Globe, March 14: Teachers union leaders back emergency legislation delaying students’ return to school buildings

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'This is what we have to do.'
-- Jane Morgan, committee chair

UPDATED, March 17: Confronting the apparently inevitable, the School Committee on a divided vote Thursday, March 11, acquiesced to the state’s order to provide full-time, on-campus instruction in grades K-8 next month and in grades 9-12 by a later date yet to be specified.

This decision will phase out the hybrid mode, in which most Arlington Public School students have been coming to campus part time. Those taking classes completely remotely will be allowed to continue to do so until the end of June.

“This is what we have to do,” said an uncharacteristically emotional Jane Morgan, committee chair. “This is what leadership looks like now.”

The change will mean doubling the number of kids on campus at any given moment by halving the current six-foot distance between desks. All will still wear masks, wash hands frequently, take part in self-administered anonymous “pool” virus testing and follow other pandemic protocols.

For safety reasons, the committee had hoped to keep the greater distance between desks and to vaccinate staff before going to five days a week on campus. The state recently opened vaccination to educators and set aside four specific dates for this. But universal vaccination of Arlington educators is nigh-impossible before grades K-5 go back April 5 and grades 6-8 go back April 28.

Schlichtman votes 'no'

Len Kardon made the motion that the district would comply with the order from commonwealth education chief Jeffrey Riley and would also require Superintendent Kathleen Bodie to obtain committee approval should she at any point want to submit a request for a waiver. 

The vote was 5-1-1, as Kirsi Allison-Ampe abstained and Paul Schlichtman voted no.

Riley recently obtained sweeping additional powers on an emergency basis from the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, including the ability to withhold funding from recalcitrant school districts.

Town Counsel Doug Heim earlier in the meeting warned of “relatively nuclear options” from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, saying DESE was “unlikely to be particularly receptive” to noncompliance. Possible consequences for rebellion might even include referral to the attorney general, he said. He mentioned that Elizabeth B. Valerio, outside legal counsel for the school district, had earlier concurred with his assessment. 

In answer to Schlichtman’s question, Heim said that under Massachusetts law, state leaders theoretically “could enact special legislation” to reverse Riley’s decree. Given that Gov. Charlie Baker has been demanding traditional schooling for months, he almost surely would not sign such a bill, so the Legislature would have to over-ride this.

Seeking reps' advice

“[DESE] has a trump card over us, but the Legislature has a trump card over [DESE],” Schlichtman said. “[Representative David M.] Rogers, [Representative Sean] Garballey and [state Sen. Cindy F.] Friedman are the people to talk to if you don’t like where this is going.” He said that he had recently been in touch with Garballey. 

Later in the meeting, Allison-Ampe, a medical doctor, indicated that she might contact the State House as well, saying that five-day-a-week classes in April are “a mistake for Massachusetts and for Arlington.”

She said DESE had been “cherry-picking” nonrepresentative data to promote premature school return. “That is not what we are seeing in Arlington over the past month,” she said. She also noted that the ever-more-prevalent Covid-19 variants are known to transmit more easily and “are more infectious, especially in children.”

The committee voted, 7-0, to set April 1 as a noninstruction day for grades K-5 and as a preparation day for educators to work further on school return; to have middle-school instruction end at noon Wednesdays as of April 28; and to a nonbinding symbolic resolution canceling Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System testing for this year only. 

“This is a unique year. This year’s data is not real,” said Bill Hayner. He also said it would be preferable “to maximize the instructional time coming back” by using it for course material rather than test preparation. MCAS tests are still currently scheduled for various dates from mid-May to mid-June, Arlington High School Principal Matthew Janger said.

Bodie said the district is contacting families to inform them of the changes, buying more furniture to seat students six feet apart during lunch, assessing ventilation systems and working on ways help students adjust to studying in a traditionally sized class.

Elementary, middle-school plans for return

Grades K-5, in which pupils generally have only one teacher throughout the day and week, are relatively easy to bring back to in-person mode. Several principals spoke up to say that children will eat lunch outside when weather permits, with some noting that midday temperatures can vary within the town and also that school populations and campus configurations differ markedly. Bodie said that tents would be installed beginning March 24 to facilitate this.

At Gibbs School, which houses sixth grade, currently 331 students are in hybrid mode, 152 in all-remote mode, according to Principal Fabienne Pierre-Maxwell. The students will have all the same classes, and three rotations will be needed for lunch, with both the cafeteria and gymnasium available for this purpose. More staffing will be needed to ensure the six-foot distance between individuals, she told the committee, and 303 more desks and 225 more chairs need to be purchased for lunch seating.

Speaking for Ottoson Middle School, with its seventh and eighth graders, Principal Brian Meringer said that the situation there was significantly “more complicated.” Ottoson has approximately 600 students in hybrid and some 300 in remote.

Using the three-foot spacing, up to 24 desks can be accommodated in a room, he said. However, three rooms currently have broken ventilation systems, two rooms have tiny windows inadequate to ventilation and seven rooms have no windows.

Moreover, because of limitations of the currently available software, rescheduling of classes may have to be done by hand, which could take up to 80 hours of staff time. 

Perhaps of greatest concern is the fact that, because students have multiple teachers and are divided into multiple learning communities, a single positive virus case could cause many dozens of students to be quarantined. Meringer said he was also worried about anxiety among teachers, their child-care issues and their possible reluctance to returning to campus full time.

High-school plans for return

Janger said he was penciling in plans for the high school in anticipation of a Riley-mandated return date in May. With 1,410 students now in hybrid and 320 remote, the under-construction campus will be at 98-percent capacity at five days a week. And that modality will result in disruption to everything from class schedules to examination preparation to support systems for social-emotional learning, he said.

Moreover, additional supervision in the hallways will be needed, and more janitors. “More staff would be great but is not easy to come by,” he said.

Nevertheless, he said he hopes to be able to provide some on-campus social events for all grade levels possibly including movie nights, picnics and so on.

Responding a question from Kardon, Janger said he hoped to bring back seniors, set to graduate in early June, and freshmen, who have never yet been full-time on their campus, earlier than sophomores and juniors.

In other business:

  • Bodie reported that the girls’ basketball team won the Middlesex League’s Liberty Division and that the other sports teams were also doing well. She said a new online video shows the continuing progress in reconstructing the high school and that the multiyear project is still on schedule and within budget.
  • Fabienne-Maxwell and Meringer showed statistics on disciplinary measures from 2018 to 2020 and said the overall approach is one of education, understanding and support, which are effective in reducing incidents such as vaping, inter-student conflicts and cyberbullying.
  • Drake Pusey, cochair of the Arlington Human Rights Commission, presented a land-acknowledgment statement, supported by the Select Board and due to go to the Arlington Town Meeting. The draft text states in part that what is now Arlington is on “ancestral lands of the Massachusetts Tribe.” Pusey said the intent is for a “cultural, historical, respectful acknowledgment” that would result in “celebrating and recognizing the heritage of indigenous peoples.”
  • Given that the meeting went until 11:13 p.m., the committee deferred discussion of district travel policy, dissolving the Bedford-based EDCO Collaborative multicommunity organization and the monthly budget report to the next meeting, scheduled for March 25."
  • The budget hearing took place early in the meeting as required by law and was very brief as no one from the public asked any questions or otherwise spoke.
See the ACMi video of the March 11 meeting:

Feb. 26, 2021: Administration directed to create plan for full, in-school teaching in spring

This news summary by YourArlington freelance journalist Judith Pfeffer was published Saturday, March 13, 2021, and updated March 15, to add Globe link at top, and March 17, to add ACMi video window.