Budget discussions for FY21-22 continued at the January 5th School Committee meeting, and an update on hybrid student learning was provided. The meeting took place entirely remotely to comply with new state guidance for gatherings of more than 10 people.
School Committee Updates
Sue Neckes (3 terms, 9 years) and Heidi Black (5 terms, 12 years) announced they will not run for reelection this year. Both SC members offered advice and guidance for those considering running for School Committee. More information about running for School Committee or other Town Offices can be found on the Needham website.
Thank you to students and families for continuing to following health and safety guidelines, especially families who traveled over the holidays and are keeping students home until they have a negative PCR test.
The annual Needham celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day will take place on Monday January 18, 10am on Zoom. More information can be found on the Needham Diversity Initiative website.
Budget Consultation with Town Manager
Town Manager Kate Fitzpatrick and Assistant Town Manager Dave Davidson joined School Committee to discuss the FY21-22 school budget.
Ms. Fitzpatrick stated that this will be a year of difficult choices. There will not be the usual growth in revenue. The Town is also waiting on the state budget to determine what kind of funding and grants might be available. Decreased school enrollment could affect state aid.
When the budget is submitted to Town Meeting, Ms. Fitzpatrick is recommending that all Covid-contingent costs — such as Remote Academy staffing or hybrid resources — be segregated from from operating budget in a separate warrant article. Other health and safety items, like increased custodial staff and building maintenance, would still be included in the operating budget. Timing on the budget vote is unsure; it could be at the annual Town Meeting in May or later in the year as more information becomes available. The new federal stimulus bill will provide some additional funding for the Town through December 2021, including some funds designated for K-12 use. Ms Fitzpatrick hopes to avoid a tax increase in order to cover additional Covid-related costs.
School Committee members expressed appreciation for the support from the Town in supporting the schools.
Investment in ventilation, new windows, and testing prior to opening schools meant staff could focus on teaching and student learning. There have been very few concerns about ventilation voiced by families or staff since the year has started.
Moving forward the Town will continue to focus on building maintenance to ensure that schools are safe. A new position of assistant building maintenance director has been recently filled. They are also investing in public health, having just hired an epidemiologist. Vaccines might need to be administered annually, requiring more public health support.
An update to the facility financing plan will be ready in early spring. More information is to come in the next 6-8 weeks that will impact plan. The last plan was developed about three years ago, when planning for construction of Sunita Williams and the Public Safety Buildings.
FY22 Budget Discussion
Detailed information on the full budget request can be found on the NPS website. At this meeting Dr. Gutekast focused on the new positions that are part of the “non-Covid” budget request, which total 7.95 FTEs:
1.13 Enrollment Teachers
5.25 Student Services Teachers
1.57 Program Improvement
Enrollment for next year is projected to be 5,645 (assuming a "regular" year with all students back full-time). This year 212 students left NPS, but it is projected about 150 will return. K and 1st grade enrollement are harder to predict. The enrollment at the High School is projected to increase slightly.
The special education population is incrementally increasing each year. TAs that were already hired this year temporarily would be made permanent to meet student needs. Both psychologist and speech language pathologist (SLP) services that are currently being met through contracted service could be brought in-house through increased staffing.
Staffing that supports program improvements include assistant principals, NHS DaVinci Lab Specialist, NHS TV teacher, and repositioning the grade 6-8 Social Studies leadership position as a K-8 position.
School Committee members commented that this year's request is minimal, and the staffing increases included will be critical to managing future repercussions from this year. They also noted that it's important to support more innovative programs like the TV studio and Da Vinci Lab, which has been deferred for at least the two past years.
A Public Hearing on the budget will be held on Tuesday, January 19. Those who wish to comment should access the meeting through the Zoom webinar link, or can email comments to the School Committee.
Update on Student Learning
Dr. Gutekanst provided an update on "what we've learned" so far in three major areas: Health & Safety, Hybrid Learning, and Research & Data. This information, which can be found in the meeting packet, will inform changes that can be made for the second half of the year. There was a strong emphasis on addressing the needs of the youngest students — those in grades K-2.
Health & Safety
Staff are working very hard to ensure safety. NPS safety protocols are working., and there have been no known cases of in-school transmission according to Needham DPH. The week-on, week-off schedule has facilitated contact tracing and lessened the impact of possible exposures.
Maintenance has been critically important. Remote Wednesdays have been helpful for both cleaning and maintenance work. PPE is consistently available.
School nurses have received the first dose of vaccine. Vaccination of school employees is slated for Phase 2, Part 2. Staff vaccinations are expected to start in early February, meaning staff will be vaccinated by spring.
Teachers have been creative. Smaller classes allows for more personal contact. But K-2 students need more structure and many do not have at-home support for learning. Staff for all grades are exhausted. Many elementary students are struggling during at-home weeks.
Three main themes emerged from the K-5 exploratory committee: - Staff burnout from managing multiple models - Student engagement is highest in person - Supporting student and staff's physical and mental health is critical
Social and emotional wellbeing and mental health are suffering for both students and staff. It is critical to get students — especially the youngest — back to more in-person learning as soon as possible while still ensuring that safety precautions are exercised. This is supported by survey results and increased guidance and special education referrals.
Research & Data
Mental health: CDC data show increase in emergency department referrals for mental health for children under 18. Peditaricians are also expressing concern about increased mental health issues in children and teens.
Health protocols: 3-6 feet is the standard in Needham schools, with mostly 6 feet. Some research is showing 3 feet is sufficient for younger students, with masks, ventilation and hygiene being more important, although multiple studies say older students still need more distance. St Joe’s has used 3 ft spacing with 16-18 student in classrooms and has had no known in-school transmission.
Questions & Comments:
Are families following health protocols outside of school? Most cases in school are traced back to family transmission, not large gatherings (parties or large family gatherings). Adults are letting their guards down, then spreading to children in the household.
Will proposed changes be implemented in stages or all at once? Dr. Guteknast isn't sure yet, but stated his proposal will be targeted to maximize impact, and is inclined to introduce any changes all at once and for the remainder of the year. He thinks incremental or rolling changes will be frustrating for families and staff. Available resources will determine the scope of changes, as well as timing.
Are there other physical constraints in addition to 3-ft spacing? There will need to be enough space for everyone to maneuver while maintaining a warm and nurturing environment. Teachers/adults should still try to stay 6 feet away when possible, although that is harder in elementary classrooms. Lunches, mask breaks, buses other parts of the day are also considerations. Buses are already at 3-ft spacing (one student per seat) and lunch spacing must remain 6 ft since students are unmasked.
Plans for the second half of year will be presented at the January 19 meeting. Proposed changes will also need to be negotiated with the Needham Education Association (NEA).
In addition to presentation materials, the meeting packet includes two information items of note:
The 2019-2020 METCO Annual Report
Recommendations for changing the middle school math curriculum to discontinue Accelerated Math in grades 7 and 8 and instead offer a new elective called Data Science and Visualization which has been piloted in grade 7 this year.