted them to our specific context. He has always been transparent about his assumptions and consistently pointed to easy opportunities for improvement, while carefully considering views of all stakeholders. 

We should not be surprised to see such an approach from Jamal, given his experience as a researcher. He has worked for two decades doing strategic planning in environments with uncertain outcomes and incomplete information. Given the myriad of challenges we currently face, Belmont would be very fortunate to benefit from his skill set.

We highly encourage you to visit  www.saehforschools.com and to vote for him on April 6.

Lawrence D. W. Schmidt, Richardson Road; Martin Zwierlein, Richardson Road

No School (Leadership) Will Lead to School Flight

In a recent poll, nearly 65 percent of Belmont parents stated they will consider sending their children to private school if Belmont does not commit to full in-person school. Approximately 25 percent of respondents – 50 people – have applied or secured spots in private schools for their children.  This after we saw a drop of nearly 300 students enrolled in Belmont public schools this past year.  We are on the cusp of flight from Belmont Public Schools, a trend that will hurt us all.

Recently, a number of concerned parents conducted an informal survey of nearly 200 parents to learn more about the impact this year may have on school enrollment. The results are upsetting. The reason is unacceptable.  Parents have lost confidence in the School Committee and Administration.  They are upset because online school does not work and the hybrid plans – especially at Chenery where hybrid is described as a mess and ridiculous – are failing our students. Children are not learning and their social and emotional needs are not being met. Parents believe leadership has failed and they lack confidence in Belmont Public Schools. 

Belmont already has earned the bad reputation of being one of sixteen schools in the state to be cited as failing to comply with guidelines to provide in-person education, and then had our hybrid plan ranked 240 out of 242 by DESE. If families start to leave, the problems are exacerbated. We risk keeping and attracting the best teachers. We are creating a less equitable school system. Families will stop seeking out Belmont and our property values will decline. Our schools, which have been the pride of many and a consistent draw for families, will suffer.

While this poll is not scientific, it is a clear sign of an important and concerning undercurrent in our town. Families are looking to send their children to other schools because of our schools and leadership are failing them. We need to allow all of our students to return to full in-person school now – not just for our children, but to start to repair the trust in our system and allow our community to thrive. 

It has been more than a year since our children have attended real school.  To repair our community and help ensure the continued success of our schools and our town, it is time to open our schools for every student who wants to return.

Danielle Lemack, Fairmont Street

How to Choose the Right School Committee Members for the Future of Belmont

On April 6, town election day, we have an opportunity to elect two members of our six-person School Committee. If you do not have children in the school system, do not abstain from voting for School Committee candidates. Throwing away your vote is like giving a blank check to someone you do not know. 

Get to know each of the five candidates on the School Committee ballot. Visit each of their websites, participate in their Zoom sessions, and most importantly, ask questions about how they will deliver on their promises. Your vote is your voice.

The School Committee has the power to hire and fire the Superintendent. They control over half of our town’s budget. And most importantly, the School Committee looks out for your student’s best interests in much the same way that the teacher’s union looks out for the teachers’ best interests.

Here are four ways to consider how to cast your vote for School Committee candidates:

1. School Committee members must be committed to being the best advocate for our children by gathering information from the community so he/she can make an informed decision on whether to accept or reject any policy regarding the public schools. They do not participate in creating curriculums, that is the job of the superintendent and school administrators. This means a degree or experience in the field of education does not make or break a School Committee member. Rather, a School Committee member should be attuned to the needs of the students and gather applicable data from reputable sources (i.e., other school committees, scientific data, etc.) to help make an informed decision.

2. School Committee members are responsible for continued oversight of the school budget expenditures to ensure the funds are spent appropriately.  They must be familiar with the school budget, which includes salaries and enrollment numbers, and must be confident enough to raise questions and challenge the numbers if they don’t make sense. Keep in mind the school budget represents 60 percent of the town’s operating budget. It is important the School Committee does not simply rubber stamp financial information. It is their job to probe and manage finances to ensure that the budgets reflect programs that will best support our students.

3. School Committee members must have skills in negotiations and arbitrations because it is they who sit in the room with the administration and district lawyer when negotiating with the teacher’s union.

4. Members must exercise good governance, which means knowing how boards operate and how to adhere to guidelines of operations and civil interactions. It is not easy to wrap your head around and quickly “dive into” this type of knowledge. It is best to have some members who have prior experience running boards of directors.

The best way to choose a School Committee member is the same way you would choose an advocate to represent your child at the bargaining table. You need to be a terrific negotiator, someone who knows how budgets work, how the rules work, and what levers to push in order to advance children’s best interests.  

Vote on April 6. Your vote is your voice. 

Rubi Lichauco, Belmont High School parent ’21 and ‘17