Get kids back in school full time — that was the message to Watertown Public School officials from the vast majority of parents and the School Committee on Monday night.
Many parents discussed how negative an experience remote learning has been for their children, with students falling behind academically and some not engaging in class at all. Others said their children have shown signs of depression and despair due to not being in school with their classmates.
Superintendent Dede Galdston spoke about the district’s planning to reopen the schools for all in-person learning, and said planning has started to make that happen by sometime in April, but she said concerns remain about whether it can be done safely. She mentioned planning for how to hold lunches with social distancing requirements and added she hopes to have all teachers vaccinated by the time students return.
Plans to Return
Part of the move back to in-person leaning depends on what the Massachusetts Board of Education decides at its March 22 meeting. Galdston said she expects the Commissioner of Education Jeff Riley to recommend a return to all in-person learning starting April 5.
While planning started before February break, Galdston said she wants to hear exactly what the state requirements will be before presenting the final plan to the School Committee. The next meeting is scheduled for March 22, the same day that the state board meets, so she said it may have to wait until after that.
As part of the planning, Galdston will meet with administrators this week, and the principals will meet with their instructional leadership teams. Galdston also will meet with the Watertown Educators Association this week. She added that a parent survey will be going out soon, probably next week, to help with the creation of the plan.
She listed a number of challenges she and her administration must consider. One is the vaccination of teachers. Galdston said at least 70 have been vaccinated, pointing to the number who have received shots through the school nurses.
“I think in any conversation, we need to fully acknowledge teacher vaccination,” Galdston said. “We believe, myself and my leadership team, that is really important for for staff to feel safe returning to full in-person learning, if we are talking five days a week, full days with our students.”
Fitting all students in classes safely is another concern. Galdston noted that the state’s recommendation of at least 3 feet between students is different from the CDC’s recommendation of 6 feet. Because students can’t wear masks while eating, they will need to be 6 feet apart during lunchtime, she added.
The Watertown COVID-19 pool testing program has been well utilized, with most teachers and about 80 percent of students participating. Galdston said one question the School Committee needs to consider is whether pool testing should be required for all students when the schools return full-time in-person.
Galdston added that parents who do not feel comfortable sending their children back to school in-person will have an option.
“Anyone in the remote learning environment, know that we will continue with the remote learning option through the end of year, here, no matter what,” Galdston said. “We will consider continuing it for the fall of 2021.”
The School Committee has received large numbers of emails and phone calls this week, and heard from more than 20 during the public forum on Monday, held after the Superintendent’s presentation.
Many parents spoke passionately, with some struggling to get through their statements when they became emotional thinking about how their children have been affected by not being in school. The vast majority asked for kids to return to school full time as soon as possible, and were disappointed to hear that a plan has not yet been formulated to return to all in-person.
Parents also spoke about how much they appreciate the work of the teachers in the Watertown Schools, and said they do not blame them. Instead they blamed the current system where students spend hours on computers or tablets.
The current model, hybrid, has students attending school two days a week, but they only attend in-person four hours each day. Even those students who need to be in school five days a week, those with severe special needs or in the English Language Learners program, spend a lot of that time doing remote learning while they are in school.
Owen Murphy, a parent who advocated in the fall to return to hybrid more quickly than the district planned, said he continues to be disappointed with the speed at which Watertown is moving to get students back in school.
“My kid can only get 8 hours a week (in-person) and we are still talking about lunch,” Murphy said. “We can do a lot better than that.”
Parents also pointed to the efforts made to make the schools safe during the pandemic as a reason why Watertown is in better shape than other districts. Along with the testing program, air purifiers have been brought it to classes, screens have been put on windows to allow them to open and allow for more air circulation, and classrooms are sanitized each day.
Parent John Airasian said he bothered by the fact that other districts have plans to reopen, including Belmont, Newton and Waltham, while Watertown continues to work on its plan.
“It is time for Watertown to move forward,” Airasian said. “Communities around us have plans to return while Watertown seems to continue to find reasons to delay, rather than solutions to advance. The schools are safe. It is time to stop treating them like ground zero.”
A few parents said they worry about teachers being in a classroom with as many as 25 students and not being vaccinated. Others said they want to make a plan that works for Watertown and not base it on what state officials are saying.
School Committee Calls for Action
Members of the School Committee said they heard the raw emotion from parents, both at the meeting and in messages and calls they have received.
Town Council President Mark Sideris said that Watertown can do better and needs to move more quickly, including not waiting until next week to send out parent surveys.
“This is very emotional, listening to the parents. I don’t have kids in the Watertown Schools anymore, but it is painful hearing about their children and what they are missing, to read about this, talk about this,” Sideris said. “Everybody from the governor to the President of United States says, ‘Get the kids back in school.'”
School Committee Vice Chair Kendra Foley said students should return as soon a possible.
“I hope we can be ahead of where the state asks us to be, not behind,” Foley said.
She put forward dates she would like to see students return: elementary students by March 29 without lunch and for a full day, with lunch, beginning April 5; have middle school students to return five days a week with core instruction by April 5, and go the full day beginning April 26 (the first school day after April vacation); and, have high school students return full-time by April 26.
Foley said she would support requiring all students be part of the weekly pool testing.
School Committee member Amy Donohue had a similar request. Also, she wanted to have sixth graders return at the same time as the elementary school students because they are 11 years old.
She is both a parent and works in the Watertown Schools, and said while she supports the district’s phased approach (starting the year remotely and moving to hybrid in the middle of the fall) she has also seen that children are being adversely impacted by not being in school.
“We have stalled. It is clear, tonight, families are feeling this,” Donohue said at Monday’s meeting. “Most important to me, as an educator in the Watertown Schools for 12 years, our students are feeling this and that concerns me greatly.”
School Committee member Lily Rayman-Read said she believes that parents, teachers and administrators all have the same goal to do what is best for the students. She added that she has heard some great ideas from parents, and said she agreed with parents who said they want to have a public session where they can discuss what is going on and how the schools are moving toward in-person learning.
School Committee member David Stokes said he agreed with his colleagues. He added that School administrators will need to think not only about what is happening in classrooms during the school day, but also about busing and whether to have the after-school programs that are offered in normal times.