UPDATED, Sept. 28: Coping with the pandemic has become front-and-center at Arlington Public Schools in the first two weeks of the school year, manifesting in four ways.
The School Committee will ask state legislators to push for a vaccine mandate for students. Arlington High School was dismissed early Thursday because of a power failure disabling the ventilation system that reduces possible virus transmission. Ten positive virus results at Hardy Elementary School were reported to the public this week. And the district will use federal pandemic-recovery funds primarily to enhance instruction for all students.
At its meeting Thursday, Sept. 23, the committee voted, 6-1, with Len Kardon opposed, to follow the lead of the neighboring town of Belmont and to ask state Sen. Cindy Friedman and state Reps. Sean Garballey and David Rogers to try to get Covid-19 added to the list of required vaccinations for public-school students. The motion was made by Paul Schlichtman and seconded by Kirsi Allison-Ampe, a medical doctor, both of whom have consistently expressed great worry about pandemic spread locally.
Why Kardon voted no
Kardon, however, voted no, saying that no major recognized health organization – neither the town’s own health department, nor the state’s, nor the Centers for Disease Control, nor the American Academy of Pediatrics – is advocating universal student vaccination. The pertinent proposed text from the agenda’s supporting materials reads:
“The Arlington School Committee joins the Belmont School Committee in urging the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, through the Department of Public Health or through legislative action, to add an immunization requirement for Covid-19 to the existing list of required vaccines. The Arlington School Committee directs the Secretary to communicate to Senator Friedman, Representatives Garballey, and Representative Rogers that we sign onto Belmont’s letter, and similarly thank them for their continued work on behalf of the children of Arlington.”
The committee did not discuss the mechanics of how such a letter would be written, signed or conveyed. Nor was a distinction made before the vote between the Covid-19 vaccine that is fully approved for people ages 16 and older and the much newer, provisional, Covid-19 vaccine allowed for younger children.
AHS, Hardy issues
Superintendent Dr. Elizabeth Homan said that rain led to a power failure at the high school and that without electricity, the ventilation system could not operate. So the campus was swiftly and safely cleared at 1 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 23. “We absolutely had no choice today,” she said.
She also reported that 10 positive Covid-19 results have occurred at Hardy School but that they were not all connected and that there is possible, but not proven, spread on the campus itself. Two classrooms at Hardy are currently in quarantine and in remote-instruction mode.
She did not give details at the meeting about what measures were taken. She noted that ventilation systems on all campuses are being regularly checked for optimum functionality both mechanically and by human technicians -- and also that the district had accepted a pallet’s worth of sanitizing wipes donated by the National Grid utility.
In an email to parents Sept. 23, she listed steps taken districtwide. See full text below as well as the Sept. 24 follow-up.
The "dashboard" button on the school page reports: one case at Hardy in each of the weeks ending Sept. 10 and 17, and eight cases at Hardy in the week ending Sept. 24.
Pooled testing – in which nasal swabs self-administered by students, collected classroom by classroom and submitted anonymously – is continuing weekly. Information is to be posted at least once a week, usually Friday afternoons, on the district’s “dashboard” portion of its website.
The district is asking the new pooled-testing company required by the state – CIC Health – to send more personnel. The committee Thursday evening voted unanimously to approve the creation and job description of a new full-time position – a licensed practical nurse – to help the registered nurses already at each campus. “We have a school nurse in every building,” said Human Resources Director Robert Spiegel. “This is in addition.” See the job description >>
‘Option B’ chosen for recovery funds
A recent survey of Arlington families showed that they prefer Option B out of the three initiative options presented to the committee earlier this month concerning how to spend the $1.1 million expected from Washington and to be used over the next three years.
“This is what the community is most interested in,” said Dr. Homan, who showed graphs indicating that 66.2 percent of those responding considered this to be high priority.
The formal wording of Option B is “Support to Ensure Student Access to Consistent and Equitable Instruction.” Her slide show included some anonymous quotes from respondents, including one asking for “anti-racist, mental health and trauma-informed teaching practices.”
Homan said that the district was “trying to be judicious” with the money and would not necessarily be hiring more teachers with it. One possible use would be to hire part-time coaches in specific areas, such as social-emotional learning and science, to train classroom teachers, although those teachers would still “be honored as experts,” she said
Sif Ferranti, vice president of the Arlington Education Association, the teachers' union, said that “AEA supports Option B,” echoing the sentiment of AEA President Julianna Keyes, who made the same point at the Sept. 9 committee meeting.
All seven committee members liked Homan’s plan. Exton said she was “really excited about the coaching piece” and added that “I want to be able to hang on to the teachers that we are coaching.” Homan replied that “Retention has been a big part of the conversation.”
In other business
- Special Education Director Alison Elmer and Peirce Elementary School Principal Andrew Ahmadi talked about the Supported Learning Center on that campus. It’s for children with average or above-average cognitive skills who have deficits in reading, writing or similar functions. It currently serves five children in grades three and four but is allowed to have up to 12 children, including some in grade five next school year. Students there work with a special-education teacher, a speech-language pathologist and a paraprofessional. See the presentation >>
- The committee unanimously chose committee Chair Bill Hayner to lead the Remote Participation Study Committee.
- Paul Schlichtman, head of the policies and procedures subcommittee, asked his colleagues to support required vaccination for athletes and other students who regularly interact with students from other campuses during extracurricular activities. Based on concerns raised by Homan, Kardon and Exton, Schlichtman said he would revise the proposed document to stipulate that only students 16 and older, for whom the Covid-19 vaccine has been fully approved, would be asked to be vaccinated.
- The committee went into closed session at 9:30 p.m.
Sept. 23 Dr. Homan email to the public schools' community about Hardy:
"I am writing to inform the community that we have identified possible evidence of the spread of Covid-19 in the Hardy school. These cases were identified in large part by our school COVID-19 surveillance (pooled) testing and test-and-stay programs. To date, there have been 10 positive Covid cases among staff and students at the Hardy school.
"APS and Arlington Facilities staff immediately reviewed all of our health and safety protocols. During this process, we discovered a control system error in the air handling ventilation units at Hardy. This error was corrected on Tuesday morning, and all systems are now fully operational. The Facilities Department is completing an investigation into how this error occurred.
"We are also taking the following steps to ensure safety across the district:
"Assessment of Hardy air handling units to ensure continued functionality will occur on Thursday, 9/ starting at 6 am.
"Assessment of the air exchange rates in each Hardy classroom will be completed on Thursday 9/ and Friday 9/.
"Thorough sanitization of affected Hardy classrooms (in addition to routine cleaning) will occur tonight, Wednesday [9/23].
"All APS school buildings’ ventilation systems are currently being assessed to ensure they are functioning correctly.
"All ventilation units in all school buildings will be physically and visually checked at least 2x/week going forward.
"It is important to emphasize that all ventilation systems at Hardy are now fully operational and we are confident in the air quality and exchange rates throughout the school. Hardy’s system had been assessed in August as part of a comprehensive audit of ventilation at all schools and was found to be fully functional at that time.
"In response to this situation, two classrooms at the Hardy School will be quarantined for seven days and will receive remote instruction during this time. These students will return on Day 8, provided all students and teachers receive a negative PCR test on or after Day 5, in accordance with our protocols. Classes that have not been impacted will continue to participate in our pooled testing efforts and, if necessary, test-and-stay protocols.
"Thank you for your patience and partnership as we begin the 2021-22 school year."
In a Sept. 24 follow-up, Dr. Homan wrote:
"We understand and appreciate the concerns families have shared with us related to this incident. Student safety is our top priority. The unfortunate and stressful situation at Hardy was an important reminder of why we have layered mitigation strategies in place: masking, ventilation, surveillance testing, and other measures help us identify issues and respond to them quickly.
"Our pooled testing and test-and-stay programs allowed us to identify cases at Hardy, and subsequently the ventilation issue. Due to the complex nature of Covid-19 spread, we cannot say with certainty what caused the connected cases, but we know for sure that our Covid-19 testing programs are a critical layer of our health and safety protocols."
Watch the Sept. 23 meeting broadcast by ACMi:
Sept. 19, 2021: Options weighed on spending $1.1 million for public schools
This news summary by YourArlington freelancer Judith Pfeffer was published Friday, Sept. 24, 2021, and updated the same day, to clarify copy. It was updated Sept. 25, to add a Sept. 24 email to parents, as well as Sept. 38, to add ACMi video window.
FACEBOOK BOX: To see all images, click the PHOTOS link just below