Here’s a recap of the April 12 Wellesley Board of Health meeting:
School updates: No prom; encouraging vax data; after-school care conundrum
The state’s Department of Elementary & Secondary Education has issued its long-awaited guidance on proms, and it is strongly discouraging schools for hosting them. “We agree that that seems like the safest choice at this point, and that we should put our energy into other types of senior activities that don’t include that same level of risk,” said Wellesley Public Schools Supt. Dr. David Lussier, in speaking with town health officials and school administration.
Not going ahead with prom could save other activities, such as graduation, he said.
In terms of safeguarding faculty and staff, nearly 800 members of the Wellesley Public School team has reported having at least one vaccine dose, which amounts to more than 80%. WPS Head of Nursing Linda Corridan said the numbers are probably higher given that not everyone reports their vaccinations with the school system, as it is personal information. WPS does not have data on how many faculty and staff have completed their vaccinations.
Wellesley Public Schools reported 6 new cases last week, plus 3 more Monday at the high school. Recent cases have been the result of family member transmission, Corridan said.
Lussier said there is heightened sensitivity in light of middle school students returning for full in-classroom education this week, and the high school returning after next week’s vacation week. He’s hopeful that families will take it easy on travel during the break. A surge could hit hard due to the new 3-foot guidance within schools—if there are positive COVID-19 cases, many more close contacts can be affected and wind up out of classrooms.
Another issue of great interest to the school community is after-school care. Parents and guardians have been making inquiries to each other as well as to the Health Department, School Department, and School Committee about availability of after-school care for the next school year in the fall, and Lussier acknowledges coming up with answers isn’t easy.
“We recognize for families, especially working families, how important after-school care is…,” he said. “We are absolutely facing some challenges in being able to identify all the elements that may or may not be in place in the fall for when these programs would be running.”
One parent actually reached out to me as I was finishing this post, and mentioned that several parents plan to call in for citizen speak about this topic at the School Committee meeting on Tuesday night.
“WPS has said that they cannot confirm until July. July does not provide adequate time for the [Wellesley Community Children’s Center] to hire their staff. This also puts families in limbo as they do not know whether they will have aftercare next year or not. It seems to me there are some equity issues here as this is more detrimental to the families that either have a single-parent family or dual working parents,” the parent wrote.
Wellesley’s schools don’t look like they normally do, with spaces reengineered to accommodate spacing between students during the pandemic. Lussier showed images of the Sprague cafeteria, which is housing furniture and other materials, and the Schofield gym, which is being repurposed for regular classroom learning rather than Phys Ed.
Until the school system gets guidance from the state on social distancing standards for next year, it’s hard for Wellesley to identify how spaces will be able to accommodate after-school programs. Wellesley Health Director Lenny Izzo didn’t sound surprised that guidance has become available in light of summer camp guidance only being revealed of late. Among his questions is whether after-school programs would be lumped in with school or with camp, as that could have an impact on whether separation between participants is 3 or 6 feet.
The parent who emailed us said: “I also believe that if we need to store things, we could look at renting storage space or storage pods. Three neighboring communities are moving forward with their after school programs Wellesley should also be moving forward as well and commit to this for the fall.”
Lussier said the question isn’t whether there will be after-school programs, but how big they can be based on the space available. The School Department has encouraged the Wellesley Community Children’s Center, which typically serves a few hundred kids, to start the preregistration process, without committing to services. This will at least give WPS and WCCC a sense of what the level of interest in its programs might be (an outsider’s guess: high!).
Ann Marie McCauley, the town’s public health nurse supervisor, described this past week as a busy one, with Babson College reporting 18 cases over the span of two days, though only a few since then. The town had an additional 30 cases, including one at Wellesley College, and town’s positivity rate has risen from 0.46% to 0.70% over the past week.
There’s a chance Babson’s president might join the Wellesley Health Department on a call this week. The school has placed additional restrictions on students in light of concering case counts.
The oldest person reported positive last week in town was 60 years old, and most positive cases were among those under 30 years of age, many under 20. “I’m feeling really hopeful that as people are getting vaccinated we’re knocking out a whole group from getting infected,” McCauley said.
Wellesley’s Health Department and Board of Health last week issued a reminder to the town to be vigilant in taking COVID-19 precautions. Health Director Izzo said they did get 1 positive letter in response, though more negative ones. “It’s the reality…we continue to see non-compliance in the community and on the playing courts. It’s really frustrating…” he said.
Mental health resources
The Board of Health also discussed, in the week of a recent meeting on mental and behavioral health, where the town’s service gaps exist.
There are not an adequate number of child and adolescent psychologists or psychiatrists, or social workers, Board Chair Shep Cohen said, and professionals in this area are overwhelmed. Even the Human Relations Service that offers mental health services refers out many of the calls it gets, he said.
The town needs to look at additional funding options to pay for more social and behavioral health workers, as well as to support vulnerable families that might need help paying for summer camp, Cohen added. This could include reevaluating the way the town currently contracts for services.
Supt. Lussier said the School Department has built an additional $20K into its budget to expand the hours for social workers throughout the summer, and he’s hoping Town Meeting will approve that. “We’re going to need to make the case in a coordinated way in a very challenging budget context for why these things are needed,” he said.
WPS Head of Nursing Corridan said one continuing concern is that high school students have spent considerable time in waiting rooms and observation beds because no psychiatric beds have be available locally.
Izzo said the town is seeking more information on MetroWest Medical Center facility’s transition to a complete focus on behavioral health after shuttering its emergency room last year in Natick. The hope is that significantly more beds will become available soon, he said, and it’s possible Wellesley and Natick’s health departments could set up a meeting with MetroWest to get an update. The problem, he said, is that: “Those beds will probably be full the day they open…”
Board member Linda Oliver Grape said that “the reality is the behavioral health landscape in our state and probably nationwide has been totally revamped as a result of COVID.” Telehealth visits have exploded much more so for behavioral health than for other medical health conditions, she said, noting that 75% of behavioral health visits in January were done online vs. 20% of other medical visits.
“The demand is so great for psychiatrists that they can write their own ticket and have a cash fee-for-service-only practice, and that puts people that have limited financial resources at a real disadvantage,” Oliver Grape said.
Senior Community Social Worker Joyce Saret noted that telehealth meetings for mental health care vs. in-person meetings with masks on can be a better experience, except for the very young. “People are getting very creative,” she said.
Creativity is what will be required of the town too to get the funding it needs, Izzo said.
“We have to think outside the box… I think we owe it to the town,” he said.