We’re back! Good morning and welcome to this week’s LexObserver newsletter.

We’re excited to have surpassed 1,000 subscribers following our townwide election coverage two weeks ago. Thank you to new subscribers for joining us, and to everyone who has been reading for sticking around. 

Now that the election is behind us, another major event in town governance is just around the corner: This year’s Annual Town Meeting (and at least one Special Town Meeting) are less than two weeks away…so in next week’s newsletter, we plan to dive into some of the most consequential articles up for debate this year (you can see the full list of articles on the Warrant). If you have questions about this year’s Annual Town Meeting that you’d like us to consider covering, as always, please reach out to sophie@lexobserver.org

Now, this week’s (plus, one bit of last week’s) news:

 

Week of March 19: Lexington News Roundup

Reported by Sophie Culpepper

NEWSLETTER SECTIONS:

  • In a split vote last week, the Select Board opted for another remote Annual Town Meeting.
  • At Monday’s Mental Health Summit, the Select Board, School Committee and Mental Health Task Force discussed data on the state of community mental health.
  • Lexington High School students described some of their reactions to the Ukrainian invasion, and one youth group fundraised nearly $1,000 for relief efforts.
  • COVID-19 Weekly Update: Town to stop updating case count dashboard starting March 25; LPS case counts remain low following rescission of townwide mask mandate March 9.
  • Community Announcements: Cary Lecture Series is back in person; pick up free rapid COVID-19 test kits from the Town; LexSeeHer, Cary Library present Women’s History Month event about a local astrophysicist.

In a split vote, the Select Board opted for another remote Annual Town Meeting
 

Lexington’s Annual Town Meeting will be held remotely for the third year in a row, after a 3-2 vote in favor of a remote meeting by the Select Board March 9. The split vote, coming the same day Lexington became mask-optional, stems from conflicting member concerns about facilitating equitable and high participation, being fair to Town staff, and respecting Town Meeting Member wishes. On Feb. 15, Governor Charlie Baker extended certain COVID-19 measures, including a provision allowing remote public access to and member participation in statewide public meetings, until July 15, 2022.

After Town Moderator Deborah Brown recommended a remote Town Meeting for this year, Members (not including new members elected in last week’s election) were surveyed in early March about their preferences.  A total of 146 out of 189 members responded (77.2% participation); a substantial majority — 74.5% — of TMMs voted in favor of this year’s ATM being remote. And, 39% said they would ‘likely not participate’ in one or more sessions if the upcoming ATM were in person, whereas just 2.1% responded that they ‘may likely not participate’ if Town Meeting is remote. Of those who indicated they might not participate if Annual Town Meeting were to take place in person, 57.4% indicated health concerns for themselves or members of their household as a reason, while 66.7% cited health concerns for fellow Town Meeting members. Additionally, 57.4% acknowledged “personal convenience” as a reason. 

Members describing reasons for favoring remote Town Meeting cited increased flexibility, especially for childcare, but also for work and travel; health concerns, and people still generally feeling “nervous about being in a crowded space”; and increased accessibility and accommodation. “Meeting remotely accommodates participation by so many more people,” one respondent wrote. “We need to have a growth mindset that this can improve our town meeting participation and present options to TMM who who otherwise not consider being a TMM,” another wrote. One person suggested a remote Town Meeting, with alternative social events among TMMs to continue fostering in-person community.

Town Meeting members in favor of an in-person Town Meeting emphasized the importance of human connection. In “this day and age of dwindling sense of human connection and community I believe in person meeting is critical to the long-term health of Lexington,” one respondent wrote, with another calling remote Town Meeting “alienating, lifeless.” Another pointed out logistical concerns with remote participation: “The chaos on the floor of Town Meeting during Article 10 this Fall is the foremost example of why Town Meeting should be conducted remotely ONLY during emergencies,” they wrote. One respondent stressed that “preference” and “necessity” regarding remote meetings are very different questions; while it is necessary to protect the health of at-risk community members, this person wrote that they understand the convenience of remote Town Meeting, but believe “the disadvantages of remote attendance are significant to a good TM process, especially the lack of ability for TMMs to be seen live while speaking.” 

Several respondents commented that the wording of some questions about whether respondents would “likely not participate” in virtual or in-person Town Meeting was confusing. Multiple respondents also commented that they see pros and cons to both formats.

Town Meeting members still must vote to approve the use of remote technology on the first night of Annual Town Meeting.

Though many Select Board votes are unanimous, this one was split. Chair Jill Hai and members Joe Pato and Mark Sandeen formed the majority in favor of a remote ATM. 

Pato and Sandeen were swayed by the overwhelming majority of survey respondents voicing a preference for a remote meeting, and Pato voiced particular concern about the sizable minority who expressed unwillingness to participate should Town Meeting be in person. He said voting to hold Town Meeting in person, with that information, could amount to “disenfranchising” those members.

Hai agreed, while acknowledging a personal preference for in-person Town Meeting, and added that since the Select Board had made the decision to survey Town Meeting Members, it was important to respect the overall feedback. She also cited the extraordinarily high turnout among Town Meeting Members in recent remote meetings, typically topping 90%, as a positive development not to be discounted.

Town Manager Jim Malloy had consulted other towns about what they plan to do this year, and said that nearly all of the 10 he surveyed, including Bedford, Needham and Westwood, plan to meet in person this year (Bedford currently plans to require masks). Lexington’s Annual Town Meeting begins in late March, earlier than many neighboring towns; Bedford’s also begins in March, but many other towns do not hold Annual Town Meeting until April or May. 

Vice Chair Doug Lucente expressed concern about the loss of in-person interactions inherent in remote Town Meetings, and referenced President Joe Biden’s recent State of the Union address, where the President encouraged Americans to “fill our great downtowns again.” Another remote Town Meeting accomplishes the opposite, he said.

Additionally, Lucente expressed concern about some Town Meeting Members lacking access to technology to fully participate. Select Board members agreed that holding a training session and educating new members on the tech required to participate is of utmost importance for equitable participation. 

Member Suzie Barry agreed with Lucente, adding that she strongly feels it is unfair to hold Town Meeting remotely when Town staff are generally required to work in person. Barry has made this point about a disparity between some remote elected officials and in-person Town staff in multiple previous meetings.

While voting to hold a remote Town Meeting this spring, Select Board members expect that Special Town Meeting this fall will be hybrid, should the legislature extend remote/hybrid authorization (and 61.4% of survey respondents indicated this as their preference for future Town Meetings). Additionally, the Select Board is moving back toward their own in-person meetings; their most recent meeting on Monday took place in a hybrid format, with two members Zooming in and three members gathering in person.

 

At Mental Health Summit, Select Board, School Committee, Mental Health Task Force discuss data on state of community mental health
 

At that meeting Monday, the Select Board, the School Committee and the Town’s Mental Health Task Force convened to hold a Mental Health Summit to review data about youth and adult mental health in Lexington. The Summit, originally scheduled for Dec. 13, 2021, had to be delayed at that time due to an unexpected personal conflict for a Select Board member.

 

About the Mental Health Task Force: Lexington’s Mental Health Task Force was established as a municipal-school partnership following the town’s suicide prevention symposium in 2017. The group was formed with the goal of establishing a “sustainable structure for addressing mental health in a coordinated way across school and town departments” by “creating alignment” on approaches to mental health-related identification/evaluation; prevention activities; services and interventions; and critical incident responses. 

 

Funding: The group received a one-year planning grant and a three-year implementation grant from Community Health Network Area (CHNA). The Task Force paused grant work for a full year, from March 2020 to March 2021, to meet more immediate pandemic-related needs in school and town spheres, Director of Human Services Melissa Interess noted; the target end date of the grant was shifted to Fall 2022, with some work expected to continue into the winter of 2023, she added. 

 

How the money is being used: Using the CHNA funding, the town focused on identifying unmet needs and underserved populations by creating and distributing a Community Mental Health Assessment among adults, as well as creating an “inventory and repository” of mental health programs and services in school, municipal and other community groups. Initiatives still in various stages of progress include: Establishing a protocol for responding to critical incidents aligning school and municipal departments when applicable; establishing evaluation and measurement tools for impact and outcome data; and creating a communication and outreach plan for promoting available programs and services. 

 

About the Community Mental Health Assessment: In 2020, the Mental Health Task Force began collaborating with the Center for Social Research at Framingham State University on developing and administering a survey about adult mental health in Lexington. Lexington Public Schools already have detailed data about self-reported student mental health challenges for middle and high schoolers in the form of the biennial Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS); the Task Force wanted to gather a detailed data set about adults as well. The survey results were published in an August 2021 report. 

 

Who responded to the survey? Center for Social Research Directors Marian Cohen and Ruth Remington surveyed 1,016 Lexington community members over six weeks. Respondents generally represented a cross-section of the adult Lexington population, but skewed older and more educated than the recorded population, with a higher percentage of white respondents and a lower percentage of Asian and South Asian respondents relative to recorded proportions of Lexington residents. These discrepancies could mean that health challenges among younger community members were underrepresented in survey results, Cohen noted. Additionally, other studies and literature have repeatedly indicated that conceptions of and attitudes toward mental health are “much more restrictive in Asian cultures,” Cohen said, which can mean that problems occurring are less commonly identified as having a mental health component. The vocabulary for describing mental health challenges “is either very limited or completely lacking,” Cohen added, which increases the likelihood that such challenges are “somaticized” – interpreted as physical problems. Consequently, the lower rate of respondents could indicate a possible underreporting of mental health challenges among members of Lexington’s Asian and South Asian communities as well, Cohen cautioned.

 

Key Findings:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Recommendations from Cohen and Remington:

 

 

 

 

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YRBS: K-12 Director of Counseling Val Viscosi also presented a brief overview of YRBS 2021 results. This data has been presented in multiple previous meetings, and LexObserver reported last October on student responses to questions about pandemic impacts. You can learn more about the full breakdown of this data in the presentation linked in the March 14 meeting agenda.

 

William James referrals over time: The William James College INTERFACE referral service began connecting Lexington students and residents to mental health providers free of charge beginning in 2018. Data on total referrals offers another window into fluctuating community mental health needs over time. From December 2019 to May 2020, there were 64 referrals, followed by a slight drop in referrals (51) from June to November 2020, according to Interess. Then, from December 2020 to May 2021, referrals almost doubled, rising to 94. They leveled out slightly from May to November 2021, the most recent reporting period with available data, to 84 referrals.

 

Mental health needs in the community, especially for young children, have been so widespread during the last several months of the pandemic that this referral service has struggled to fully meet community needs, Interess noted. Community members have experienced long waits to connect with a provider, especially due to more demand for in-person services and the sharp increase in demand for therapists specializing in supporting young children, LexObserver previously reported. Community members also specifically saw longer waits for INTERFACE follow-ups due to the higher call volume & acuity. It could take 3-4 days for an initial call return; another 4-5 days for the assignment of a referral counselor; and 2+ weeks for provider identification – totaling 3-4 weeks per provider. In fact, INTERFACE had to shut down completely for a month recently.

 

Since mid-February, the Town has offered some short-term supplementary counseling services via Human Services. The Town has seen about a dozen referrals through this program in this time, Interess said. Lexington is looking to contract a full-time mental health clinician through an agency this spring using American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding, who they hope will have expertise in supporting young children due to the continued demand for this support, she added.

 

Town leadership wants to see more adult survey responses in the future: Almost all members of the Select Board and School Committee alike agreed that it will be very important to find ways to reach more community members and increase response rates among underrepresented groups in future iterations of the Community Mental Health Assessment. Newly elected School Committee member Larry Freeman, for instance, noted that response rates were too low to necessarily draw statistically significant conclusions about the experiences of Black community members in Lexington, even though proportionally, the number of respondents was roughly representative of Lexington’s population. He also commented that given the major mental health challenges identified among LGBTQ+ students in LPS data, it will be important to increase adult LGBTQ+ responses in the adult community so that this data can be broken down, explored and addressed. School Committee Vice Chair Eileen Jay also reflected that to reach Asian community members with culturally different attitudes toward mental health, different methods of and approaches to outreach may be required. Some Select Board members mused that perhaps offering treats, or free perks such as coffee or chocolate, could help increase overall participation in the adult survey in the future. Vice Chair Doug Lucente also stressed the importance of raising community awareness about existing mental health resources. 

 

Lexington students reflect on Ukrainian invasion, with one youth group fundraising for relief efforts
 

Thanks to LexObserver intern and Lexington High School junior Seiya Saneyoshi for interviewing LHS students and LexYouth volunteers about reacting to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine from afar. We have identified students, as minors, by their first names. In case you missed it two weeks ago, you can also read LexObserver’s conversation with George Gamota, a Lexingtonian and Ukrainian-American, about how the invasion is impacting him and some of his loved ones. 

When Russia began its invasion of Ukraine Feb. 24, LHS student Laila was totally disconnected from the news: It was an unassuming Thursday in the middle of February break, so she “was just watching Netflix all day,” she said. 

 

Laila’s dad was the first to tell her that Russia was mobilizing troops into Ukraine; she was shocked, and quickly did her best to catch up on the news via BBC and CNN. She checked her group chat for school debate, and realized everyone was talking about the invasion. 

 

Upon returning to school the following week, Laila noticed her classmates were “more worried about it than I expected,” she said. Still, she certainly understands why even those with no personal connection to Ukraine or Russia are worried: “It’s going to become a bigger issue if Ukraine and Russia don’t settle their own affairs, which I personally don’t think [is] going to happen anytime soon,” she said.
 

What’s more, Laila realized people in the immediate Lexington community were personally impacted: Her chemistry teacher, for instance, is Ukrainian. Superintendent Julie Hackett sent a message to the entire school community March 2 sharing resources for discussing the invasion with students, expressing support for all Ukrainian members of the community, and emphasizing that Ukrainian and Russian community members alike are all welcome in and belong in Lexington.

Students at LHS have indeed found themselves discussing the invasion in classes and clubs, and with friends, family and teachers. Laila, for instance, had to write a case for debate about Turkey and NATO, and she incorporated some of what she had learned about Ukraine into that case, she said. 

 

Danli, another LHS student, has been talking about the conflict with friends and in AP U.S. History (APUSH) and social studies classes, she said. Some teachers and students have been wearing pins supporting Ukraine with Ukrainian colors, she added. Her history class has debated whether or not the U.S. will join the war; “the consensus is that they probably won’t join” and will stick to continuing to supply military aid because Ukraine is not a member of NATO, she said.

 

One group of students has even worked to fundraise in support of Ukrainians.

 

LexYouth is a subsidiary of the local nonprofit CALex. CALex was one of multiple community organizations in town to start a fundraiser in late February to support Ukraine, raising about $3,000 total, according to volunteer Ally Wang. LexYouth high school and middle school students contributed to that total with their own fundraiser.

 

Athena, a 10th grade LexYouth volunteer, said the situation in Ukraine had caused “a lot of anxiety, and just worry for the soldiers and the citizens in Ukraine just because of how far they were pushed.” This motivated her and other students to donate and raise money, she explained, to try to “alleviate their suffering.” 

 

Over two days of in-person fundraising in early March, the students raised $806.46 of the $3,000 CALex total, Wang wrote in a follow-up email to LexObserver. 

 

Alex, another 10th grade LexYouth volunteer, said he had talked with teachers and peers about noticing a fair amount of misinformation and fake fundraisers on social media – so it was important for CALex and LexYouth to be careful to choose credible organizations which would take quick action as recipients of their funds. CALex and LexYouth considered three options, Wang explained, including Ukraine Humanitarian Fund, managed by the UN; Airbnb, which is providing some free, short-term housing to Ukrainian refugees; and Music, Arts and Fashion Productions, a Newton-based arts nonprofit founded by a Kyiv native which contributed to forming a volunteer team to purchase living and medical supplies for Ukrainians after the invasion began. CALex ultimately chose to donate $2,000 to Airbnb and $1,000 to the Newton team, Wang wrote.

COVID-19 Weekly Update: Town Dashboard to stop posting weekly case counts starting March 25; LPS case counts remain low following rescission of townwide mask mandate March 9

Community Announcements 

  • Cary Lecture Series in person March 26: Next Saturday, March 26 at 8:00 p.m., Princeton Emeritus Economics Professors Anne Case and Sir Angus Deaton will deliver a free lecture based on their research about the divergence in mortality for Americans with and without college degrees — “Death by Degrees.” The lecture will take place in person at Cary Hall, but will also be streamed by LexMedia. No tickets are required. Learn more here.
  • Free at-home rapid test kits still available: Thanks to ARPA funding, residents can pick up a free at-home rapid test at the Town Office Building; Fire Department; Police Department; Community Center; Visitors Center; or Public Services Building. The kits are available during regular business hours while supplies last, and the Police Department is open 24/7. The Office of Public Health can be contacted with questions at 781-698-4533.
  • LexSeeHer and Cary Library present “Seeing the Stars More Clearly: Celebrating Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin”: On March 29 at 12:00 p.m., LexSeeHer and Cary Library will host a virtual event in honor of Women’s History Month about a 20th-century Lexingtonian astrophycisist. Cecilia Gaposchkin’s granddaughter and namesake, the Chair of the History Department at Dartmouth, will present about her grandmother’s life. Learn more and register here.

That’s a wrap for today. Was this roundup useful to you? What do you want to see in this email next week? 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. As always, you can also check out and share our website, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook pages. Thanks so much for reading and have a great weekend!
 

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

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