Student enrollment in Needham is stable/ Credit: Needham Observer

For the first time in two years, the planning around the opening of Needham’s schools only minimally addressed issues related directly to COVID.

At the School Committee’s Aug. 22 discussion on back-to-school readiness, member Matt Spengler acknowledged the shift in focus. “Two years ago at this time we were talking about HVAC, air transfers, remote scheduling, the need to change schedules,” he said. “Today it was about vision. It’s back to teaching and learning.”

Although COVID is still a consideration, the context has shifted to dealing with its many aftereffects and pivoting to life in a new, post-COVID environment.

“Many things now are framed pre- and post-COVID,” said Dan Gutekanst, superintendent of Needham Public Schools. “It’s been challenging. I think the post-COVID landscape is new for everyone.“

The discussion at the School Committee meeting and interviews with multiple school stakeholders revealed a common sentiment of optimism and confidence that assets and programs are in place to adapt to the new normal. 

“I feel last year was sort of a resetting year after the pandemic,” said Andrea Longo Carter, chair of the School Committee. “Certainly, we continued to experience challenges on the staffing side related to COVID.”

Last school year, maintaining staffing levels — from administrative to teaching to transportation to food services — was a constant struggle. As a result, the schools ended the fiscal year with a $3 million surplus, much of it accrued from salary savings for positions that, while needed, couldn’t be filled.

Longo Carter said the schools began to get a handle on staffing issues beginning in late spring. She added that the momentum continued over the summer.

“I haven’t felt this excited about a new school year in a while,” she said. “It feels like we’re turning a corner. Instead of being in a recovery/reaction mode, I feel like we’re back in a visionary mode.”

“It feels like we’re turning a corner. Instead of being in a recovery/reaction mode, I feel like we’re back in a visionary mode.”

Andrea Longo Carter

Asked if she considers the schools to be in a post-COVID posture, she said, “I hope so, but I say that with caution and trepidation.

“This year feels different. It’s just in your gut. It doesn’t feel like a clean slate necessarily, it’s more a renewed energy and excitement.”

On the eve of the new school year, Alexandra Montes McNeil, assistant superintendent for human resources, reported that staffing levels have largely returned to historical norms for this time of year.

“It’s been a very busy summer,” McNeil told the School Committee on Aug. 22. “We’ve had a lot of turnover.”

McNeil said her staff processed some 500 “personnel action forms,” and she and Gutekanst participated jointly in nearly 80 interviews for new teachers and administrative personnel — far above the usual 60 to 75. 

“We have hired or rehired 238 people this summer,” she said. “About 150 of them are new, of which 48 identify as BIPOC.” 

“We’ve had success with hiring teaching assistants,” McNeil said of activity at the paraprofessional level, a particularly challenging job classification with a high rate of turnover. Short of putting “HELP WANTED” signs in front of every school facility, McNeil noted the schools have been open to any referral channels for this category, and have also paid $300 bonuses to incumbent TAs for successful referrals.

“Even as of last night, we have had some activity both in and out of the district,” she said on Wednesday. “So as of today we are at about 11 instructional assistant positions that are still open.”

The system also has vacancies in its pool of long-term substitutes for teachers on maternity leaves or other planned absences. 

Gutekanst expressed satisfaction on the staffing front. “We’re in a much better place than we were last year,” he said. “We’re not fully staffed, but that’s been true every year since I’ve been a superintendent. We’re never fully staffed on the first day of school. But we have our core positions in place, the services and staff we need to start school and sustain it.”

The administration reported sufficient readiness in other areas as well, such as transportation and food services. 

“There’s a bit of a concern at the preschool,” McNeil said. The staffing level at the Newman-based program was down by two teaching assistants as of opening day.

Custodians save the day

As for the facilities, the Aug. 8 storm and subsequent flood created problems at both the high school and High Rock School, but that damage was not major and has been remediated.

A greater issue, however, arose when the town’s new outsourced evening cleaning service was unable to suitably staff their crew, among other performance issues. The contractors, who are responsible for cleaning Newman Elementary School, Pollard Middle School and Needham High School after regular hours, fell far behind their scheduled deep cleaning required to open the schools. The decision was made to part ways with the new service provider, and the deep cleaning then became the job of town custodial staff, whom Gutekanst credits with averting a possible barrier to opening on schedule.

Gutekanst said the three schools ultimately were ready “because of the efforts of our town custodians and town employees who have been working double and triple time to get the buildings clean.”

The custodial and trade staff were recognized at Tuesday morning’s back-to-school convocation at the NHS cafeteria. Gutekanst detailed their efforts at the gathering of school faculty and staff, which responded with not one but two prolonged standing ovations.

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