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New Year Brings Optimism for Bellingham Schools

Dec 30, 2020 06:00AM ● By Kenneth Hamwey

Bellingham School Superintendent Peter Marano

January’s arrival signals the start of a new year, and there’s no doubt that Peter Marano is glad that 2020 is in his rear-view mirror. The 47-year-old Marano, who has been Bellingham’s School Superintendent for the last six years, is acutely aware that the Covid-19 pandemic will continue to claim lives and cause uncertainty for educators in the new year. The school chief is, however, optimistic that 2021 will be promising, primarily because vaccines have been approved and will soon be available. He’s also bullish on what September will look like when schools reopen.

“The new year will be more normal,” Marano said. “Vaccines give us cause for optimism. The ones developed by Moderna and Pfizer have an efficacy rate of 95 percent. That’s encouraging and promising. My hope is that when schools reopen in September 2021, all of the learning will be in-person.”

Marano isn’t sure, however, that masks, sanitizing stations and social distancing will disappear. “I think we’ll still have some aspects of those things but not like the extent to which we have them now.”

Reflecting on 2020, Marano labeled that time frame as “a year of uncertainty and constant pivoting.” He knew that every decision made an impact, and at times those impacts were huge.

“We worried about every member of the school community,” he said. “That includes students, parents, grandparents and our staff and their families. Our decisions impacted everyone in our community. If we had to curtail in-person learning, that impacted parents’ ability to work and put food on the table. Decisions also affected the social and emotional well-being of our students and also the health and safety of our staff.”

January through June will have its ups and downs, but Marano’s plan is to continue with the hybrid model (a combination of in-person and remote learning). “We’ll stay with the hybrid format, but we’ll follow guidance from the State Department of Education that could lead to adjustments in the model.”

Before schools reopened last September, Bellingham’s initial plan was to implement in-person learning in all five schools; but that was scrapped when the State Department of Education issued its regulations on busing and social distancing. “We could have only half the number of students on a bus, and we weren’t comfortable with the 3-6-foot distancing edict,” Marano said.
From September through mid-December (the Bulletin’s deadline), only two schools had shutdowns. “We closed the Middle School for a week and the high school for a week-plus because students had tested positive,” Marano noted. “In both situations, we saw multiple positive cases but not in-school transmission. To ensure no in-school transmission, we went remote at both sites.” Through November, there were eight positive cases at the high school and five at the middle school.
Here’s a thumbnail look at some areas, activities, and departments during the coronavirus era:
  • Nurses—Marano has high praise for nurses at all five schools. “Our school nurses have been extraordinary,” he said. “The leadership of our lead nurse (Maureen Loftus) has been excellent. The offices at all of the schools have been a beehive of activity. All our nurses have handled the increase in traffic with expert approach and dignity.”
  • Athletics—Fall sports teams had to deal with major modifications, but the adjustments went smoothly, according to Marano. He’s cautiously optimistic that winter sports, which also face changes, will be conducted as effectively as the fall sports. “Masks, social distancing and limits on crowd size will be implemented again,” he said. “I’m pleased with how well student-athletes and coaches have adjusted to the new normal.”
  • Extra-curricular activities—All extra-curricular activities are up and running with limited in-person contact. “They’re mostly virtual,” Marano said. “For example, our drama club is hoping to do a virtual performance in the spring.”
  • Busing­­—“Smooth” is the word Marano used to describe the transporting of students. “The bus company has done an excellent job, and the drivers are serious and responsible about their roles--and they follow protocols,” he said.
  • Custodians—“The custodial staff under Roger Oakley’s leadership has done an outstanding job keeping up with the cleaning protocols and the sanitizing of our buildings,” Marano said. “A clean building is a must to provide educational opportunities for our kids in a safe way.”
  • Prop 2-1/2 money—Proponents vowed that the $1.5 million tax package would create more opportunities for students. According to Marano, it has been and is now being used to cope with some of Covid-19’s demands. “We’ve used some of the money for a foreign-language teacher, a school adjustment counsellor and an art teacher,” Marano said. “Now, we’re using some of the money for Covid-19. We’ve added staff to run the hybrid model and added technology for remote learning.”
  • Federal money—Marano said that the initial Covid-19 relief bill provided $500,000 for the school system and $1.5 million for the town. “We used the $500,000 for staffing, technology and PPE (masks, air purifiers and hand sanitizing),” he noted.   
The superintendent’s office gets a plethora of calls daily from students, parents and staff, the majority of which (95 percent) focus on Covid-19. “We get questions about the virus, we hear about concerns and we get recommendations from parents and staff,” Marano said. “Ninety-five percent of my day’s activity is about Covid-19.”
The superintendent would prefer to exert his energy on curriculum and innovative educational trends, but the virus has forced him down a bumpy and uneven road. His days are hectic and exhausting because of the virus, but he handles the burden effectively.
“It can weigh on you,” he admitted. “I always hope that we’re okay with our procedures. Every day has questions arise, and I want to make sure I do the right thing. I know that remote learning has shortchanged students, but we’ve made the best of a terrible situation. There’s no substitute for in-person learning, and it’s my hope that 2021 will be a time for total in-person learning.”
As the pandemic has progressed, school administrators have gained experience in how to deal with it; but no matter how many college degrees a superintendent may have, none was prepared for this crisis.
Peter Marano, nevertheless, has rolled up his sleeves and worked 24/7 to combat the pandemic’s far-reaching effects.


The Municipal Spotlight is written each month
by KEN HAMWEY, Contributing Writer
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