Brookline School Committee holds open forum to discuss students returning to school



The Brookline School Committee (BSC) met on Wednesday, Feb. 23 to hold a public forum for comments and opinions from community members about students potentially returning to school.

The Brookline School Committee (BSC) convened via Zoom on Feb. 23 at 6 p.m. to provide an opportunity for parents, educators and other members of the community to comment about students potentially returning to school full-time in the coming weeks.

The meeting was broadcasted by the Brookline Interactive Group (BIG) and featured Interim Superintendent Dr. James Marini, BSC Co-Chair Suzanne Federspiel and other community members.

President of the Brookline Educators Union (BEU) Jessica Wender-Shubow and BEU Financial Consultant Robert Miller were the main representatives from the BEU attending the meeting. Wender-Shubow said she was saddened by the public perception of what educators are doing with parents and the BSC to solve problems that arise in school.

“It is sad and painful to see a subset of the community seeking on social media, to put adults against children and claiming that educators are not being problem solvers,” Wender-Shubow said. “The reality is that there is heartfelt, skilled problem-solving collaboration [that] is underway between educators and parents at the school level and between the BEU and the central administration.”

Wender-Shubow said open bargaining, which would have representatives from both the BSC and the BEU discussing contractual obligations, safety precautions and many other topics, should help community members understand the challenges of creating plans for schools.

“The BEU is a strong advocate of open bargaining, where community members can witness a venue that enables parties to look thoughtfully at the complexity of the challenges involved in creating safety, predictability and control for children,” Wender-Shubow said.

Ninth grade history teacher Samuel Dickerman, reading from an official statement from the BEU, said the district would have to directly work with educators in order for students to return to school.

“This transition can only be successful if the district works with the educators to identify and address the challenges that will undoubtedly arise,” Dickerman read. “Furthermore, it is our hope that there will be more support for our school administrators as they work to rebuild school schedules and redefine space uses while everyone is anxious, frustrated and COVID-19 fatigued. We believe that with thoughtful planning and troubleshooting during this particular phase, we can safely bring back more students fully in-person.”

Dr. Rachel Agrin-Silva, a pediatrician at Boston Children’s Hospital, said the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have been damaging to many students’ mental health.

“As a pediatrician, I have a duty to advocate for children, and I have previously spoken about the mental health crisis that is affecting children due to this prolonged isolation they’ve been facing,” Agrin-Silva said. “The effects of the pandemic on children had been cumulative. Children who had been doing well are now struggling a year into the pandemic.”

Agrin-Silva said she trusts Brookline in their safety procedures enough to return as early as possible.

“Brookline has extraordinary safety standards for mitigating COVID-19. I trust our experts in guiding the district. All grades should be phased in starting in March, including those children in the critical middle school years,” Agrin-Silva said.

In addition to representatives from the BEU, many parents and guardians participated in the open forum at the meeting.

High school parent Nancy Roe said the BSC has the support of many people in the community and beyond, and in their Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) they have the power to bring students back to school.

“You have the support of many, many parents and kids, the support of science, the support of the [Department of Elementary and Secondary Education] (DESE), the support of the governor. You have the mechanism in the MOA that ultimately gives you control to get kids back in school,” Roe said. “It’s what you negotiated three months ago, [and it] has multiple layers of mitigation in place, and it’s been working all year.”

Kevin MacKenzie, a paraprofessional at the Lincoln School, said educators and the administration should prioritize supporting students experiencing anxiety due to the challenges of returning to in-person school.

“Once students are returned, we need to know how to best support our students. At present, I have students who are afraid or anxious about coming into the building just two days a week,” MacKenzie said. “This fear and anxiety is not going to go away. It may intensify once we return to full in-person learning.”

MacKenzie said the BSC should also focus on their relationship with the BEU and all educators in Brookline, which would rebuild the trust between the two parties.

“If you do not have the answers to our questions about how a return to full in-person instruction would work, tell us that. Transparency and honesty is essential to building trust,” MacKenzie said.

Shanna Penna, a parent of two children in Public Schools of Brookline (PSB) said the new strands of COVID-19 make people at the highest risk reluctant to return.

“Scientists stated that masking protocols in the U.S. are no longer sufficient. We need to take into account these new masking protocols. We need to take into account the variations, and we need to take into account that our vulnerable populations are hesitant because they are significantly more at risk,” Penna said.

Penna said her family experiences the challenges of choosing between remote learning and in-person learning because of the lessening of social distancing procedures.

“Every day is going to be problematic. [My daughter] needs the important in-person support and anyone telling us to go remote dismisses my family’s needs. Going against the CDC puts families like mine more at risk,” Penna said.

Agrin-Silva said the BSC should consider having students back in-person sooner for the sake of students’ mental health.

“Please let’s look back together on this moment of history and know that we chose to rescue our children in our community,” Agrin-Silva said.