Three bodies are responsible for different aspects of Lexington Public Schools health and safety:
- The Lexington School Committee is responsible for setting policy, approving the budget, and hiring and evaluating the superintendent. The School Committee is comprised of five elected members who are currently serving three-year terms. Scott Bokun and Vice Chair Eileen Jay’s terms will expire in 2022, when the next elections for those seats will take place.
- The Town Board of Health receives authority directly from the state to set health policy for the town. The Board of Health officers are appointed by the Town Manager and approved by Lexington’s Select Board. (The Select Board is an elected body that functions as the chief decision maker for the town. The next election for some members is in 2022.)
- The superintendent is responsible for implementing school policy, including as it relates to health policy. The superintendent is hired by the School Committee.
Beyond local autonomy, Lexington is also subject to state-level authority: The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education is essentially the School Committee’s state-level counterpart, whose members include the secretary of education, a student and nine members appointed by the governor, while the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education is led by Commissioner Jeffrey C. Riley, Superintendent Hackett’s state-level counterpart, who is hired by BESE. In some cases, these bodies have the authority to overrule any decisions made by the Town’s governing bodies.
How will decisions be made?
Superintendent Hackett and her team will formulate guidelines for what school should look like in the fall with guidance from the Town’s Board of Health and ultimate approval from the Lexington School Committee before such guidelines are implemented. Hackett noted that planning for fall 2021 is “certainly far less complex than what we had to navigate throughout the past year. This should be much easier.”
Each of the 351 cities and towns throughout the state of Massachusetts has its own board of health, with some exceptions. “The Board of Health has the legal mandate and authority and obligation to protect the health of the people in the county,” Chair Heiger-Bernays explained. While appointed by the Town Manager, all members of the Board of Health are volunteers and also hold full-time jobs – Heiger-Bernays, for instance, is a clinical professor in the Department of Environmental Health at the Boston University School of Public Health.
“Some communities, there is very little conversation between the Board of Health and the School Department or School Committee,” Heiger-Bernays said. “In Lexington, we have a wonderful collaborative relationship” between the multiple components and extensions of these bodies – a point both Superintendent Hackett and School Committee Chair Lenihan also underscored.
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.
Generally, in the past 20 years, BOH decisions have been “almost always unanimous,” and follow “extensive discussion, respectful conversation” among all five members with different perspectives, according to Heiger-Bernays. “Going into the fall, we’ll probably all be on the same page,” she said.
“This pandemic has been really challenging — for everyone, for leadership, where there was no leadership at the federal level, very little leadership at the state level,” Heiger-Bernays said. “It’s hard to provide leadership when the stakes are high.”