Bedford Turns Out—Virtually—for Town’s Covid-19 Forum

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A virtual community forum was hosted Wednesday evening, by town officials to address Covid-19 concerns and inform residents of the town’s response to date. Almost 100 people logged onto the Zoom webinar.

Representatives from the Select Board, Board of Health, and School Committee, with support from their respective professional managers, gave a presentation and answered pre-submitted questions and others asked through the “Q&A” chat option.

Vaccinations were among the more prominent of residents’ concerns.

Anita Raj, vice-chair of the Board of Health, discussed the town’s vaccine rollout plan, but encouraged residents to “look at other avenues for getting the vaccine.”

Raj said that every week for the remainder of this month the town will receive only 100 doses.  Vaccinations are free and currently available to residents at least age 75 and those who are eligible under phase one of the state’s vaccine distribution plan — mainly healthcare workers and first responders.

Since there has been an influx of residents seeking vaccinations, a waitlist can be found on the town’s website where eligible residents may sign up to be selected at random to receive the vaccine. Residents can also sign up for the waitlist by calling 781-918-4077.

Town Manager Sarah Stanton said a waitlist was determined to be the “most equitable way” after a first-come, first-served registration link for vaccinations filled up in under five minutes. “This will ensure some equitability, and make sure that our …  less tech-savvy have an opportunity to have access to the 100 doses,” she said.

The first 100 vaccinations were administered on Feb. 10.

From mid-September to the end of December, 40 cases of Covid were confirmed throughout the town’s public schools. At one point, Bedford High School temporarily stopped in-person learning due to an uptick of 12-13 cases in a week.

“One of the things we do know is we have managed to avoid in-school transmission,” Raj said. School Committee Chair Dan Brosgol later reiterated this, saying, “There has been no evidence of in-school transmission, which is wonderful.” Feb. 1 marked the first day of full in-person kindergarten since mid-March. “The kids are thrilled, the staff is thrilled, and response from the parents has been equally positive,” Brosgol said.

Before allowing more students to return in-person this spring, parents and teachers were surveyed, and a space assessment was done to ensure social distancing guidelines could be maintained.

This week, the School Committee voted for a full return to in-person learning for grades one and two at Davis School, which will happen in four to five weeks.

Despite low virus numbers in schools, Brosgol and Raj said there’s been a recent surge of Covid cases in town, referring to the 155 positive cases reported in early January. More data regarding Covid statistics in Bedford can be found on the town’s Covid dashboard.

“It was a tough winter. We had a lot of people get sick,” Raj said. Since last year, the town has had a total of 703 confirmed cases.

Stanton said the town continues to have mental health services at the ready for residents in need.

“We have done some targeted outreach to our home-bound seniors and our folks just a little bit more at risk,” she said, adding that school guidance counselors have also been working closely with students and their families.

“We’ve got a basket full of services, and support, and kind ears to listen to what’s going on in your life – but if you don’t call us, we don’t know,” Raj said, encouraging those in need to speak up.

According to Sarah Thompson, chair of the Board of Health, some challenges the Health and Human Services Department has faced are limiting social gatherings, enforcing contact tracing protocols, and receiving incomplete information on the asymptomatic spread of the virus.

“We really want people to get the vaccine,” Thompson said. “It’s safe, it’s becoming available, so the message really is to get your shot and get vaccinated.”

Thompson also added that the Board of Health supports the current safety protocols in schools, and said the department works collaboratively with schools to offer protocol guidance.

Sarah Scoville, a member of the School Committee, discussed plans for this summer, saying that many programs are planning to be re-opened. She said that Springs Brook Park will be open in “some capacity,” and that summer sports are expected to take place.

In regard to the 2021-22 school year, Scoville said she’s “hoping to get students back five days a week, all in full,” but can’t say for sure what the state and federal government will require. Different options for remote learning are being considered, such as collaborating with other towns to accommodate students hesitant to return to in-person learning, she said.

Town officials also presented financial updates.

Select Board Chair Ed Pierce said that state aid for fiscal year 2021 had been reduced by approximately $2 million, and was split by the school and town in proportion to the relative size of their budgets. The Finance Committee put approximately $1 million in a reserve fund for schools to use during the 2021 fiscal year.

Pierce said that the town also received an additional $1.8 million in funding from the CARES Act, as well as other grants to help with personal protective equipment, food insecurity, school technology, and school re-opening.

Brosgol said that the cost of launching the school system’s hybrid model was about $800,000 more than the town meeting approved budget.

Bedford Public Schools reopened on Sept. 18, 2020, with various “cohorts,” most of which allowed students two days of in-person learning and three days of remote learning each week. By the end of October, cohorts were allowed more in-person learning, adding an additional $500,000 to the school’s budget.

The total budget now exceeds the town meeting approved budget by approximately $1.25 million.

In other news, Pierce highlighted biopharmaceutical company Ultragenyx’s plans to build a gene therapy manufacturing facility in Bedford. The facility will house 100 employees, with salaries averaging $100,000. The facility will contribute an estimated $335,000 annually to the town in tax revenue when complete.

Pierce also talked about how the town has helped small businesses through relief opportunities, extending outdoor dining regulations, and the “Buy Local” campaign,- which encourages residents to buy from local small businesses.

“I think we’ve been focused on what we can do to help the businesses survive,” Pierce said.

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