UPDATED, Marech 11: Two related demands -- for Covid-19 vaccination to be provided locally to school personnel and for full-time in-person education – continue to grow in Arlington. The stakes got higher March 5, as commonwealth education czar Jeffrey Riley gained broad powers to control when public schools return to the traditional mode, possibly as soon as April 5 at least for elementary schools.
As per the 8-3 vote by the board of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, districts who decline to fall in line with whatever deadline is set can request waivers exempting them from the requirement. But if these are not granted, that could jeopardize potentially district funding, with the threat that Riley might declare that their remote instruction hours no longer qualify.
Meanwhile, statewide vaccine availability is being expanded for teachers -- but its schedule probably won’t result in full vaccination by the time five-day-a-week classes are to start, nor will it be locally based, as many associated with Arlington Public Schools had hoped.
Bringing Arlington students back five days a week, instead of the current hybrid plan of two days per week, would almost certainly mean abandoning the protocol of six feet of distance between desks and individuals that the district has maintained since Sept. 21.
But neither they nor anyone else has yet arranged for this to be carried out at the local level through individual school districts or via municipal health departments. And this is precisely what Arlington Public Schools’ administrators, its board and its teachers want for health and safety reasons.
School districts shouldn’t whine about insufficient time to pivot to full-time on-campus instruction next month, Riley says. On Tuesday, March 9, Riley ordered five-day-a-week schedules for elementary schools as of April 5 and for middle schools by April 28. A return date for grades nine through 12 is to be announced in April, which could pose difficulties here given the ongoing major reconstruction at Arlington High School.
Students on completely remote schedules can stay on them at least for now.
Districts can request waivers from Riley’s requirements: These would be due by March 22 for elementary schools and by April 12 for middle school -- though there is no guarantee that those exemptions will be granted.
The 16-page memo issued Tuesday by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education says that public comment will be accepted through April 23 and that the final decision, taking into account the comments, will be by vote of the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education in May.
The department maintains that on-campus staffer vaccination is not a prerequisite for reopening given that the pandemic is receding statewide. And it considers that three feet between student desks is sufficient, citing the World Health Organization. Arlington has used the more conservative six-foot distance, as advocated by the Centers for Disease Control, since the current school year began Sept. 21. The larger the distance between desks, the fewer desks can fit in a room and the fewer the number of children can be on campus per day.
Local agenda, hopes
Locally, reopening plans have long been on the agenda for the Thursday, March 11 regular meeting of the Arlington School Committee, starting at 6:30 p.m. via remote participation.
Arlington Public Schools’ committee, its administration and its teachers union had been hoping for both widespread and local Covid-19 vaccination of on-campus staffers before full reopening. Moreover, the town health department says it is easily capable of administering 1,000 shots per week but has not been provided with them.
Meanwhile, Arlington continues to dispense what relatively few vaccines it has received to emergency responders, low-income seniors and similar top-priority individuals.
Massachusetts has just set four dates aside for teachers to be vaccinated: March 27, April 3, April 10 and April 11, three Saturdays and one Sunday, respectively, YourArlington partner Patch reports.
That schedule does not appear to allow for full vaccination via two doses before the required return to traditional schooling.
As of a few days ago, teachers can also try to get vaccinated at local CVS outlets by preregistering.
The March 10 memo says in part, “As we have stated repeatedly throughout this pandemic, there is no substitute for in-person learning, especially for younger students, students with disabilities, English learners, and other high-needs populations. In addition to academic instruction and support, when students are in school, they have the opportunity to learn important social and emotional skills, and they have access to mental health and other support services, as well as healthy meals and opportunities for exercise.”
School Committee, Bodie statements
“The Arlington School Committee has been and continues to be in support of prioritizing teachers for vaccination. Vaccinations through CVS and the eventual opening of state-run sites to teachers next week are a good start,” committee Chair Jane Morgan told YourArlington. “My opinion is that by providing vaccines directly to municipal health departments, the state would be treating teachers and staff as the essential workers that they are and would be ensuring a more expedient and a safer return to full in person learning.”
Fellow committee member Paul Schlichtman penned an open letter with an even stronger tone, noting that the Centers for Disease Control favor the six-foot distance. Read it here >>
Arlington Public Schools Superintendent Kathleen Bodie is of like mind.
“The health and safety of Arlington students and staff has been a priority and foundational in all planning for this challenging year. The commitment for a safe learning environment has not changed,” she told YourArlington via email.
“It is disappointing that the state will not allow local health departments to administer the vaccine, which would be the most efficient way to ensure that staff members who are working in-person in our schools are vaccinated prior to increasing class sizes and the number of students in a building every day.”
Bodie was one of a dozen superintendents of districts in Middlesex County who recently sent a joint letter to that effect.
But, with statewide vaccination generally on the upspring, and overall Massachusetts infection rates decreasing, Riley says teachers should return in person without sweating the details.
The state board’s action giving Riley additional authority likely will strengthen the case being pressed by many parents who want to fling open the schoolhouse doors by next month at the latest. As of Saturday evening, March 6, a Facebook page created to support reopening had more than 356 followers:
A similar online petition drive had 563 signatures.
The petition asks for, in part:
- “An option for five-day, full in-person learning for our youngest learners (K-5) now. Many nearby districts are already doing this.
- “A plan for implementing a five-day, full in-person option for all grade levels, beginning this spring.
- “Continuation of the Remote Academy for those families and teachers who choose it."
Some parents have delivered the same message during the public-comment period that opens each School Committee meeting. It is a near-certainty that this trend will continue at the next meeting, set for 6:30 p.m. Thursday March 11, via remote participation over Zoom. Thursday is also the date by which Bodie is to share with the committee her detailed plans on reopening in Arlington, which she has been working on since been directed to do so by the committee last month.
Union president's statement
As for the teachers themselves, it seems they are thinking mathematically, that is to say, using the classic if-then statement: If they can be vaccinated, then they would be overjoyed to be with their pupils in person. Julianna Keyes, president of the Arlington Education Association, or teachers’ union, provided this statement to YourArlington on March 5:
“The AEA Board of Directors firmly believes that all teachers should be fully vaccinated and immunized before returning to crowded classrooms. Arlington has done a phenomenal job of keeping us all safe in the hybrid and remote programs this year, and our kids are doing well in their routines. It is not worth risking anyone’s health to rush back to full-in-person classes before teachers are vaccinated.
“If fully reopening schools is a state and federal priority, then vaccines should be made available to all educators ASAP. The best way to do that is to provide the vaccines to local health departments so they could be distributed easily and efficiently to all staff who want them. This would avoid educators having to miss work for appointments, a critical blow to our already short-staffed buildings. It would also mean staff could welcome more students into their room without fearing for their own health.
“We welcome President Biden’s push for educators to get vaccines, and we feel the town has the infrastructure to deliver them to us. However, until every educator who wants a vaccine has one, we should not be bringing back students at less than six feet of distance in our elementary and secondary schools. The decision should be made based on health metrics, including vaccines, not arbitrary dates on a calendar.”
This news analysis by YourArlington freelance journalist Judith Pfeffer was published Sunday, March 7, 2021, and updated March 11, to reflect new reporting.
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