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State indoor masking rule extended to Jan. 15 in view of holidays.

UPDATED Nov. 1: Covid-19 cases have been low in Arlington Public Schools for the past few weeks, vaccine clinics for schoolchildren may be offered as soon as November and the district might be able to apply for a waiver from the state requirement to maintain indoor masking, but is not yet doing so, the School Committee learned Thursday, Oct. 28.

Superintendent Elizabeth Homan reported three positive cases districtwide for the week ending Oct. 15, three for the week ending Oct. 22 and four for the week ending Oct. 29. Cases are also relatively low in neighboring towns, within Middlesex County and throughout Massachusetts, she added. 

She did not make a recommendation to apply for a waiver. She noted that the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s requirement for universal masking indoors on campus currently extends through Jan. 15, seemingly to account for the “upcoming holiday season and flu season.”

85% goal

At the previous committee meeting, which took place before DESE's announcement, Homan said that in grades seven through 12, the vaccination rate of students and staff combined is just under 80 percent and that the mask mandate for them possibly could be dropped if that rate should reach 85 percent or higher.

How to preserve health during the ongoing pandemic surfaced at another point in the meeting, concerning a planned trip to a national jazz conference in Texas. This “incredible music opportunity” for the honors orchestra needs to be limited for safety reasons to five students, according to Sabato “Tino” D’Agostino, director of instrumental music at Arlington High School.

The district requires that all its participants in extracurricular activities, regardless of the nature or the location of the activity, be vaccinated. Moreover, all overnight trips involving students require School Committee approval, Arlington High School Principal Matthew Janger noted.

D’Agostino said that conference organizers require that all participants – expected to attend from many states – must either be vaccinated or test negative for the virus.

“Texas has not been doing Covid well,” said committee member Kirsi Allison-Ampe, a medical doctor. “Testing is not enough. I am going to vote against it.” The vote to approve was 6-1.

See the documents for this agenda item >> 

Pandemic effects per Envision Arlington 

Scott Lever, interim cochair of Envision Arlington's Standing Committee, reported on the latest annual townwide survey, available online January through March of this year, the height of the pandemic. See the presentation >> 

Some 45 percent of respondents said that their access to routine medical care was more difficult in that time frame. One-third said that the pandemic had negatively affected their employment, and more than 30 percent feared losing their jobs. “These are interesting and impactful findings,” Lever said. 

Other results were 86 percent reporting overall physical health as excellent or good, 87 percent reporting financial health as excellent or good, but only 66 percent saying their mental health was excellent or good. “That did stand out to us,” he said.

Gibbs School improvement plan described

Serving solely sixth-graders, known as Trailblazers, Gibbs teaches being “Understanding, United, Unstoppable!” said Principal Fabienne Pierre-Maxwell. Other core values are to be creative, curious and collaborative. “Our school is a great school,” she said. “Staff does work very hard, and they are committed.”

However, challenges exist. After improvements seen from 2018 to 2019, standardized test scores for black children at Gibbs were generally lower this year (no testing occurred in 2020) when compared to other ethnic groups. 

See the plan and presentation >> 

“What do we think teachers should be doing?” Pierre-Maxwell asked rhetorically. “We will question until we find something that works.” Current ideas include the following: 

  • Looking at the situation through a trauma-informed lens;
  • Ensuring that minority children have access to all services;
  • Inquiring as to whether they feel safe, supported and welcome;
  • Expanding capacity among educators in cultural proficiency and in diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI);
  • Petitioning to explore whether there are inherent cultural biases in the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, or MCAS;
  • Having consultants to coordinate DEI professional development among teachers; and
  • Providing support for more teachers to take the Initiative to Develop Equity And inclusion in Students, or the IDEAS course.
Ottoson Middle School improvement plan 

Serving seventh and eighth grades, Ottoson has three improvement goals, per Principal Brian Meringer: continue the Bridge Program to phase in students absent long-term or chronically; initiate an advisory program for social-emotional learning known as Recognize Understand Label Express Regulate, or RULER; and eliminate math-class tracking in seventh grade.

See the plan and presentation >> 

For the past three years, Ottoson has had more than 8 percent of its student body absent for 18 days or more -- 10 percent of a year’s 180-day-per-year instruction time. Typically, this is due to hospitalization, school phobia, anxiety, depression or the like. The Bridge plan, in the works since 2018 and now underway, involves having an academic coordinator and a clinical coordinator (social worker) to help students return to full-time on-campus status.

The RULER advisory program and social-emotional learning curriculum has already been introduced at faculty meetings, said Meringer, adding that an estimated quarter of students report not being able to identify a single trusted adult at school. The intent is to “let students catch their breath” and provide a way for them to “connect with adults in the building.” Programming “could be interest-based” and could include affinity groups. “There are different creative ways of getting there,” he said.

As for math tracking, seventh-graders now take either Math 7 or Math 7A. The latter is somewhat more advanced and historically associated with students taking Algebra I in eighth grade and calculus before high-school graduation. 

Meringer said the concept would be to investigate equitable pathways through mathematics course work. A gap has been observed, for example, in 2020-2021, 60 percent of students overall were in Math 7A, but only 19 percent of black students were in Math 7A.

“These [three] objectives you have are right-on,” said committee member Jeff Thielman.

In other business:
  • Homan reported that the district continues to have “hiring challenges,” as 41 vacancies still exist. The situation is similar in neighboring communities and throughout the commonwealth.
  • “Grab-and-go” lunches are now available to students each school day including early-release school days. Breakfast and lunch are free on campus to all students.
  • The committee voted unanimously to approve a number of grant applications as well as warrants on the consent agenda.
  • The committee went into executive session at 9:02 p.m.
Watch the Oct. 28 meeting broadcast by ACMi:


Oct. 15, 2021: MCAS scores lower, but differences emerge as to why
 

This news summary by YourArlington freelancer Judith Pfeffer was published Friday, Oct. 29, 2021, and updated Nov. 1, to add an ACMi video window.