Island schools look to address racism through education

The Martha’s Vineyard Public School (MVPS) system is working in collaboration with the Martha’s Vineyard Diversity Coalition (MVDC) to bring additional diversity, equity, and inclusion resources to staff and students.

In order to foster a positive learning environment for all students, members of the MVDC suggested several opportunities for both faculty and staff enrichment, along with curricula that promote openness and inclusivity, during an All-Island School Committee meeting Thursday.

Jocelyn Walton of the MVDC said the coalition has already injected anti-racism and diversity literature into Island public school libraries.

She said members of the MVDC education committee contacted schools librarians to see if they were interested in receiving age-appropriate materials on diversity.

“It has been so productive and exciting that we are now looking at approaching the Charter School, the preschools, and the public libraries to see if we can work with them,” Walton said.

The education committee has also been compiling a list of anti-racism resources that range from books and articles, to podcasts and films.

When the MVDC identifies a potential program that could work well in Island schools, Walton said they suggest that teachers work them into their regular education plans, “with a critical eye, and allow themselves and their students to respectfully challenge and discuss what is being presented.”

Some of the racial literacy programs include the Pollyanna K-8 curriculum, the Teaching Tolerance program for students in grades K-12, and the Journeys in Film cost-free program, which uses film to provide insight into major social issues. 

The MVDC is also working with Borders to Bridges, a creativity-based program that centers on immigration issues

Another resource that committee members considered was A Long Talk About the Uncomfortable Truth, which seeks to activate and energize anti-racism advocates and engage communities in ongoing conversations with the ultimate goal of eradicating racism.

“It’s presented through Zoom, and it’s over three nights for a total of four and a half hours,” Walton said. She added that 15 of the MVDC members have already gone through the program.

After seeing the confederate flag being marched through the Capitol building during the riots, Walton said “indeed, the time is now,” for everyone to get involved in the conversation, and work toward meaningful change and social betterment.

Committee chair Robert Lionette suggested that Island school committees get involved in some sort of training, and said “perhaps the ‘Long Talk’ might be a good jumping off point for us.”

COVID puts schools to the test

Island schools have completed their third week of COVID surveillance testing, and superintendent Matt D’Andrea said the program is running smoothly so far, although there are some anticipated kinks to work out. 

Lionette said that, although testing has been a challenge, the real challenge will come down to human and financial costs when it comes to follow up work and contact tracing.

D’Andrea said he is confident that the schools will be on a good track financially to continue testing and follow-up through the school year.

He added that there are many staff and parent volunteers that are helping out with test collection, although the schools can always use additional help.

Although D’Andrea said testing compliance has been “very good,” there are still some families and staff that are opting out of the program.

“I have about 10 families I have been working with Islandwide, along with some school staff that don’t want to participate [in testing] for one reason or another,” D’Andrea said.

He explained that, under the advice of school attorneys, he is reaching out to families and staff that opt out and is having conversations, listening, and laying out the importance of testing, and how the process works.

D’Andrea noted that he has not restricted anyone from entering the building at this time, even those who opt out of testing.

Committee member Kate DeVane said she is concerned that families who won’t participate in the testing are being allowed in school buildings. Committee member Alex Salop pointed out that the district isn’t following its own rules set up for the testing program by allowing kids to enter without opting in.

“In my opinion, everyone should either consent or not be on school grounds,” Salop said. But he stressed that compliance rates are very high on the Island, and applauded D’Andrea’s approach to handling the situation in a diplomatic way that accommodates people’s concerns and doesn’t alienate them. 

Through a collective bargaining agreement, all staff are required to comply with testing.

“There are some staff who don’t want to participate, so i am working with them as well,” D’Andrea said.

Dreams of vaccines

Educators are situated in phase two of the statewide vaccine rollout plan alongside transit workers, grocery workers, and public health workers — this cohort is slated to begin receiving vaccinations in mid- to late- February.

Marie Doubleday wondered whether Island schools could push to expedite that process, and rollout vaccines to both educators and students as soon as possible.

D’Andrea said he has been in contact with Martha’s Vineyard Hospital CEO Denise Schepici, who is keeping him apprised of vaccine delivery dates provided by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.

He said he has heard of other states already vaccinating teachers, and said he would look into the possibility of receiving shots earlier than anticipated.

DeVane said she is aware that kids with severe disabilities in congregate care are in phase one of the rollout, and should be receiving vaccines right away.

She noted that the Moderna vaccine is eligible for kids 18 and up, whereas the Pfizer shot is eligible for 16 and up. 

“As a school committee, if we are having discussions with local boards of health, it is important to point out that there is a very high risk group between 16-18 where if we run out of Pfizer shots we won’t be able to vaccinate them,” DeVane said. “Everyone wants to go back into the school system, but a kid who physically can’t wear a mask for one reason or another needs to be vaccinated.”

Watts said Dukes County has the highest vaccination exemption rate in the state, “by a longshot,” and wondered about mandating the shots for students and staff.

According to county-by-county school immunization data complied by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, Dukes County has the lowest vaccination rates in Massachusetts. In 2019, 7.5 percent of kindergarten students in Dukes County were exempted from vaccination — seven times the statewide average. 

The data also shows that 7th graders seek exemptions at 12 times the rate of the state average. 

In 2019, neighboring Nantucket County saw a 2.9 percent vaccine exemption rate for kindergarteners, whereas Martha’s Vineyard saw 7.5 percent of kindergarteners receive exemptions. 

D’Andrea said employees would engage in bargaining with the union to make the vaccine mandatory, but as far as students go, he is speaking with school attorneys about the legality of making them mandatory for students. 

“DESE [Department of Elementary and Secondary Education] will come out with some vaccination guidance for students, but because they are at the very low risk end of this virus, vaccinations, from what I am hearing, won’t be available for quite some time,” D’Andrea said.”        


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