Belmont parents propose COVID-19 testing plan to send students back to school

BELMONT, Mass. — Belmont parents are pushing for their kids to return to school days after Massachusetts officials put pressure on the district to reconsider their remote learning plan.

Belmont is one of 16 school districts in the state to receive a letter from Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) Commissioner Jeff Riley urging them to bring students back into the classroom because of their low-risk coronavirus designation.

Jamal Saeh, a clinical scientist and father of two Belmont High School students, worked alongside other parents on a proposal for the school district to implement surveillance testing in order for students and staff to safely return to school right away and increase their in-class hours under the current hybrid plan.

“We felt comfortable that Belmont is in the very low risk, and we agree with DESE guidelines to start hybrid now,” Saeh said. “We think there’s no reason not to start hybrid now.”

Whereas diagnostic testing takes samples from symptomatic individuals, surveillance testing would be of asymptomatic students and staff throughout the school district.

The team of parents and scientists have found a laboratory that will first perform baseline COVID-19 tests, taken by saliva samples, of all 4,500 students and staff within the district before returning to school. Each week thereafter, 10 percent of students and 100 percent of teachers would be tested.

“It’s developmentally appropriate,” Saeh said. “We don’t have to use the nose swab, and it’s very easy, and we get the results within 24 hours.”

Dr. Kate Jeffrey presented their proposal to the school committee Tuesday, adding that surveillance testing would accompany COVID-19 screening measures, including temperature reports, as well as mask-wearing and social distancing.

“I think that it’s good to have a sort of an easing our concerns about COVID,” Jeffrey said in the meeting via Zoom. “But with the current rates in Belmont, investing in testing in this manner really has to result in something different, and it has to result in children returning to the classroom.”

If surveillance testing is implemented, a few positive results should be expected, Saeh said. That means the plan is working and allows for isolation of those students and close contacts while in-person learning continues, he said.

School committee members unanimously voted to approve a motion for the administration to explore the feasibility and logistics of both the surveillance testing proposal and wastewater testing from school buildings. But School Committee Chair Andrea Prestwich did not agree with Jeffrey’s request to include in the motion to “expedite and/or increase learning hours in the classroom.”

“I respectfully disagree,” Prestwich said. “This is not necessarily about that. That might well come about from this motion, but really what it’s about is increasing the safety and peace of mind of our staff and students.”

But Prestwich and the other committee members agreed a return to school as soon as possible is necessary. They voted unanimously for students in kindergarten through grade four to return to school in a hybrid model beginning Oct. 5, as long as conditions remain safe to do so.

But a vote on a date for older students to return will likely happen next week, on Sept. 29.

Under the current plan, students in grades five through twelve will not return to the classroom sooner than Oct. 22.

Superintendent John Phelan stressed the need to learn more information about air quality in school buildings and hear from school principals before making further reopening decisions.

But parents are anxious for their kids to see their teachers and classmates again.

“Psychologically and emotionally, the kids need a break. The kids need to be with their friends and to be able to see their teachers,” Saeh said. “Secondly, I am really concerned that they are going to be disadvantaged relative to the rest of the schools around the country and even around town that are open right now.”

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