SC Meeting: December 21, 2021

At the December 21 School Committee Meeting there was an update about the Emery Grover project, a presentation on the FY 23 budget requests from Student Support Services, and an update on Health and Safety.


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School Committee & Superintendent Comments

  • Connie Barr indicated that everyone is feeling the COVID fatigue, and encouraged people to enjoy their time with family and friends in smaller groups this year – maybe outdoors. She encouraged people to get vaccinated and boostered if they haven’t already, and to think about all of the ramifications as people navigate the holidays.

  • Michael Greis met with the Finance Committee and will have another meeting on January 4th to go over the budget.

  • Dr. Gutekanst wished everyone a good vacation and time to unplug.

  • Dr. Montes McNeil (Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources) discussed a grant they have applied for to help with recruiting, retaining, and supporting a diverse and talented workforce. The grant is $38,000 and will help support new and aspiring teachers who identify as BIPOC. There is also the opportunity to put some seed money for a program at the NHS for students of color who might want to go into education. This complements district efforts.


School Safety & Social Media Discussion


Dr. Gutekanst discussed how the district communicates with families about school safety. There was recent national and local news about a concerning social media post, and the district opted not to elevate that with families. However, families should know three important things:

  • NPS work closely with NPD and resource officers almost on a daily basis to discuss safety. They and the Police Chief determined this social media post wasn’t a viable threat.

  • Sadly, these types of posts have become more common. It is not possible to respond or give oxygen to every post. The district and public safety officials spend a lot of time determining how and whether to communicate this information.

  • The district performs regular safety drills for students and staff.

Dr. Gutekanst plans to give a more detailed account of how the district makes these decisions, what happens behind the scenes to determine what is best for the safety of our students, and how they decide what should be communicated. He also encouraged everyone to work with our young people to understand social media and how it can take on a life of its own. We need to continue to remind them to be prudent.


Districts that did share the recent information had much lower attendance, whereas Needham’s was much higher.



Emery Grover Project Update


Joel Bardman, principal architect BH+A, Deborah Robinson, part of the design team, and Hank Haff, Senior Project Manager of Needham’s Public Facilities Department – Construction Division, gave an update of the current state of the Emery Grover project and an overview of the designs for both Emery Grover and Hillside, which will be used to temporarily house school administration.

  • The project timeline should allow for School Administration to move to Hillside next December, and back into the renovated Emery Grover building by August of 2024.

  • This project is very eligible for Community Preservation Funds due to the historic nature of the building.

  • Hillside is already in pretty good condition having just housed the Police and Fire departments; they will just need to add sprinklers.

  • The scope of the project was reduced, but will still allow ample space for what the school administration needs and will also allow for growth in the future.

  • They are currently working on their concept plans and exploring all aspects of the current building.

  • They will be making an accessible entrance and will remove all existing features that are either non-compliant and/or not original to the building. This will be a “gut renovation.”

  • They will create a better layout to suit the needs of the programs and departments – trying to create a “one-stop shopping” for student support services.

  • The front of the building will be returned to a design more consistent with the original and will increase green space.

They are hoping to install a split system for heating and cooling at Hillside rather than replacing the boiler. This will save money and the systems can be moved and reused in other spaces when necessary. This is the most efficient approach.


The superintendent is adamant about being as cost effective as possible. The next big step will be getting approval for funding at the May Town Meeting.



FY 23 Budget Discussion: Student Support Services/Mental Health Update


This is one of many budget discussions that will be taking place. The focus today is on Student Support Services budget requests for FY23 including increasing some positions for special education, counseling, ELL and health services, as well as reallocating some supports.


Tom Denton, Director of Guidance for the Needham Public Schools, Trish Mullen, Director of Special Education 9-PG, Julie Muse-Fisher, Director of Special Education PreK-8, and Mary Lammi (remotely) Assistant Superintendent for Student Support Services, presented their budget requests based on current and projected needs in the district for both special education and general education (eg. math and literacy specialists).


Goals/Priorities:

  • The district needs to address the academic, social-emotional, and health and safety challenges due to COVID-19.

  • The district needs to maintain appropriate staffing levels across all areas to provide appropriate services to all our students.

  • The district must continue strong inclusive practices so that students receive the services they need and determine how resources can be reallocated to give the most people access and benefits to these resources.

Factors to Consider:

  • There have been increased referrals and increased behavioral and mental health challenges. However, there is a real limitation in access. Families really need help right now, and the school system is trying to help as much as possible, but staffing is a real challenge.

  • The district would like to create a mental health team with strong supports because they can’t just rely on counselors to address the mental health and academic needs of our students.

  • There has been steady enrollment both in district and out of district, with 80% of students in fully inclusive classrooms.

  • With an increase in need, it is important to ensure special education caseloads are kept to target size – which is 15. Temporary positions were created in anticipation of the needs this year, and would now like to make them permanent.

  • In K-12, they have seen an increase in student anxiety. Lower grades have less need, but as you get into Pollard and the High School, mental health needs increase.

  • Mental health services are in high demand, and there is little availability in the community. Youth and Family Services has a big back-log, with anticipation of six months before students will be able to be seen.

  • When it becomes an emergency situation, Newton-Wellesley Hospital and Riverside can’t take patients – so students are sent to Boston Children’s Hospital. There are children who need hospitalization level of care, but there is a shortage of inpatient beds.

  • The weight on our school counselors – both in case severity and number – has created pressure at all the levels. Now school counselors are having to support students who would otherwise be in day programs or psychiatric hospitals.

  • They don't anticipate reduced needs next year. The level of problematic student behavior at the middle and high school levels is really concerning. Behavior is the manifestation of the mental health issues the students are struggling with. The district added staffing this year to try to meet needs, but will need more based on what they’re seeing.


Dr. Gutekanst suggested looking at where there might be trade-offs in the budget to increase some supports. He will share some current case load numbers at another meeting, and will discuss how they can build some more of what is needed within the budget. He will share the whole picture so School Committee can make a decision.


Andrea Longo Carter clarified that based on the current staffing and the budget proposal, there would actually be a reduction in counseling staffing. She advocated for allocating more to these services and focusing on the kids who need it the most, as conditions are likely to get worse.


The Post-Graduate program at Needham High School really thriving. There are more students in jobs and paid internships than ever before because of the worker shortage. Almost all those in the program participate in these jobs.



Health & Safety Update


Dr. Gutekanst presented an update from the last meeting of the Joint Health & Safety Committee.


The Good News:

  • Students are in school safely and students are learning.

  • NPS vaccination rates are very high – over 90% at Pollard and the High School students are fully vaccinated, and more than 70% of students grades K-5 have received at least one dose.

  • COVID hospitalization rates for under 18y are extremely low, and the risk of serious illness or disease for young people remains extremely low.

  • Students and staff have been extremely cooperative with health and safety protocols, including masking.

Challenges:

  • School staff are exhausted – especially true for the nurses managing health and safety protocols.

  • Unexpected behaviors in students, as well as increased student anxiety and social emotional concerns

  • Staffing shortages

  • Omicron has created a surge in cases, creating more close contacts and resulting in students and staff missing classes

  • Older students are weary of masking protocols.

There will not be contact tracing during vacation – only students who were in school during the contagious period will be traced if the district is notified.


Families should be thoughtful and careful about travel and exposure and need to exercise extreme caution and keep children home if they have been exposed or show symptoms.


PelMeds will host another vaccine clinic on Saturday, January 8th for all citizens.


The district is currently working on creating a "mask friendly" environment at Pollard and Needham High. The goal is to keep students in schools, but they want to shape a learning environment where the masks can become optional for vaccinated students as soon as it makes sense. They will need to educate students about what “mask friendly” means. For now masks continue to be required in schools.


The next School Committee Meeting is January 4, 2022 at 6:30pm.