Welcome to this week’s LexObserver news roundup, a quick read you can expect in your inbox every Friday.

This is a wonderful week for us: We want to THANK YOU AGAIN for getting us over $40K in the 40 days of our first crowdfunding campaign!! As Nicco wrote on Wednesday, your support has given us a solid six-month runway for continuing to report the news in our town, and we are so excited to grow our coverage in the New Year!! If you missed your chance to give, it’s not too late; you can still do so here!

Something else for donors to be excited about: Our merch! For all donors, our postcards are in the works (along with some of the other merch) — but here’s a sneak peek at the stickers we’ll be putting in the mail next week:


Another PSA: Nicco also mentioned Wednesday that you can expect to receive a short survey from us next week – now that this first campaign is complete, we want to hear from you about how we can make this newsletter more useful to you, and what other kinds of reporting we can do for Lexington. So please keep an eye out for that email, and take a few minutes to fill out the survey when you receive it!

The next two weeks: There won’t be a regular Friday newsletter for the next two weeks; we’ll send the survey next week, and you’ll also get a recap of this year’s LexObserver growth from Nicco in the last few days of 2021. But we’ll be back on the first Friday of 2022 with whatever news that week brings!

Now, for the last time in 2021 (!), this week’s news:Week of Dec. 17: Lexington News Roundup

Reported by Sophie Culpepper

NEWSLETTER SECTIONS:

  • Lexington Police Department increased police presence in schools today due to TikTok threats.
  • At this week’s School Committee Meeting: LPS projects a surplus for first quarter of FY2022; state agency delays decision on LPS Statement of Interest for new high school; School Committee votes unanimously to support anti-racist education bills S.365/H.584.
  • Some of the school system’s pooled tests have been discarded recently due to unreadable labeling. How many students and staff are participating in pooled testing, and how many tests are being discarded?
  • The Lexington Fire Department put out a car fire on 128 North this morning; the vehicle operator was absent from the scene.
  • Town Hiring Delays: Police Chief and Sustainability and Resilience Officer hiring are still in the works.
  • A week of postponed meetings…from a joint Select Board/School Committee mental health meeting, to a federal funding Select Board discussion, to a LexingtonNext meeting. Why? Unexpected conflicts and technical difficulties.
  • LPS case numbers rose after Thanksgiving, but fell slightly again this week; meanwhile, LPS student vaccination numbers continue to rise.
  • Community announcements: Annual Town Meeting Warrant Deadline is Dec. 29; Chinese American experience panel Wednesday was a success; First Friday event Jan. 7, 2022.


Lexington Police Department increased police presence in schools today due to TikTok threats

  • You may have seen national reporting about a disturbing TikTok phenomenon where threats of violence in schools circulated, putting at least a dozen districts on alert, according to The Washington Post. These threats follow the devastating school shooting in Michigan Nov. 30, and non-credible bomb threats to several universities. Last month, a non-credible threat was made to Diamond Middle School, LexObserver previously reported.
  • The Lexington Police Department released a statement about the threats on Twitter yesterday. “The Lexington Police and the Lexington Schools are aware of the posts on social media (TikTok) regarding school shootings in other areas of the United States. We do not believe there is any local credible threat or connection to our schools,” per the statement. Nonetheless, they committed to increasing police presence at LPS schools today “as an added precaution and to help reassure students, parents, and staff.”

This week’s School Committee Meeting: School district expects to run a surplus for first quarter of FY2022; state agency delays decision on LPS Statement of Interest for new high school; School Committee votes unanimously to support anti-racist education bills S.365/H.584

Note: The following is a look at some of the highlights from this meeting; you can read our original thread summarizing the full meeting here. We always post Twitter summaries of School Committee meetings the evening they take place; follow us to get those @ObserverLex.

  • Executive session: The final School Committee meeting of 2021 began with about an hour of executive session, which is not public. This executive session was held under Exemption 3 (for discussing strategy re: litigation) and Exemption 4 (for discussing deployment of security personnel or devices, or related strategies).
  • Early Decision Week: During member announcements and liaison reports, School Committee Chair Kathleen Lenihan spared a thought for LHS seniors — many of whom weathered the pressures of early decision college results this week. “This too shall pass,” she said. (Shoutout to one of LexObserver’s interns, a senior, for weathering that pressure, too.)
  • School COVID cases and vaccinations: While COVID-19 cases rose after Thanksgiving at LPS (up to 31 as of Dec. 9, from 13 Dec. 2 – see below for more COVID-19 case updates), as in town, Hackett said that the district was not currently noticing any clusters concentrated in specific school buildings. Since last spring, LPS has administered 5,173 doses/boosters of the COVID-19 vaccine, including 3,903 adult doses and 1,270 pediatric doses.
  • Two recent vaccine clinics, Dec. 10 and 13, were completely booked; the Dec. 23 clinic is already fully booked, but Jan. 7 and 13 are both still available. You can sign up here; no walk-ins will be accepted.
  • School system projected budget surplus: Presenting LPS’ FY22 first quarter report, Assistant Superintendent for Finance and Operations David Coelho noted that LPS currently projects a surplus of about $1.34 million, approximately 1.01% of the School Department budget, but he added that projections will shift over time. Why the surplus? The main reason is that LPS currently has more vacancies than usual: The school system currently has 35.72 FTE vacancies across the district. In response to a question from School Committee member Sara Cuthbertson, Coelho estimated that in one year pre-COVID, LPS might have had 20 or fewer vacant positions. Most of the vacancies listed appear to be for instructional assistants and support staff. Districts everywhere are grappling with similar or worse vacancy levels, Coelho added. You can read his full report here.
  • LPS is legit: In her biweekly report, Superintendent Julie Hackett announced that Lexington High School had received continued accreditation in the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC). Lots of detail on this accreditation is in the full NEASC letter here. Lexington currently meets 3/6 of the Commission on Public Schools’ Foundational Elements for the Standards of Accreditation, and should work on the other three areas, which are:
    1. Having a written document describing core values, beliefs about learning, and vision of the graduate; 
    2. Having a written curriculum in a consistent format for all courses in all departments across the school; 
    3. Having a school site that supports delivery of curriculum, programs and services.
  • The school will work on these three areas before the first progress report due next October, Hackett wrote.
  • Still no word from the state on Lexington’s latest push for new high school: This third area for growth relates to the longstanding push by the district to build a new high school. Hackett submitted a third Statement of Interest to the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) for funding and approval this past June; their response was supposed to arrive this month, but has been delayed until March, she said during Tuesday’s meeting.
  • Updates on existing mental health, safety programs: Hackett also included updates about existing mental health resources and school safety procedures in her report, responding to recent community questions about these areas of LPS support.The school safety community questions stem at least in part from the Diamond threat and Michigan tragedy mentioned above. As for mental health, some parents have expressed concern in previous School Committee meetings over how the district plans to use federal pandemic support funding. Some have said they want federal pandemic funds to be used for direct student socioemotional support, but Hackett and the School Committee have supported a preliminary plan to use the funds to resurrect Lexington’s Elementary World Language Program; Hackett maintains that this would be the best and most meaningful use of the funds. As she has in previous meetings, Hackett stressed that LPS already has far more resources and staff members focused on mental and socioemotional health than many other districts. More specificity on mental health support and safety procedures alike is provided in her report.
  • Related — Advisory hiatus was recently extended: Meanwhile, LHS Principal Andrew Stephens recently extended the hiatus of the Advisory support program for high school students, one of the measures previously stressed as a socioemotional support program for LHS students. The hiatus was announced at the end of October due to challenges with implementation: “The current approach of Advisory periods in the long lunch blocks, along with the adjustment for the later start/end time, new schedule this year (incorporating 4 lunches), and the very real challenges that kids and adults are all having with the social and academic adjustment to being in person full time is proving untenable and is resulting in uneven experiences for adults and students,” Stephens wrote in the Oct. 29 newsletter. That same week, the School Committee unanimously approved the addition of near-monthly half-days for middle and high school students and staff, LexObserver previously reported; in her proposal, Hackett explained that educators and students were overwhelmed with the demands this school year has placed on them. This followed a Class Action Grievance at LHS earlier in October, when Lexington High School staff protested being overworked to the point of violating their contracts, LexObserver previously reported.
  • Advisory may return in the New Year: Despite the extended hiatus, Principal Stephens does want to resume the program in the new year, he wrote. In his Dec. 3 update to students and Dec. 10 update to families, he explained that there are two scheduling challenges to resuming Advisory: To “address the uneven length of the periods that has posed a real and significant challenge to students and faculty” and “create a separate (and shorter) Advisory period that would allow for the groups to meet more regularly to build familiarity and community and to ensure that students are signed up for I Blocks….The challenge is to identify whether it is possible to make some changes to the schedule” that address the two challenges, he wrote.
  • In pursuit of justice: School Committee Vice Chair Eileen Jay presented a letter that she wrote expressing Lexington School Committee support for S.365/H.584, a Senate and House bill that would support anti-racism in MA education by creating funding and a process for grants. The SC unanimously voted to send the letter to Lexington state reps and relevant legislative bodies/committees and individuals. You can read the letter draft here.
     
  • No public participation this week: No members of the public participated in either of two opportunities for public comment on Tuesday. 

Some of the school system pooled tests have been discarded recently due to unreadable labeling. How many students and staff are participating in pooled testing, and how many tests are being discarded?

  • Early last week, some Lexington schools sent out emails alerting parents that some pooled testing samples were being discarded due to incorrect labeling. LexObserver reviewed a Dec. 7 email distributed to Lexington High School parents and a Dec. 6 email to Clarke Middle School parents, which both said, “We have been notified that MANY samples are being discarded due to incorrect or unreadable labeling on the sample tube. A complete review of the saliva collection procedure and reasons for rejection of samples may be found here Covid Testing Instructions and on the LHS Website-School Nurses.”
  • LexObserver asked Superintendent Julie Hackett for context about the current status of the pooled testing program, and number of tests being discarded.
  • How many people are tested per week? “Typically, we are testing around 1,800 – 2,000 per week, which has been fairly consistent,” Hackett wrote in an email to LexObserver. Staff are required to participate in pooled saliva testing.
  • Is participation in the program higher at high school and middle school levels than at the elementary school level? “Participation is higher at the elementary/middle school grades,” Hackett wrote. “We have had to discard some tests due to improper labeling, and we urge those providing samples to remember to do the following: 1) submit a consent in the system; 2) register the tube; 3) label the tube with name and date of birth; and 4) do not use flair ink pens that smudge.”
  • Do you have an estimate of what percentage of pooled tests have been discarded per week and/or in total due to incorrect or unreadable labeling on the sample tube from all LPS tests? “It varies,” Hackett wrote. “This week we had around 200 unreadable tests through the pooled testing program, which is a higher number than is typical.”
  • Lexington Public Schools offer three different kinds of testing. How much of an impact does the number of unreadable test results have on the accuracy of the reported case numbers? Have you found most of the cases reported are identified through pooled testing, symptomatic testing, or test and stay? “We have identified positive cases through “pooled testing” and “symptomatic testing,” but no positives have been identified through “test and stay,”” Hackett wrote.
  • Beyond closely following the labeling instructions for pooled testing, what steps can or should families and community members take to support both successful testing, and school nurses, at LPS right now? “As we speak, the Director of School Health Services is on a call with Veritas, the State’s contracted service provider for pooled testing…The Director of School Health Services meets weekly with Veritas to troubleshoot and ensure that as many samples as possible are accurately counted,” Hackett wrote. Detailed instructions on how to administer the tests can be found here.
  • Veritas did not respond to LexObserver’s request for comment by press time.

Lexington Fire Department puts out car fire on 128 North; vehicle operator was absent from the scene

  • Around 7 a.m. Friday morning, the Lexington Fire Department was alerted to a vehicle fire off Route 128 North, Captain Mark Ferreira told LexObserver. The LFD managed to put out the fire by about 8 a.m., including a small brush fire that had spread to the woods. Traffic was backed up in the area around that time, but no one was hurt in this fire, Ferreira said.
  • Vehicle fires of this kind are relatively common, Ferreira said, often resulting from “a mechanical breakdown in the vehicle of some type.” The only unusual detail of this fire is that the vehicle operator was absent. The cause of the fire is still “undetermined,” Ferreira said. The owner of the vehicle was not a Lexington resident, Ferreira added.
  • If no one was with the vehicle “that is unusual but not unheard of,” Trooper Brandon Doherty of the Massachusetts State Police Office of Media Relations told LexObserver. It isn’t necessarily suspicious, since the vehicle operator might have gone to get gas or seek help, he added. From the log note “it doesn’t seem like there’s anything suspicious” about this particular car fire, he added. “It’s just kind of one of those things that makes you scratch your head, but it’s not something that makes you go, oh, this is malicious.” 

Town Hiring Delays: Police Chief, Sustainability and Resilience Officer hiring still in the works

  • After LexObserver sent a few questions about town hiring during the week of Special Town Meeting, Town Manager Jim Malloy responded in a Nov. 17 email that “I anticipate that by the end of the week an offer may be made for the Sustainability and Resilience Officer position [and] that by December 7th an offer will be made for the Chief of Police position.” LexObserver attempted to reach Town Manager Malloy multiple times by phone and email this week and last week for updates on hiring for these two positions. Deputy Town Manager Kelly Axtell told LexObserver earlier this afternoon that as of today, Malloy is on vacation; she said that the Police Chief appointment had been “delayed” and was not aware of a new expected date for this hiring and appointment to be complete, and that the Town is in the process of interviewing candidates for the Sustainability and Resilience Officer position. Other current open positions in the town are listed on the town website.

A week of postponed meetings

  • What more fitting way to end 2021 than with canceled meetings?
  • No mental health update this week: We planned to attend and report on the mental-health-focused joint meeting between the Select Board and School Committee, which was scheduled for Monday evening. According to the meeting agenda, this meeting would have included a Mental Health Task Force Update, among other related updates.
  • “There were unexpected conflicts that necessitated the postponement of the Mental Health Task Force update,” Public Information Officer Sean Dugan wrote in an email to LexObserver. “There was an unexpected and unavoidable conflict that necessitated the postponement,” concurred School Committee Chair Kathleen Lenihan in an email to LexObserver. “It will be rescheduled for January, but we don’t have the date yet,” she added.
  • No discussion of federal funds:Select Board Chair Jill Hai and Vice Chair Doug Lucente both had conflicts that necessitated their absences from Monday’s Select Board Meeting, which lasted less than 10 minutes and consisted of a vote to approve some small reprecincting changes. The discussion of American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) community engagement, also scheduled for Monday evening’s Select Board meeting, was postponed as well. 
  • No LexingtonNext meeting: Last night, we also attempted to attend and cover the LexingtonNext Comprehensive Plan Advisory Committee meeting, which was intended to finalize draft goals, objectives, and strategies for various elements of the plan, according to the agenda. You may recall that the Dec. 7 public forum, when the plan update was supposed to be presented to the public, was postponed after a Nov. 30 CPAC meeting where “it was determined that additional time was needed to develop strong goals that incorporated public feedback and existing conditions,” according to a Dec. 3 email from CPAC. The forum will be rescheduled for some time in early 2022, according to that email. Last night’s meeting was foiled by technical difficulties, leading to a decision that the meeting needed to be postponed to ensure full public accessibility. 
  • LexObserver still doesn’t know what exactly happened that necessitated postponing the ARPA discussion and mental health meeting. The journalistic instinct to be frustrated by the vagueness of the answers received is strong. But, setting the badgering hat aside for a moment, perhaps it is worth acknowledging that it’s been another truly tough year for everyone, and we wish everyone well and sincerely hope that, for all of our sakes, 2022 proves more manageable. 
  • It is a journalist’s job to hold public officials to account; that’s not a hat you take off. But, it’s also our job to reflect what is happening in town: Readers, what LexObserver has seen, from the dozens of meetings we have attended in just the last six months, is local officials who have been working overtime for Lexington for a very long time, in a miserably long pandemic. So to those officials, thank you for your public service; thank you for what you do for this town; please, get some rest over the holidays. We look forward to covering the Mental Health meeting, ARPA funding updates, and the much-anticipated Comprehensive Plan Update in 2022.

LPS case numbers rise after Thanksgiving, fall again slightly this week; LPS student vaccination numbers continue to rise

  • At press time, town COVID-19 cases had not been posted for this week. Middlesex County still has the highest daily average of cases statewide, but Nantucket has the highest number of cases per 100,000 people, according to the New York Times database.
     
  • We’re recapping the last two weeks of Lexington Public Schools cases, since last week’s numbers weren’t posted in time for newsletter inclusion last week. The bad news is that cases went up after Thanksgiving; the good news is that cases went back down some this week. As of Dec. 9, 31 LPS staff/students were absent who had tested positive, while 25 were quarantining; but as of yesterday, 23 staff or students were absent who had tested positive, while 21 staff or students were quarantining. Both weeks, cases were relatively scattered across school buildings.
  • LPS recently changed its parameters for measuring the total number of vaccinated students, and updated vaccination data this week; as of Dec. 3, LPS calculates the total number of fully vaccinated students as a total of K-12 students, rather than just students grades 7-12, to reflect the eligibility of all students ages 5+ to receive the vaccine. Now, as of Tuesday, Dec. 14, the new parameters mean that 70.9% of K-12 LPS students are fully vaccinated — a big jump from 49.3% Dec. 3, suggesting that younger, newly eligible students are getting vaccinated quickly. Indeed, 51.5% of K-5 students are now fully vaccinated.

  Community Announcements

  • Citizen petitions for Annual Town Meeting are due Dec. 29: If you want to submit a Citizen Petition for the 2022 Annual Town Meeting, which begins March 28, you have less than two weeks left — all citizens petitions must be delivered in person to the Select Board Office in the Town Office Building by Dec. 29 at 4:00 p.m. You can read more about citizens’ petitions here.
  • Shoutout to the Chinese American Association of Lexington (CAAL) and Cary Library for hosting a wonderful panel Wednesday evening, where nine Chinese American Lexington residents of all ages discussed their identities and experiences navigating today’s world. Panelists discussed everything from the importance of including Chinese American history in school curricula and art, to experiences with microaggressions, to taking pride in one’s identity and navigating cultural contradictions.
  • One event to watch for in the New Year: The League of Women Voters of Lexington is sponsoring Senator Will Brownsberger at its virtual First Friday, January 7, 9:30 a.m., when he will discuss the challenges of redistricting in Massachusetts in 2022. More info here.

That’s a wrap for today. Was this roundup useful to you? What do you want to see in this email in the NEW YEAR? Let us know, and please ask your friends to sign up and donate too! Reach out to sophie@lexobserver.org with tips and questions anytime (I’ll be around next Monday and Tuesday, then taking a step back from email til early January — I’ll plan to get back to you then if you write me in the interim!). As always, you can also check out and share our websiteTwitterInstagram and Facebook pages. Thanks so much for reading and happy holidays.

With gratitude,
Nicco Mele, Sophie Culpepper, Sarah Liu and Vivian Wang
LexObserver Team

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