- Will students wear masks this fall?
- What other health and safety precautions will be prioritized?
- What would it take to close schools again?
UPDATE: On Tuesday, July 27, 2021, the CDC released new guidelines for masking which included a recommendation of universal masking in schools, regardless of individual vaccination status and rates of community transmission. LexObserver asked Lexington leaders and parents for comment on what that means for the school year in an update story available here.
Stay tuned for our next piece detailing experiences of parents and other LPS community members from the past year, and what their hopes are for LPS this fall. If you’d like to share your experience with school this year, please email email@example.com.
With the new academic year starting in a little more than a month, LexObserver spoke with Lexington Public Schools community members and three key decision-makers – Superintendent Julie Hackett, Board of Health Chair Wendy Heiger-Bernays and School Committee Chair Kathleen Lenihan – to fill out the picture of what to expect locally this fall.
Given the constantly shifting nature of COVID-19, all decision-makers interviewed stressed that they will continue to evaluate changes to the state of the pandemic throughout the summer, in particular the development of variants including the highly contagious Delta variant. Nonetheless, all three leaders have some expectations for what the fall will look like based on the current state of the pandemic.
- Consistent with longstanding planning, everyone is going back to school, full-time, in-person >>
- Unvaccinated students will be required to wear masks (including all elementary school students), and while vaccinated students may not need masks, this depends on factors including continued low case numbers and high vaccination rates locally >>
- Remote learning is no longer an option due to state rule changes, despite evidence it was useful in some cases.
- Vaccination rates among teachers are high; unvaccinated teachers will be required to wear well-fitting, high-quality masks and adhere to safety precautions including social distancing >>
- There is a possibility that LPS will require vaccinations for students who participate in sports and other optional extracurriculars >>
- Building ventilation is among the most important measures to reduce risk – and while LPS ventilation is of an overall high enough quality for a full return to school, a few LPS facilities need better ventilation >>
- Lexington’s pooled testing system is not likely to continue due to low participation rates and high costs >>
- Superintendent Hackett disagrees with State Commissioner Jeffrey Riley’s standardized approach to accelerating student learning, which she believes does not fully address students’ learning needs >>
100% Back in Person: “Everybody will go to school”
Students in Lexington will return to school full time, for a full-length school day, from the beginning of the 2021-22 school year, Hackett said.
“School will start. Everybody will go to school. The first day of school will happen, the school buses will come, people will get on them, we will go to school,” School Committee Chair Lenihan stressed. Like Heiger-Bernays, she noted that schools will be grappling with “a normal school day while we are still in a pandemic, and we still have to keep people safe. But the basic structure is a normal school day.
“The reality is we need the children in school,” concurred Heiger-Bernays, who is also a clinical professor in the Department of Environmental Health at the Boston University School of Public Health.
The Board of Health, a five-member board comprised of volunteers, gets its authority to set town health policy directly from the state. While speaking on behalf of herself, rather than for the whole body, Heiger-Bernays said she could provide “information about where we think we’re going.”
The School Committee, a five-member elected committee, sets school policy and oversees the superintendent, while the superintendent implements school policy and runs the Lexington Public Schools district. These three authorities collaborate closely in Lexington.
With rising cases in Massachusetts and across the nation, it will be important to remain vigilant about variants such as Delta. Lexington’s virus rates remain low, with 0 cases in Lexington for three weeks in a row as of July 9, but three new cases during the week of July 16. Heiger-Bernays stressed that case numbers throughout both Middlesex and Suffolk counties, also up this week, will impact which safety precautions are necessary at LPS this fall. These areas are important because many staff members live (and many LPS parents work) in nearby communities, she said.
The superintendent and School Committee have planned to bring all students back to school in person this fall since at least January 2, 2021, when the superintendent outlined a recommended FY2022 LPS budget assuming a full in-person return for fall 2021. “Going back to the traditional system is an automatic savings for us,” Hackett said. Maintaining simultaneous in-person and online education systems was significantly more expensive for the district.
Beyond the local level, Lexington Public Schools are also subject to certain state and national authorities. At the state level, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education released guidance May 27 requiring all schools in Massachusetts resume in-person instruction. At the national level, the CDC called in-person instruction this fall “a priority,” stating unequivocally that “students benefit from in-person learning” in its July 9 update.
Many parents are eager for students to return to school in-person, as 11 LPS parents expressed to LexObserver.
Among these parents, Adriana Bokel has a rising 10th grader in LPS and transferred her rising 7th grader from LPS to private school for the 2021-22 school year. This fall, for her older daughter and other LPS students, “I would like them to give the kids a normal high school experience. My kids are vaccinated; everybody who could have gotten [the] vaccine [has],” she said.
Yuan Zhou, a parent of an unvaccinated rising 3rd grader and fully vaccinated rising 8th grader at LPS, agreed that in-person school is important this fall. “I think if they don’t go back to school, there will be other issues than physical health. So I think that’s the best thing you can do,” she said.
Masks for students?
Hackett, Lenihan and Heiger-Bernays support the CDC’s recommendation to require masks for unvaccinated students – and under some circumstances would consider requiring them for vaccinated students.
While the CDC guidance suggests unvaccinated students do not need to wear masks, the agency will “probably” urge students under 12 to wear masks, President Joe Biden said at a CNN town hall meeting on Wednesday. Already, the CDC’s current guidance is not universal dogma among public health organizations. In guidance updated Monday, the American Academy of Pediatrics, in addition to advocating for in-person learning, recommended that all students over age 2, vaccinated and unvaccinated, wear a mask in the 2021-22 school year.
Heiger-Bernays “absolutely” supports the AAP’s position, she wrote in a follow-up email. But, she cautioned that “there is subtlety that I think is being lost in the shouting” with regard to these new guidelines. There is still “room for local conditions,” including vaccination rates and the rates of COVID-19 transmission, to shape mask guidance at the local level. Case numbers matter in addition to vaccination numbers especially because there is some evidence that, for instance, the Johnson and Johnson vaccine does not prevent transmission of the Delta variant, she wrote.
“If I had to make a decision [about mask-wearing rules] for classes now, I would advocate for masking in elementary schools and middle schools (based on their vaccine status AND the increasing rates of delta in MA and in vaccinated individuals), in classrooms where vaccination rates are low (and I’ve already supported the need for very high rates – ~90%) and definitely where there are students with health conditions where vaccines are less effective,” Heiger-Bernays said.
Hackett agreed that the updated AAP guidance was significant. “I think we need to pay close attention to the AAP guidance and information from other health experts including the CDC will continue to guide and inform our decision-making for a safe return to school in the fall,” she wrote in a follow-up message. DESE relied on AAP guidance in pushing for a return to in-person school last year, she added, so it will be important to watch whether they update state-level guidance to align with the AAP on masking.
The state had not updated its guidance on masking to align with the AAP, according to DESE Media Relations Coordinator Jacqueline Reis. In an email to LexObserver, she noted that DESE leaders have said they will continue to work with the Department of Public Health throughout the summer to determine the need for “additional health and safety recommendations.”
For students 12 and under, vaccines are not expected to receive emergency FDA approval until early to mid-winter, according to an FDA official. For those students in particular, Hackett expects that masks will continue to be a requirement: “A different set of rules needs to be applied” compared to secondary school, “unless something radically changes and new science emerges that tells us it’s no longer necessary.” Hackett stressed that differentiating between students would make the most sense for LPS, rather than applying a “blanket mandate.”
“It’s hard for me to see a scenario in which I would not want unvaccinated people to continue wearing masks,” Lenihan agreed.
“It’s hard for me to see a scenario in which I would not want unvaccinated people to continue wearing masks.”
— Kathleen Lenihan, Lexington School Committee Chair
As for how mask differentiation should be enforced, “I think it’s too early to say just yet,” Hackett wrote in a follow-up message.
Vaccination rates in Lexington are very high, including for children ages 12+. According to the state’s July 15 municipality vaccination report, 82% of Lexingtonians have at least one vaccine dose, while 75% of the population is fully vaccinated. Lexington’s vaccination numbers are also high for eligible school-aged children: Over 95% of 12- to 19-year-olds in Lexington are fully vaccinated, according to the data. But, this data shows some inconsistencies, as the chart records fewer individuals in the local population than who have received vaccine doses for certain categories – for instance, it records 1,871 16-19-year-olds in Lexington’s population, but 2,000 fully vaccinated individuals.
Population numbers used for Massachusetts municipalities are estimates based on the 2010 census “with estimates updated every year using mathematical modeling,” according to an email from Omar Cabrera of the Department of Public Health Communications Office. He explained that while total population estimates at the municipality level “are likely to be relatively accurate, when they are broken down into smaller categories like age or race/ethnicity, the numbers become more unstable,” explaining certain data discrepancies but demonstrating that data for these age-based categories are estimates and should be taken with a grain of salt.
According to June 23 data detailing LPS vaccination rates shared by Lenihan, rates varied substantially by grade. 57% of rising 8th graders were partially or fully vaccinated, while 88% of rising 12th graders and rising 10th graders were partially or fully vaccinated. Rising 9th graders were 77% partially or fully vaccinated, while rising 11th graders were 75% vaccinated.
Heiger-Bernays acknowledged that given Lexington’s generally high vaccination rates, “there is more room for flexibility” as to whether vaccinated students need to wear masks indoors or not. But this flexibility will remain contingent on “rates of illness,” which makes testing and tracking essential. Without testing and tracing, she stressed that it is impossible to assess the risk of exposure in the school system.
In a follow-up email, Heiger-Bernays specified four specific criteria for vaccinated LPS students to safely be unmasked indoors:
- Low cases in Middlesex and Suffolk counties;
- Vaccination rates of 90-100% in all eligible students and staff at LPS, with vaccination rates preferably greater than 80% in Middlesex/Suffolk counties;
- Ventilation “suitable for increased air exchange”; and
- No uniquely “vulnerable” children or staff in specific classrooms.
Even if vaccinated students can safely unmask indoors at school, “I do want to make sure…that there will be a space for children and adults should they want to be masked – they should not be ostracized,” Heiger-Bernays said. Specifically, Heiger-Bernays acknowledged that in the event a student has an underlying condition and is highly susceptible to negative impacts of COVID-19, “it might be appropriate that that classroom, under some circumstances, needs to be masked. And at the very least, that child needs to be masked.”
Depending on how the pandemic develops, “wearing masks may be our way through the next variant,” Heiger-Bernays cautioned in the email.
Some parents, too, remain uncertain about whether their kids should wear a mask.
Zhou had hoped that vaccinated students could go maskless in the fall. “But as I’m seeing the rising number [of cases] in Europe, particularly in [the] UK, I’m so concerned and I may send my kids back with masks on in the fall,” she wrote in an email to LexObserver. Zhou found that getting her younger child to wear a mask and wash his hands required constant reminders, which she postulated could mean far more work for teachers this fall.
While unvaccinated students should certainly wear masks, to require vaccinated students to wear masks would be a “wrong assumption” for the district to make, said parent Alexia Duc, whose rising 8th grader and rising 11th grader have both attended LPS since 2019.
“The kids who cannot be vaccinated, they can wear a mask, obviously; anyone sick, of course, [should] wear a mask,” but vaccinated students, who already spend time indoors unmasked elsewhere, should not have to wear masks in school this year, she said. In particular, “I want the kids to be maskless in the high school,” she specified, echoing other calls for the importance of a return to normalcy.
But, acknowledging the unpredictability of the pandemic, Duc added that Lexington should follow local case numbers rather than national ones, and should only require masks if “local case numbers in Lexington suddenly spike.”
Miranda Cohen, mother of an unvaccinated rising 1st grader and fully vaccinated rising 7th grader at LPS, would prefer students do not have to wear masks “if that’s what the official recommendation is,” reiterating the importance of some regularity for kids: “I think there’s no purpose to a vaccine if you can’t return to some normalcy.” But she noted that her young kindergartener had not found wearing a mask a hassle personally, and thought kids “adjusted really well” to mask-wearing and were not terribly inconvenienced by them, so she acknowledged that she also understood their recommendation as an important precaution.
“Until the kids are vaccinated in the elementary school, it makes sense for them to be wearing masks,” said Daniel Debowy, father of a rising 4th grader at LPS.
For Sacha Uljon, Debowy’s wife and a vocal advocate for returning to in-person school last year, in-person school is the bottom line this fall, and the district could swing either way on requiring masks. “As long as it’s full-time school, I don’t care. I don’t care if they’re supposed to wear masks,” she said. “I think that very rational people can completely disagree on this: I think it was a very rational stance to say ‘children aren’t vaccinated, we don’t know about the long-term effects of the COVID variant, they should be masked – but I think it’s also safe to say ‘the rates are very low, my kid’s fine.'”
Avon Lewis, president of the Lexington Education Association, thinks that all students and staff should wear masks indoors this fall. “I feel masks in schools should continue until COVID is not circulating – until we drop below that 1/100,000 line and stay there for a while,” she wrote in an email to LexObserver. “We can get there – vaccinations can get us there – but we need to get more people vaccinated.” Beyond case numbers and vaccination rates, Lewis cited the wildcard of the Delta variant and the tendency of schools to act as “breeding grounds for all sorts of other sicknesses that look like COVID” which could add “confusion to the equation” as factors in her assertion that students should wear masks.
“As a public school, we need to be a safe environment for all of our community, even the most fragile,” she wrote. “At this point, I think we can manage masks and have an experience in schools that is pretty close to ‘normal.'”
Are there conditions under which vaccines might be mandatory?
Uljon strongly believes teachers should be subject to a vaccine mandate, she said. “If my kid has to wear the mask and there are teachers walking around, because they’re vaccine-hesitant who are putting my child at risk…. morally speaking, that’s a big problem for me,” she said.
LPS employees should be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by the beginning of the school year unless they have proof of a medical or religious exemption, according to a January 28, 2021 Memorandum of Agreement Supplement between the Lexington Education Association, the Administrators of Lexington Association and LPS. The vaccine is not technically mandatory for teachers, per the contract language: Despite stating that LPS employees “must receive both doses of the vaccine before August 30, 2021,” the MOA also specifies that those individuals who do not receive the vaccine and do not qualify for one of the two valid exemptions by the start of the school year “will be required to wear a K-N95 mask at all times,” except when eating and drinking, in addition to adhering to safety precautions including social distancing. Per an updated MOA Supplement from May 2021, not yet fully ratified, “well-fitting masks” and “double masks” may be worn in place of K-N95 masks.
According to Lewis, the January agreement passed with the support of over 90% of union membership, and the language and topic of this contract was proposed by the union to the district. Though she does not have a precise number for teachers vaccinated, “I expect we have north of 90% of the LEA members vaccinated at this point,” she wrote.
On July 13, Lenihan testified on behalf of the Lexington School Committee in favor of a bill that would outlaw religious exemptions for vaccines in Massachusetts, which she also testified for personally when it was proposed in 2019. Lexington’s state representative, Michelle Ciccolo, is a co-sponsor of this bill (H. 2411).
Lenihan stated that she will also continue to lobby the governor to make the COVID-19 vaccine mandatory as soon as it is FDA-approved (when asked in May, the governor said he had no plans to do so). Superintendent Hackett said that, while having mandatory COVID-19 vaccines is important and her preference, “it wouldn’t necessarily be at the top of my list” of priorities.
Lenihan noted she had spoken with the LPS lawyer “about the ability for LPS to require the vaccination for students who participate in sports and other optional extracurriculars. And the answer I received was, yes, we can do that.” While the School Committee has not yet determined whether they will move forward with this idea, “it’s something to consider.”
What about social distancing at school? What other safety measures will be important?
The state will not require physical distancing in Massachusetts schools. LPS leaders are still considering how to balance distancing with other key health protocols such as ventilation.
“Physical distancing is really tricky,” Lenihan admitted. “Especially in elementary school, kids want to be close to each other.” According to Hackett, last year, distance at lunch was a priority: “I can imagine that we keep the eating distances in place, given the variant and the fact that people are catching it, even if they’ve been vaccinated and things like that. And what we’ve learned from doctors and scientists was that that was the most transmissible spot, the lunch rooms and cafeterias, even in hospitals.”
Lunch, according to Heiger-Bernays, is higher risk for transmission since children naturally have to remove their masks to eat. Most cases transmitted at LPS last year occurred during lunch. But Heiger-Bernays added that it’s too early to specify what criteria will “a) require masks; b) require separation during lunch” – but these will vary depending on how high case numbers are.
Heiger-Bernays stressed learning from other innovations of the past year and a half beyond distancing to keep kids safe – in particular, using the outdoors and investing in ventilation. Especially during September, when residual summery weather is likely to persist, “We don’t need to be back packed into the classroom eight hours a day. Let’s get those children outside,” she urged. “The schools were creative last year when they went back ….The less time we can spend in a cramped room, the better off we are.”
To prevent the spread of COVID infection, “the issue is shared air,” Heiger-Bernays said. “Three feet is not magic. Six feet wasn’t magic.” Ventilation, instead, by changing the air, is most effective at protecting individuals against infection.
Ventilation and outdoor learning should apply to vaccinated students too, Heiger-Bernays specified, especially to also mitigate the spread of diseases other than COVID.
Heiger-Bernays is confident of the overall quality of ventilation in LPS buildings. “The folks who work on the buildings and the school buildings are very in tune” with ventilation best practices and track air exchange rates and CO2 levels in classrooms closely, while LPS invested heavily in ensuring high-quality air and ventilation throughout last spring and fall. Nonetheless, at a few schools, most notably the high school, “the ventilation is really challenging,” she said.
“We know that when the CO2 level goes up, the learning goes down.”
— Dr. Wendy Heiger-Bernays, Lexington Board of Health Chair
Lexington has been seeking to build a new high school for several years now; last month, Dr. Hackett submitted the third statement of interest to the Massachusetts School Building Authority seeking funding and approval to begin the planning process for a new building. Because high school construction is so expensive (upwards of $400 million, per Lenihan’s estimate), and so many districts require funding, the MSBA has an extremely high bar for approving SOIs and allocating funding. Among the reasons cited for Lexington needing a new high school, the most recent SOI acknowledged the need for updated ventilation systems, according to the June 14 school committee meeting. A decision from the MSBA is expectedtoward the end of this year.
In large part, Lexington is seeking a new high school due to severe overcrowding. Last year, 2,268 students were enrolled in the district, yet the LHS building was designed with capacity for 1,850 students – and enrollment is projected to climb by more than 100 students this year, putting LHS 500 students over capacity.
But, given the excellent rates of vaccination among high schoolers, this overcrowding should not prove a severe COVID concern, compared to the risks in less crowded elementary schools for unvaccinated younger students: “In terms of COVID, because we have such high vaccination rates at the high school level, I’m less concerned with that grade span,” Hackett said.
Ventilation is not just important for mitigating and preventing the spread of COVID-19, Heiger-Bernays reiterated. “We’ve been talking about air quality in schools for 15 years now, and improving that air quality.” Beyond COVID, air quality “has to do with allergens, it has to do with chemicals that are off gassing from building structures and from desks and from carpets. And we know that when the CO2 level goes up, the learning goes down.” In other words, “Children have to breathe lower levels of CO2 to learn properly.”
Air quality will be expensive to maintain, Heiger-Bernays noted, due in part to the necessity of regular filter changes. Additionally, in any building, it is important to install excellent ventilation early on, because “retrofitting is even harder.” Even Hastings, the most recently built LPS school – completed in February 2020 – did not have the #1 recommended ventilation system, she said.
In addition to ventilation, handwashing will remain important for combatting all infectious diseases, Heiger-Bernays said; Lewis also expressed support for both of these measures on top of masking. On the other hand, “we don’t need to go nuts over disinfectants,” whether by disinfecting surfaces or spraying rooms, given the now-established scientific consensus that COVID-19 has airborne rather than surface transmission, Heiger-Bernays added. Not only do disinfectants fail to effectively target COVID-19, Heiger-Bernays said, but some categories contain toxins that can cause irritation and even impact child development. While some disinfectant use remains important for preventing other illnesses, “we don’t want…overkill.”
What would it take to close schools again? No specific threshold
While Heiger-Bernays did not specify what specific threshold the pandemic would have to reach for schools to close again, she acknowledged that this scenario would very likely depend on the nature of the variants and local case numbers. A variant “that is much more, either infectious or causes greater morbidity or mortality” while younger students remained unvaccinated, would give her pause and warrant a close look at county-level case numbers in Middlesex and Suffolk.
Hackett echoed the uncertainty of what specific circumstances would trigger these outcomes. “I recognize that people want guarantees and certainties, but when it comes to a pandemic, there are none,” she wrote in a follow-up message. ”We will continue to follow CDC guidance on this to determine hybrid or remote models of teaching and learning.”
With regard to the Delta variant, “We have to be mindful, and monitor things as they develop. I don’t see it having a significant impact on the fall at this stage of the game….unless things change radically,” Hackett said.
Pooled testing may not continue, but state-level testing is essential
According to Hackett and Lenihan, the current rates of usage of LPS’ voluntary surveillance pooled testing program launched in January 2021 are unlikely to justify its continuation this fall, given the program’s high cost.
For instance, in the second week of June and last week of available data, the testing program saw a 15.0% overall student participation rate across LPS, and a 7.9% participation rate among staff.
The program, according to a follow-up message from Hackett, cost LPS $371,000 this year.
“My personal feeling right now, and I still have to connect with a lot of people, is that I don’t think that it’s necessary at this point. We can certainly take a look into whether we need it at the elementary levels, if we’ve got the concern about what’s happening for children under 12….but certainly where kids are primarily vaccinated in middle and high school, I think that we should be all set,” Hackett said.
Beyond being “pretty expensive,” Hackett noted that “people’s willingness to participate in that kind of program” could have “a shelf life.”
Despite being very excited about the potential of the testing program initially, Lenihan experienced the challenge of the testing program personally; during the first week of its availability, she was unable to get her son to complete the test. “You have to remember to get the test, you have to then do the test. There are multiple points at which you can fail; you can fail to pick it up, you can fail to do it, you can fail to bring it back.” So, as much as she appreciated the program, Lenihan suggested that “it’s just one more thing you’ve got to do and if people don’t feel a sense of urgency [it doesn’t always happen].”
“It requires multiple points as a parent to say you need to do this, you need to do this…Did you do this? And for a lot of people, they don’t have the bandwidth,” she added.
Heiger-Bernays agreed that the resources funding the testing program could be best allocated elsewhere. “I’d rather put that money into the ventilation into increasing the amount of time children spend outside,” she said, reiterating that this was “what worked.” But, she added, it is essential that the state of Massachusetts continue to allocate substantial resources toward testing. The number of statewide tests administered per day has declined over the past few months – and “there is potential for this to result in significant problems.”
How will LPS confront the pandemic’s curricular impacts?
In May 2021, Commissioner Riley presented “accelerated learning” as a strategy for districts to recoup COVID-related curricular cuts. He originally introduced this strategy for maximizing student learning years prior to the pandemic, when he served as a receiver for the troubled school district in Lawrence. But Hackett questioned this approach as a catch-all to account for the impacts of COVID on students’ educations.
“The idea, and the way it’s being billed now post- or during the pandemic, is that children who have gaps because they had to navigate this pandemic would be able to basically get a boost. So they would learn the concepts more quickly,” she explained.
But “from my perspective…it’s all a bit of a sham. I don’t know a better way to put it. I understand the bureaucratic intention behind it, because the public sometimes wants from its leaders the quick and clean answer.” This concept of accelerated learning “wasn’t, and has never been so much about the quality of the teaching and learning as the thing that’s going to fill the gap that we have. So it’s like the quick hit, the panacea that’s going to take care of the problem that exists. And it’s really just a ruse.”
“The driving idea behind acceleration is that it is critical for all students to have access to grade-appropriate work so that they continue their academic development and do not fall further behind,” Reis wrote on behalf of DESE in an email to LexObserver. “We’re encouraging districts to adopt this evidence-based approach to support the learning needs of all students, which we anticipate will be diverse heading into this school year.”
Hackett was candid about the profound toll the pandemic took on students’ mental health and learning alike: “We experienced something that people haven’t experienced in a century, and we are not going to make up completely for that gap, no matter what fancy little 12-week program or whatever it is that we say we can do for kids. It’s just going to be inadequate.” On the other hand, Hackett sees value in the life lessons students learned instead. “The way I like to think about it instead is that these kids got skills that they would never have otherwise… if we stopped thinking about it from a deficit perspective, and we start thinking about what are the skills that have been gained, I think that places us in a better position.”
“So I don’t have any plans for accelerated learning academies; I think the learning was accelerated in a different way,” she stated.
Along similar lines, Lenihan noted, “I really take issue with the whole catching up idea. …We’re in a much better place now. But there’s still an ongoing pandemic.” She views “catching up” as both unrealistic and the wrong way to approach moving students’ learning forward this year: “At some point, we have to make peace with the fact that living through a pandemic is awful for everyone. And we’re doing the best we can coming out of it to give kids what they need. But that doesn’t necessarily mean we go back and grab every single thing that they missed, from the worst year of the pandemic.”
Instead of accelerated learning, Hackett noted Lexington has made significant curricular adjustments throughout the year to accommodate students and teachers, and flagged some students for a support program this summer funded by the third round of federal school emergency funding (ESSER III). The four-week program, Lex Be Curious & Have Fun, enrolled about 180 students this summer, according to Hackett, and “targeted interventions with kids who need them based on literacy and math skills in particular,” as well as “additional mental health support” for those who needed it. ESY, or Extended School Year, a program for students with disabilities, had approximately the same number of students, for a total of about 350 students, she added.
Lenihan worries especially about the setbacks for students in special education programs. “There’s no replicating what was lost, and that’s really hard. Because it’s one thing when you as a parent lose something, but when your kids loses something, oh—so much worse.”
The pending release of MCAS test results (expected this September) may offer a more quantifiable indicator of how COVID-19 impacted student learning.
Investing in mental health resources
Beyond the curricular impacts of COVID-19, both Hackett and Lenihan acknowledged the severe mental health ramifications of the pandemic. “I know there’s a lot of concern about what they didn’t learn in math…But I’m a little more concerned right now about, you know, how are we doing mentally? How are we doing emotionally? And what steps do we need to take to really kind of get people back together?” said Lenihan.
“As a mom, I especially hope the school can give my kids more positive support and sometimes comfort,” Zhou said.
Nick Fang, Zhou’s husband, added that he thought that LPS could combine addressing mental health and cultural sensitivity by helping students understand that families’ approaches to vaccination, masking and social distancing can vary. Zhou’s mother, who is diabetic, stayed with their family this year, and her high-risk condition meant that Zhou and Fang opted to keep their kids remote for the entirety of the 2020-21 school year, though they wished they could have safely sent their kids back to school in person sooner. As all students return to school this fall, “Schools could certainly help us engage the kids on respecting different cultures, different family tradition[s], or even just personal needs,” Fang said.
Both Hackett and Lenihan stressed Lexington’s pre-existing wealth of mental health resources. “We are very fortunate in Lexington, we have a really good number, especially when you compare us to other towns, of social workers and counselors” whose expertise will be essential to identifying student needs and addressing them, Lenihan said. Investments in qualified staff will be a major focus for the district in seeking to support students: “Through the federal funding, we’ve been able to hire some more social adjustment counselors and different supports of that nature,” Hackett said.
“[Some students] are just not going to be the same.”
— Daniel Debowy, psychiatrist and LPS parent
Debowy, in addition to being an LPS parent, is a psychiatrist. He noted that in Massachusetts, even in Lexington, most specialists are fully booked. “Their school counselors have a tremendous job ahead of them, and I don’t envy them in the slightest…even in this neck of the woods in Massachusetts, there is nobody with open slots to send them to, in terms of treatment, so I don’t even know how this district is going to handle it,” he said.
In a follow-up message, Hackett specified that with federal grant funding, the district had hired six counselors for summer school – three each for LexBeCurious and ESY – and a 1.4 full-time equivalent social adjustment counselor, meaning one full-time social adjustment counselor for Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity (METCO) students and a 0.4 FTE, or part-time, social adjustment counselor for the high school. The district also hired a 1.0 FTE nurse.
The Youth Risk Behavior Survey, which is administered every two years and whose results were published in June, will help guide some of the district’s efforts to understand and address students’ needs this year. These results “always inform the work that we do; we get the numbers out early so that we can start building that into our planning,” Hackett said, though since the department will analyze and address these numbers in more detail later.
Debowy approved of Hackett’s focus on using the Mental Risk Youth Behavior Survey data to address students’ needs. “As long as they continue to make those actionable items in the way that they’ve done in the past, then I think they’re doing the best that anybody could reasonably expect them to do,” he said. Still, inevitably, the impacts of the pandemic are severe, and will endure – Debowy predicted that these impacts will “affect the learning environment, probably until the kids who are in kindergarten [now] graduate from high school.” Some kids “are just not going to be the same,” he said.
Challenges for the fall
For Hackett, the biggest challenge moving into the fall remains the differences in expectations among various community members. “People have different ideas about what school should look like and what safety precautions should be in place. Some people will say, ‘I want masks on all the time, no matter what, because there’s a Delta variant.’ Other people will say, ‘Enough, already, we’ve reached herd immunity in Lexington, let us get back to the normal business.’”
Lenihan stressed the risk of relaxing too soon. “We are not post-pandemic. That phrase gets thrown around a bunch [but] a pandemic is by definition, something that is going on [throughout] the whole world. And it’s not just Lexington or Massachusetts….there’s a huge chunk of the world that is still on fire. So we’re not post-pandemic, despite the fact that things are going really well here.” Along with Heiger-Bernays, she said the lack of vaccination for kids under 12 will prove challenging at the beginning of the school year. “And it’s great that kids don’t die, but my bar is set a little higher than not dying. I just don’t want people to get infected with a virus, the long term consequences of which we don’t know.”
Heiger-Bernays was unequivocal in identifying the biggest variable and challenge for LPS moving into fall 2021.
“The biggest challenge is this Delta variant. Not having vaccination yet for children under 12 is a problem,” she said, reiterating that maintaining “superior ventilation controls and systems” and continuing rigorous tracking and tracing would be essential regardless of whether the vaccine is approved for younger children or not.
“We’re on the board where you have the luxury of having two MDs. But I’m a scientist. And I don’t make decisions by myself. I make them by talking with the people who work on this, who study this,” Heiger-Bernays said.
What to expect moving forward
Given the decreased complexity of approach this school year, “we’ll probably do one big communication, a few follow-ups, but not to the extent that we did before,” Hackett said. The Board of Health, School Committee and superintendent will continue to collaborate closely, and monitor adjustments to state and national guidance.
The district already needs to begin “the reverse of the message last year” surrounding, for instance, transportation. “For example, we said, don’t ride the buses, even though that affected our ridership … Now we have to reverse the messaging and say, please get back on the bus. The windows will be down, your kids will be safe. It’s permissible now under the same rules, so unlearning the protocols that we put in place [last year] will be a key for fall.”
Lenihan noted the constant possibility of change. “Even now it’s July, just in the entirety of the pandemic it always feels like trying to plan more than 30 days in advance … it’s a constant knock on wood.”
“We have a lot of things we have to figure out, and there’s no way to make up for a global pandemic,” Hackett reflected.
UPDATE: On Wednesday, July 28, 2021, the CDC released new guidelines for masking. LexObserver asked Lexington leaders and parents for comment on what that means for the school year in an update story available here.