Breaking: Belmont Schools Return To Remote Learning For The Week After Thanksgiving

Photo: Belmont School District headquarters on Pleasant Street.

Saying the Belmont School District was “making a decision regarding the safety of students, educators, and families,” Belmont Schools Superintendent John Phelan announced that all Belmont students will transition to the remote schedule for the week following Thanksgiving, Nov. 30 to Dec. 4.

“It is not a decision we take lightly,” said Phelan. “While we wish we did not have to make a decision, we are confident it is the safest choice during this time of increasing transmission rates, nationally, state-wide, and locally.”

Elementary and Middle School pupils will revert back to the remote plan from their current hybrid schedule and the introduction of the hybrid model for Belmont High School students scheduled for this week will be delayed.

Pre-K and LABBB will remain in-person for the week. Transportation for those programs will continue as regularly scheduled.

In an email to the Belmont community, Phelan noted the decision was based on six factors relating to the safety of students, educators and families.

“The decision for any school district cannot hinge on a single factor, but rather on a consideration of all factors taken together,” said Phelan.

Those factors include:

  1. Communication with families regarding their travel and hosting plans.
  2. Analyzing our staffing data to get a sense of educators’ travel and hosting plans.
  3. Coordinating with available substitutes.
  4. Seeking the advice of the Belmont Health Department
  5. Networking with other superintendents in the Middlesex League athletic league
  6. Discussing this topic publicly at our Nov. 24 School Committee meeting

“It is our hope that by being proactive and strategic in the short-term we will avoid difficulty in the long-term,” said Phelan.

Community Forum for Parents/Guardians of Remote-Only Students On Monday


On Monday, Oct. 26, from 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m., Belmont School Superintendent John Phelan and Assistant Superintendent Janice Darias will host a forum for parents and guardians of elementary students who are remote-only during the hybrid experience. 

In preparation for this meeting, we invite remote-only, elementary parents/guardians to complete this short survey (SURVEY LINK) to share successes, challenges, and questions from their experiences. If possible, please complete the survey by 9 a.m. on Monday, Oct. 26. We will start the forum with a brief presentation followed by a question and answer period.

Although this forum will focus on the elementary experience, parents and guardians middle and high school students are also welcome to attend. We will hold a second forum focusing on the experience for middle and high school students at a later date.

We look forward to this time together to hear family input and feedback about how we can best serve our students during this challenging time.

Parents can join the forum on Zoom: 

Meeting ID: 862 0657 1288 
To join by telephone, 
Call:  (646) 558-8656 
When prompted, enter: 86206571288# 
When prompted, enter # 

To ask a question or raise your hand, enter *9 on your phone.

District Introducing Streaming For Remote Hybrid Students At Chenery/High School

Photo: Live streaming is coming to Belmont schools

It’s been something that parents and educators have been talking about since last March and its about to happen – live streaming of classes at Belmont public schools.

In an email to the community on Monday, Oct. 19, John Phelan, Bemont district superintendent, announced the development of a “virtual participation model” through a partnership between the adminstration and educators.

The model, to be used by students who selected “remote-only” as their hybrid alternative at both the Chenery Middle and Belmont High schools, will allow students to attend classes with their cohort peers “via live streaming.”

The new model will allow students to stay with their current teachers and present minimal changes in schedules, while providing the district “the most flexible and least disruptive option for if and when one of our schools or school district need to change back to full remote.”

The system can also be used for any student in K-12 who is at home due to a quarantine situation from COVID.

Given this new information, if parents and students would like to change your decision of hybrid to remote-only, contact the following educators by 2 p.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 21

After Wednesday, changes can only occur at the end of a term.

“We want to thank our educators and school leadership for all the work in planning the remote and hybrid models with the students’ academic and social emotional wellbeing at the core of all decisions,” said Phelan.

“We will continue to meet with our educators to get their feedback, as well as ask the community for feedback, as we all experience these models moving forward,” he said.

In an effort to again provide information to the Belmont community on the hybrid models, please see the presentation of the CMS and BHS models to the School Committee on Sept. 29, and the hybrid pros and cons for all models presented at the Sept. 15 meeting.

OpEd: Is Remote Learning Model Safer And Does It Reflect Our Aspirations As A Community?

Photo: Remote learning

By: Jamal Saeh, Maysoun Shomali, Kelly Chiu

Advocates for reopening schools believe that Belmont is ready to open school per the Department of Elementary & Secondary Education guidance.  The majority of Belmont parents voted for the hybrid model.  A number of us have worked on solutions to improve the air circulation in Belmont school buildings, and proposed strategies for surveillance testing, and daily symptom reporting & temperature checks as tools to further reduce the risk of coronavirus infection for students and staff.  

Public schools should provide remote learning as an option for those families who have risk factors requiring them to keep their children at home.  It must not however limit the opportunities for the rest of the Belmont community who, in trusting the experts, believe that what is best for their families is a meaningful return to school. Similarly, remote learning cannot become the default option through measures that handicap the hybrid models, limiting in-person instructional time to six hour a week despite having initiatives like surveillance testing that can help increase the number of hours students can safely spend with their teachers and peers.  Advocates for remote learning say “remote is an extreme action to an extreme situation;” we say solutions built on extreme fear beget extreme policies, and are rarely effective.  

The Boston Globe reported on how state emergency child care centers managed the COVID-19 infection risks. By following the state guided risk mitigation countermeasures, only nine out of the 550 centers had more than a single infection between March and May 2020. Remarkably, this was both during a time when the state was practically in lockdown, and at centers that were catering to children of essential workers, who are perceived to be at the highest risk of infection. This good news suggests that the state guided risk mitigation plans enable the safe reopening of Belmont schools.  

A recent publication in Science questioned the effectiveness of school closures. Researchers observed that “given the near universal closing of schools in conjunction with other lockdown measures, it has been difficult to determine what benefit, if any, closing schools have over other interventions.” Further, they conclude “[t]here is now an evidence base on which to make decisions, and school closure should be undertaken with trepidation given the indirect harms that they incur. Pandemic mitigation measures that affect children’s wellbeing should only happen if evidence exists that they help because there is plenty of evidence that they do harm.”

Some claim that remote learning options are the safest option for families and teachers, but what does the evidence tell us?  Scientists at Stanford University analyzed real-world-evidence of Covid-19 infections after schools reopened around the country.  Data collected over a two week period from 598 schools in 46 states, 353,311 students, and 41,628 staff show that the risk of infection to students and teachers is low across all school opening plans.  The data were reported by 64% of public schools, the rest were by private or independent schools.  To a large degree, the mitigation plans implemented in these schools were similar to Belmont Public Schools (BPS).  Mitigation strategies reported included less than 90 percent of students and staff masking, 79 percent of schools reported increased ventilation and 72 percent reported cohorting. Only 8 percent of schools had staff tested before the start of school. The summary in Figure 1 shows that the risk to teachers and students are not too dissimilar across models. The suspected and confirmed COVID-19 infections among staff in Remote and “All In Person Full Capacity” was 0.37 percent and 0.31 percent respectively.  Said differently, staying at home does not appear to reduce the staff risk of infection to zero and is likely similar to the risk of going to school in person.  Risk mitigation measures at schools are effective in reducing the risk.  Further, it suggests that children are not vectors of community infection, consistent with a body of evidence that indicates that infection rate in K-12 schools reflects the prevalence in the community. This is reassuring data and supports the reopening of Belmont schools. It also invites the Belmont School Committee, the administration and the community to examine other risks and issues specific to the remote learning model.

Figure 1: Incidence of Covid-19 infection published in  National COVID-19 School Response Data Dashboard accessed 27Sep20.

It will take years to fully assess the impact of remote learning on children’s emotional and physical wellbeing.  The American Academy of Pediatrics led a push for students to be physically present in classrooms rather than continue in remote learning and was reflected in the CDC recommendation.  A CDC report revealed that as of late June 2020, anxiety disorders had tripled compared to 2019.  A survey of case studies in local hospitals and schools suggest that “Boston has a looming public health crisis” and that “children are not OK”. There is published data that support the AAP position to send kids back to school.  One study showed the risk of depression and suicide in children decreased when schools reopened. Another study showed that during quarantine, home had become more dangerous than schools.  More domestic accidents were reported requiring emergency visits, with a higher incidence of accidents than in the previous three years.  With the Covid-19 infection risk being so low to both children and teachers, the school committee and the administration must confront how their school opening plans are compromising the mission of public education.

It is important that we reflect on less technocratic critiques of remote learning that are fundamental to our aspirations as a public school system and a country. Remote learning rewards the economically privileged and disadvantages the rest, particularly people of color.  Consider the solutions that are at the disposal of those more able to manage the negative aspects of remote learning: the formation of “pandemic pods,” hiring professionals to quarterback their children’s remote education, and staying at home to supervise their children’s learning are just a few examples.  While we may want to consider these as personal and benign in nature, they exclude the people that public education was designed to support, and worse, have the potential to perpetuate racial inequities.  In an era when, rightly, Belmont Public Schools has championed a focus on equity and restorative justice, we must consider the placement of remote learning in the troubled history of public schooling in this country: It is part of a continuum of “white flight” that weakens public schools and presents obstacles to integration efforts and equity.  

By choosing hybrid, Belmont is saying we’re better than this.

Jamal Saeh, PhD is the Executive Director and Global Program Leader in early clinical oncology group at Astrazeneca. He is a Belmont parent to two Belmont High students.

Maysoun Shomali is a principal scientist and lab head at Sanofi. She is a Belmont parent to two kids in the public schools.

Kelly Chiu, MD FAAP is Assistant in Medicine, Division of General Pediatrics and Instructor in Pediatrics, Harvard Medical School.  She is a parent to two school aged kids.

Opinion: An Open Letter To School Committee On Delaying A Vote On Proposed Hybrid Learning Option

Photo: Wait on voting for a hybrid model

To Andrea Prestwich, Chair, Belmont School Committee

I understand the Belmont School Committee needs to ratify the Belmont Public School’s remote learning plan in some form or fashion before school starts. Prior to voting, I would urge you and the other members of the committee to address the following aspects of the proposed Remote Learning plan in a clear and concise manner:

1) There has been no clear and precise estimate given by the BPS for the amount and types of family support that will be required for students at different levels to be successful in remote learning, nor has there been any assessment that I am aware of that gauges the degree to which the required and expected levels of support are feasible for families at the outset of this Phase or sustainable for any duration of time.

2)  There has been no clear and compelling rationale that has been offered to explain why start times can’t be later in remote learning. Belmont Schools Superintendent John Phelan has spoken a few times to the complexities of transportation, but as far as I’m aware there are no transportation issues during Phase 1 and very few parents and caregivers representing less than 500 out of 4,000 students indicated an interest in or reliance on bus transportation when asked. One of your core campaign issues when you originally ran for BSC was for a later start time. If we are ever going to explore and experiment with later start times, which the vast majority of families and students support, this would appear to be the moment. If we are not going to start later, especially at Chenery Middle School, I would expect that the particulars of why we cannot do so would need to be presented to the committee and the public before a vote on the remote schedule.

3) There has been no clear and compelling reason for why lunch schedules can’t be adjusted to accommodate family lunch at the same time both within Chenery and across school levels. Doing so would be the most convenient thing for families and would be best for the social-emotional wellbeing of students and families during Phase 1.

All of these issues relate in some form or fashion to the degree of responsiveness of the BPS and BSC to core concerns of and feedback from Belmont families, especially given the shift in the degree of responsibility for students’ education that families will bear in Phase 1 and all of the proposed phases until full in-person learning resumes.

Regarding the proposed hybrid plan, I strongly oppose and do not understand the idea that we need to rush to a vote next week given that the proposed hybrid plan, which is radically different from all previous models of hybrid learning that have been presented to the BSC and the public, has not been properly vetted by the public nor the BSC and given that hybrid learning is not likely to start in whatever form it takes until October at the earliest. 

To understand this issue more deeply from the perspective of Belmont parents and caregivers, it is useful to review the timeline of the process of exploring hybrid models so far:

  • June 29: of the 900 survey respondents, only 42 percent of respondents indicated support for a hybrid when the idea of the hybrid model was fairly abstract and when families might have conceived of the question as being in distinction to the possibility of a full in-person return to school.
  • July 16: though the total number of survey respondents is not clear from the slide deck from the BSC meeting, only 9 percent of families preferred full remote learning; 91 percent of respondents preferred full in-person learning or hybrid.
  • Aug. 4:  Superintendent Phelan presented 7 hybrid models to the public, all of which have significantly more in-person learning opportunities for students than the current proposed hybrid plan, which offers far fewer in-person options for many fewer students.
  • Aug. 6: the current “Return to Learning” phased plan is reviewed for the first time, marking a sudden and significant reversal in the direction of the public discussion about options for returning to school without a very clear rationale for why we are moving in this direction.
  • Aug. 11: at a BSC presentation representing the perspectives of approximately 3,000 of the 4,000 Belmont Public School students and the last time families were invited to express a point of view about hybrid learning, there was overwhelming support (2,138 of 3,152) for more and more frequent in-person learning opportunities (hybrid + full in-person) than is currently proposed.
  • Sept. 2: the current proposed hybrid models are presented to the public for the first time along with information about the “remote-only” option; the proposed models for students allow for significantly less in-person learning (2-3 mornings a week for most students) than had been previously discussed, not in keeping with expectations of families. In addition, the concept of a “Bridge” phase (“Phase 1.5”) is introduced for the first time to BSC but not voted upon.
  • Sept. 3: a survey is distributed to BPS families to choose between the current proposed hybrid model and the proposed remote model with the expectation that families will choose by Sept. 17 between these two models, neither of which approximates families’ expectations or resembles previous hybrid models under consideration. The survey does not contain a “none of the above” option or an option to indicate support for a different hybrid model if one would be available.  In the meantime, families are asked to articulate questions they have about the proposed models vs. feedback and there is a precipitous drop in family engagement as represented by the steep decline in the number of families who respond to surveys.

I would submit to you and other members of the committee that neither you nor Belmont families have had the opportunity to vet properly the details of the proposed hybrid model such that families would have a basis for making a choice on the one hand and that you would be informed enough about the perspectives of families on the other to vote next week.  Indeed, I would go further and say that, notwithstanding the very real need that the BPS has to engage in staffing projections, families should not have been asked to indicate a “choice” between two models they mostly do not want without further examination by BSC and BPS of whether adjustments can be made to the proposed hybrid model that would be in keeping our recently agreed-upon metrics for each Phase and more aligned with what families want and expect for their children.

Under those circumstances, I urge you to delay a vote of the hybrid model, to encourage BPS leadership to add more in-person learning opportunities whenever we move to Phase 3 and to extend the deadline for families to submit their preference sheets until modifications to the hybrid model can be more fully explored and articulated.  

Jeff Liberty

Worcester Street

Not Now: Belmont Schools Decline Virtual Classroom In Remote Learning Program

Photo: First slide in the Belmont School District’s overview of its Phase II remote learning program.

While a sizable number of Belmont parents – in online message boards, text communications and emails – are pushing the school district to employ a more traditional teacher/students learning experience via a virtual classroom, it appears, for now, Belmont’s educators will be staying with its current remote learning plan.

That was the conclusion of a wide-ranging Town Hall-styled forum held by the Belmont School Committee via video conferencing on Tuesday, April 7.

Approximately 85 residents “attended” the session, which allowed the committee and the school district to update the rollout of Phase II of the district’s Remote Learning curriculum that began on Monday, April 5.

The key components in this teacher-led phase are creating direct learning that includes social-emotional learning, maintenance of previously learned skills and contents as well as meaningful learning opportunities as students advance the curriculum in both skills and content.

On Tuesday, the school committee heard from Belmont Superintendent John Phelan and members of the district’s central office presented a step-by-step outline of the Phase II plan while answering a harvest load of questions on how the schools have been handling the school closures and remote learning.

You can see the answers to parents’ questions as well as the district’s Phase II plan here.

But what has been a bone of contention for many parents is a growing disappointment across the grade spectrum that Belmont has not implemented a remote program that centers on classroom-style learning in which teachers would spend some part of their day “in front” of their students.

“Hopefully, phase II will include some virtual classroom learning for students which will assist with curriculum instruction allow students to see each other and learn together. Some schools who are doing virtual classrooms have used a modified schedule which has been great for teachers, student and parents,” said “Patrick” at the meeting.

In addition, parents were frustrated that Belmont schools spent the initial two weeks under Phase I which focused on “enrichment” of the studies that students had learned during the school year. They point to school districts such as Natick as committing to a virtual concept of educating its students.

“My first grader has gone from approximately 30 hours per week of seeing his first-grade teacher and peers to about 40 minutes per week maximum,” said Lindsay Doherty in a note to the meeting.

“K-4 teachers should be holding morning meetings 3-5 times per week if you are actually dedicated to [Social Emotional Learning]. That’s what is being required in other districts on top of at least [four] small group online meeting per week to check-in. Twice per week is not enough for these young kids.” said Doherty.

But despite parents’ advocacy, “[w]e do not have a plan right now for substantive changes to Phase II,” said Janice Darius, assistant superintendent.

John Phelan, Belmont’s superintendent, reminded the public that Phase II – which goes beyond what the state has asked of districts in doing remote learning – has only been up and running for two days.

“I reserve the right to say, ‘let’s let the teachers do their work for the next two weeks and then let’s assess it, let’s talk about what … is going well and … what might not be going well’.”

And at least for the near term, Phelan effectively put to rest any opportunity the district will set up an interactive lecture hall even if schools remain off-limits to students for the remainder of not just the school year but 2020.

“I can’t predict what next week or what next month holds but doing a straight online virtual classroom every day across the high school, middle school and elementary schools I don’t see happening this year,” he said.

The constraints preventing the implementation of a district-wide remote classroom program lies in two areas. The first is the need to ramp up the infrastructure and technology to create an effective and seamless teaching environment. In addition to the connectivity issues, there are significant security and privacy concerns that will need to be resolved as well as equity and access for all students.

The second hindrance to virtual lectures came from the working teacher on the School Committee. Tara Donner is an elementary school teacher in Winchester who acknowledged that many parents had been hoping that teachers and students would be “meeting” on a regular basis to conduct

“On one hand, yes, I totally agree that it’s not enough facetime but there so much about our situation right now that is not right for everyone,” said Donner. She told the meeting of her own experience in the classroom with kids how “there are so many things you can do all at one time” talking to a student, passing out assignments, monitoring homework.

“You can do five things at once, that in this home environment, each one of those things takes so much more time,” she said. “I think [increased facetime] is important for the kids to be able to see and connect, but it’s not the same as teaching.”

“So doing [virtual classroom] five times a week for however long does not accomplish the same thing and I think it can cause stress for some students,” said Donner.

The district is floating the idea of a survey to receive feedback from parents on their experiences and how to improve Phase II. But that would not be sent out until the last days of April.

While the current return to school date set by Gov. Baker is May 4, Phelan said students, teachers, and parents “must be a little more nimble with how we approach to school” with the knowledge there is a possibility social distancing will be reintroduced sometime during the 2020-2021 school year.

“Our goal is to try to create a dual learning environment where were we can be flexible if we have to open school for a few months and may be closed for several days or weeks and try to keep the momentum of the learning moving forward for the entire school year

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.