Watertown School officials stood by their decision to delay the start of in-person learning, citing COVID-19 safety concerns, after the release of the district’s audit by state education officials.
Watertown was one of two districts audited in October 2020. The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) commissioner sent a letter saying the Town’s COVID-19 rates were low enough that Watertown should start the school year with in-person learning, at least part-time.
The Audit report largely summarized the findings of state education officials’ interviews with district officials, and the materials submitted by Watertown officials to DESE. (See the report by clicking here).
Superintendent Dede Galdston said that she believes the district’s choices have worked out, with few cases in the Watertown Schools even during the surge. She noted that safety was cited as a top concern in recent surveys of parents, teachers and students.
“There were two different perspectives on what they wanted for us to do and what we felt we ought to do as a community, and they gave us that latitude to make the decision at the local level. That is what we did,” Galdston said. “Yes, it may not have been what they wanted us to necessarily do, but I think in the end we have a very strong program in place and we have been able maintain that, even during the time of the surge when the numbers were going up. And I think that we were slow and steady and methodical and safe.”
The DESE Audit’s conclusion stated that Watertown should have returned students to in-person learning at an earlier date. The report’s conclusion reads, in part:
“While the district made progress in returning students to in-person learning between September 22nd through December, and the district prioritized high-needs students for in-person instruction at the start of the school year, the district should have taken steps to return more students to in-person instruction at the start of the school year. By not adjusting its reopening plan, the district did not take advantage of DPH metrics, did not follow general reopening guidance from the Department that emphasized in-person learning, and did not fully take into consideration parent preference for in-person learning,”
School Committee Chair John Portz repeated what Watertown School officials said in the fall, saying that Watertown created its own plan based on surveys of parents and teachers. Elementary school students returned to part-time in-person learning in the hybrid model in late October. The middle school returned to hybrid earlier than the plan originally called for, and the high school went to hybrid in November.
“Our concern was what was best for the community, best for the students,” Portz said. “We have a very robust testing system, and have our students in in-person learning. I think we are moving forward.”
The audit was inappropriate, said School Committee member Lindsay Mosca, who noted that Watertown is ahead of some other districts.
“I think the fact that we were audited when we have multiple school districts across the state who still don’t have students in-person and our process and system has really proven to be safe — I think they should have cancelled the audit and not released the report,” Mosca said. “It was junk and not fair.”
School Committee member Lily Rayman-Read noted that nearby districts remain all remote, at least at some levels.
“The high school in Cambridge is not open yet and is not going to open until March 1. (In) Somerville, nothing’s open,” Rayman-Read said. “That audit was misplaced. It was wrongly done and should not have been released. That being said, I stand behind every decision the district has made, and I stand behind Dr. Galdston’s leadership, and I think its clear we have done pretty darn good job handling this.”
Former Watertown teacher Mary Russo disputed the notion that the audit was “junk,” and pointed out that a group of parents agreed that the schools should have returned to in-person learning earlier, especially while the weather in fall was nice enough for outdoor learning. At the Oct. 5 School Committee meeting, a petition signed by 167 parents was presented that asked for the schools to move up the start of hybrid. School officials decided to stay with the late October start.