by Alex Merkowitz, News Section Editor & Alexa Zou, News Contributor
photo by Hedi Skali
COVID-19 has spread rapidly worldwide, including throughout the Boston area, sparking widespread panic and causing Newton city officials to enact drastic changes to ensure the well being of its citizens. As of April 6, there are 167 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Newton, and three Newton residents have died from the virus.
Mayor Ruthanne Fuller declared a state of emergency on March 17, which allows the city to make decisions and receive money from federal and state governments more quickly.
Fuller said that most of the city’s work has transferred online as a safety measure.
“We have made substantial changes in what [work] we’re doing and how we are doing it,” she said. “We have shifted as much work as possible to remote work so that we can keep people socially distant.”
The Newton Health and Human Services Department suspended the Plastic Bag Ordinance and the Reduction and Sustainable Packaging Ordinance, both of which were previously imposed on businesses to protect the environment. The city has also closed all public tennis and basketball courts and has banned recreational games among people from different households to promote social distancing.
The city adopted Massachusetts’ “COVID-19 Guidelines and Procedures For All Construction Sites and Workers At All Public Work,” and said that “construction can only continue with these strict social distancing, hand hygiene, employee health protections, and site risk prevention measures” in a statement released on March 25.
Superintendent David Fleishman initially canceled Newton Public Schools (NPS) for a week on March 12. Governor Charlie Baker recently enacted a state-wide school closure until at least May 4 after the number of cases skyrocketed in both in Massachusetts and in neighboring states like New York.
Fleishman said that NPS had started to take precautions even before schools were closed.
“Starting in the last few weeks before schools closed, there was a lot of extra cleaning going on. There was hopefully a lot more soap in the bathrooms,” he said. “We also had to alert the community a couple times to see if we had any positive cases, and we had a case at Horace Mann a couple weeks ago.”
Fleishman said that the district has previously experimented with online learning, and is attempting to provide internet access to all students.
“We’ve been making sure that all students have access to remote learning tools, especially elementary and middle [school students],” he said.
For the last three weeks, students have been provided with enrichment materials to review the topics they were previously taught. Principal Joel Stembridge said that these review materials are temporary. As of Monday April 6, official online learning will commence through Schoology.
“Now that we know that we’re going to be out for a while, we have been fine-tuning our plans for transitioning to a more structured learning environment,” he said.
Junior and South senator Ahrav Jain said that while he believes online learning is a good idea, it will be difficult to execute.
“They’re doing the right thing by doing it, and I definitely admire the work the teachers are putting in to make it happen,” he said. “But I think it’s hard to just give the motivation for students to do it, and it takes so much planning, so much coordination, especially when everything is so uncertain.”
Stembridge said that the priority is for online education to be accessible to all students, including English Language Learners and students with disabilities.
“Students have all different types of learning needs,” he said. “And so we want to do this in a way that is supportive of all of our students, so that no one feels left out or left behind or that they are not part of what we’re able to do going forward.”
Stembridge added that the majority of districts in the Boston area are taking a similar approach to online learning.
“I would term it as a thoughtful whole school approach to understanding our new environment,” he said.
Some students and parents, however, have urged the district to make a faster transition to online learning. Stembridge said that the district is moving as quickly as possible and that they are taking precautions to ensure all students are included in online learning.
Freshman Nadia Walker said that while she is worried about the closure of schools, people should remain calm to combat this crisis.
“I am slightly concerned about school and if it will continue,” she said. “Personally, I think that we all need to calm down a bit and have a clearer mind going into the next part of this.”
Several Newton residents, along with the United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Merrimack Valley, established the Newton COVID-19 Care Fund, which provides assistance to Newton residents and workers who have been financially affected by the pandemic.
Fuller said that the city is cognizant of the impacts that COVID-19 is having on families economically and mentally, not only medically.
“For everyone in Newton, this is deeply disorienting. For everybody, their entire normal way of life has changed,” she said. “For many, not only are they dealing with the health impacts but also their means of making a living are dramatically affected.”
Fuller said that Newton residents are effectively helping the city curb the spread of COVID-19.
“The majority of people have been very careful of social distancing and generous and compassionate with their friends and neighbors who need extra help in this period,” she said. “My highest priority right now is keeping our residents and our employees safe and healthy.”