School Committee logoPreliminary figures indicate close to 60% of fourth graders have at least moderate psychological problems.
      -- Sara Burd

UPDATED Feb. 17: Contrary to what other authorities have suggested, large numbers of Arlington's schoolchildren are not all right emotionally -- and officials are responding with telephone outreach to parents, referrals to professionals and enhanced training for teachers to recognize crises before they happen.

The School Committee meeting Thursday, Feb. 10, also included discussion of dropping mandatory masking as soon as next month, the proposed district budget for the upcoming school year and the annual evaluation for Superintendent Elizabeth Homan, but no decisions were made.

Preliminary figures indicate that close to 60 percent of fourth graders have at least moderate psychological problems, while other surveys show that nearly 40 percent of 11th graders are also of concern, said Sara Burd, director of school counseling and social-emotional learning. See the document for this presentation >> 

Altogether, the current need for mental-health help is two to three times greater than prepandemic two years ago. “Covid is drastically impacting this data,” Burd said.

Longtime staffers and newly hired social workers have been calling families – including at least half of the current fourth- and fifth graders – to let them know about on-campus group therapy, off-campus individual therapy and to assist them to navigate the mental-health system and otherwise overcome barriers to obtaining help.

Using the $350,000 that Arlington Public Schools recently received from the state's Department of Elementary and Secondary Education [DESE] to be spent before July 1, employees plan to expand cognitive behavioral-therapy groups, screen students grades three through 12 and implement best practices for social-emotional learning districtwide for preschoolers through graduating seniors. 

Responsive-classroom training is set to take place in spring, one social-emotional learning position has been filled, two more are being actively recruited for and affinity groups for grades six through 12 are being expanded with an eye toward addressing issues of identity and fighting against bigotry. On-campus mental-health groups soon will offer 10 sessions rather than the current six and may use techniques from the Trails to Wellness approach, including the teaching of mindfulness, relaxation and the ability to recognize and combat automatic negative thoughts.

Burd said that two new permanent positions have been added – a districtwide social worker and a mental-health coordinator. 

Masking may be made optional by March

State authorities have said that the requirement for indoor masking on campus will expire at the end of this month and that school districts can make their own decisions after that time frame, which coincides with the end of winter break from classes. Mayor Michelle Wu has decided to list Boston's mask mandate later

The informal consensus of the committee appeared to be that the decision could be made by the superintendent with guidance from the town’s health department.

“I’m not yet in a position to voice what it is that the schools’ plan will be,” Homan said. A written presentation she shared at the meeting states that “masking requirements and adjustments will be considered in partnership and alignment with” local health authorities.

The town’s Board of Health voted Feb. 16 to recommend rescinding mandatory masking effective immediately in the town as a whole, but this is not binding on the public schools.  The School Committee’s next scheduled meeting is March 3.

In-school infection rates have dropped from 83 on Jan. 28 to 36 on Feb. 4 to 16 as of Feb. 10, Homan reported. “Case rates are declining, but we still have cases in the schools,” Homan said. She also noted that people who are most vulnerable to severe effects from the virus are often also those who cannot safely be vaccinated for medical reasons.

Committee member Liz Exton noted that historically the infection rate has surged after every major holiday and school break. Therefore, she said, “That week [of Monday, Feb. 28] is not the best timing” to start to make masks optional. She added that she did not want students who continue to wear masks to be made to feel “excluded or ostracized.”

Allison-Ampe, Schlichtman comment

Committee member Kirsi Allison-Ampe, a medical doctor, said that the expected approval of the vaccine for children ages 4 and younger should factor into the decision. She agreed with Exton that it would be “iffy” to discontinue mandatory masking as early as Feb. 28.

Promising numbers were reported for vaccination rates among students. Excluding preschoolers -- most of whom, due to their young age, are not eligible for “the jab” -- rates are far above 80 percent districtwide, with 91.3 percent at Arlington High School and 94.3 percent at Brackett Elementary School.

“We have one of the highest vaccination rates” in the entire nation, committee member Paul Schlichtman said, noting that throughout the past two years he has been among the most Covid-cautious committee members. However, conditions have improved, and it is “now time to move forward.”

He mentioned that whereas it is possible to lie about vaccine status and compliance with behavioral protocols, "you can't hide from your toilet," meaning that wastewater analysis is a particularly accurate metric as to the incidence of infection. He elaborated on this perspective a few days after the meeting in a recent opinion piece on this website.

Contacted by YourArlington earlier this week, the town's Director of Health and Human Services Christine Bongiorno said that the Board of Health has followed wastewater monitoring for the past two year but noted that this collection and analysis are not performed separately for Arlington or for any other individual municipality. "The data tell us the level of virus in waste water from two regions north and south of Boston that are collected at the Deer Island Treatment Plant," she wrote in an email, with the trends viewable online at this website

Opposing views from public

During the public-comment opportunity that begins every committee meeting, two speakers expressed opposing views.

Julie Hall, with two children in the public schools, said that “voices are not being heard” and pushed to let people “unmask and breathe fresh air” and avoid “headaches and general malaise.” She said she was speaking for “parents whose children are suffering” and that some youngsters sometimes don’t even know what their friends’ faces look like.

But another speaker with two pupils in the district said that almost no geographic region including Arlington meets the Centers for Disease Control’s threshold for low transmission. Barrie Tysko said that even the Omicron variant of the coronavirus can lead to permanent damage -- and that the biggest threat to children is that of possibly having adult relatives come down with serious disease. “Per the CDC, our community is not ready” to drop masking, she said.

Proposed fiscal '23 budget tops $90 million

In the committee’s first look at the administration’s proposed budget for the upcoming school year, the total is $90,789,782, an increase of 2.53 percent over the budget for the current school year. Among the half-dozen revenue sources, according to Chief Financial Officer Michael Mason, the lion’s share, as always, is the town’s appropriation.

See the budget documents >> 

Student needs including mental health are driving budget priorities, Homan said, adding, “A budget will show our values.”

Among the other key recommendations:

  • Dropping fees for instrumental music classes and athletics participation,
  • Boosting substitute pay by 20 percent,
  • Adding three reserve teachers at the district level,
  • Adding librarians and digital learning teachers,
  • Adding elementary-school math interventionists and
  • Adding professionals in English learning and special education.

Committee member Jane Morgan called it “thoughtful” and “reflective of where we are as a district and a community.” She called it “a brave budget and an aspirational budget.”

Before the budget is adopted, public hearings need to be held and the town’s contribution completed.

Superintendent provides evaluation document

Homan, who began in her position on July 1, provided a comprehensive document representing her self-evaluation to date. See it here >>

The next step is for each committee member to provide feedback to her by Feb. 25. Some of the members said they planned to do so in an informal way, such as an email message. Others said they wished to use either a form available from DESE or something else standardized. Exton volunteered to create a document to organize thoughts around the categories Homan provided and to make this available to her colleagues.

The committee’s feedback eventually will be synthesized into a public document available online.

In other business
  • The committee viewed the draft version of the school-day calendar proposed for the upcoming school year. They noted that the weekly early-release day will in future be Wednesday at the elementary level, rather than Tuesday, as it is now. See the documents >>  
  • Mason presented the monthly financial report
  • The consent agenda passed unanimously.
  • The vote was 7-0 to go into closed session at 9:14 p.m.
Watch the Feb. 10 meeting broadcast by ACMi:

Jan. 22, 2022: The kids are (mostly) all right, pandemic parents hear

Jan. 29, 2022: Infection rate down, enrollment up in schools

This news summary by YourArlington freelancer Judith Pfeffer was published Friday, Feb. 11, 2022. It was updated Feb. 14, to add the Board of Health meeting day and time, as well as an ACMi video window,and Feb. 17, to include quotes from Paul Schlichtman and Christine Bongiorno.