Responding to the COVID-19 pandemic has cost Verona public schools almost $450,000. Lower costs for paraprofessionals and a federal CARES Act grant will help the district to cover much of what has already been incurred, but the longer that the pandemic goes on, the more difficult it will be for the school budget. Costs could be lower if Verona were fully remote, but parents overwhelmingly want students in classrooms.
“As we navigate these uncharted waters it’s indisputable that there’s no substitute for in person learning,” Superintendent Dr. Rui Dionisio said at Tuesday’s Board of Education meeting. “And to date we have shown that it can be accomplished safely and to the ultimate betterment of our students.”
Dionisio put the cost of substitutes for teachers who are taking family or medical leave during the pandemic at $293,000 and said that Verona has spent close to $150,000 on personal protective equipment (PPE) for teachers and other staff. Dionisio said that Verona has gotten $136,000 from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. In an interview after the meeting, he said that the district is paying for fewer paraprofessional hours because the students who use them are in school for fewer hours. While discretionary spending is less than 5% of the 2020-2021 school budget, Dionisio has frozen all discretionary spending.
The spending on PPE is through the end of October and Dionisio expects that the material purchased will last through December. Unlike some other districts, Verona is providing PPE to its teachers, who have been teaching from their schools since the start of the year, even while many students were learning remotely. There is a basic level of PPP protection for all teachers and additional supplies for special education teachers who have to be in closer contact with students. Verona has been returning students to classrooms in small groups since October 19, with Verona High School set to re-open to students on November 9.
At the BOE meeting, Dionisio disclosed that 16 teachers have been approved for accommodations during the pandemic; 26 had requested accommodations but Dionisio said that not all had followed proper procedures. Nine were for childcare, and seven were medical accommodations, which have different costs for the district. Those approved for childcare accommodations must, under a new federal law, be paid two-thirds of their regular salary for two weeks and then can take an additional 10 weeks of paid leave, up to a total cost of $12,000 over a 12-week period. If they do not return to work after that, the district would have to hire replacements.
To help Verona teachers with their childcare needs, Verona has set up a childcare program for them. Based at F.N. Brown school and led by two substitute teachers, the staff childcare is open from 7:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. and costs teachers $15 a day. After 1:30 p.m. teachers can pick up their children and bring them to their classrooms since students are not in the building then. Dionisio said on Thursday that “only a handful” of teachers have taken advantage of the program yet. The district also announced yesterday that, as of October 30, teachers may leave their classrooms when in-person learning ends at midday and work remotely in the afternoon.
Teachers approved for medical accommodations (identified as “504 accommodation” on the BOE agenda) continue to teach, but only remotely. That means that when students return to the classroom, as they have been doing, the district has to hire a substitute to be in the classroom with them. Substitutes have been hard to find during the pandemic, and increasingly expensive. Verona has partnered with a company to provide substitute teachers that Verona has been unable to hire directly and we have increase the pay to substitutes to $120 per day from $90. “We are hiring so if anybody knows anyone who’s interested or is maybe interested themselves, please contact us, we have the information up on the website,” Dionisio said.
In addition, one Spanish teacher at VHS has resigned. Two existing Spanish teachers will be getting stipends to teach additional classes, but the BOE also hired a virtual teaching service, Apex Learning, to provide instruction until a replacement teacher can be hired.
Charlie Miller, Verona’s director of curriculum and instruction shared results from surveys sent to staff and parents about the district’s plans for teaching during the pandemic that showed a sharp divide between the two communities. While nearly 50% of teachers supported fully remote learning, only a quarter of parents did. Nearly 80% of parents supported in-person instruction. The district will continue to do surveys as the school year progresses.
At the BOE Dionisio also addressed the emails that have gone out to families about positive COVID cases in the school system. To date, there have been four positives at H.B. Whitehorne middle school and one each at Laning Avenue and Forest Avenue elementary schools. Verona no longer has its own Health Department so Verona has been relying on guidance from the Montclair Department of Health. It is responsible for confirming all suspected positives and for conducting contact tracing, and the department also sets the date for the affected individual’s return to school. Dionisio stressed that every case is different and that Verona must follow federal medical privacy laws.
“We have received emails from folks in the community wanting to know more information [on positive cases],” Dionisio said. “Unfortunately, we’re prohibited from sharing that information.”
BOE member Sara Drappi echoed that caution. “I think it is important for the public to understand that, you know, in terms of reporting, there is really very very little information that can be divulged regarding who how old they are, whether it’s a staff member or a student, whether they’re remote or hybrid because, even those little bits of information can give away too much, where you can violate privacy laws,” she said. “You know I’m a parent, you know I’m a teacher and I understand it is really scary when we get those emails, but I think it’s also really important to take a breath and understand that the person’s privacy is protected by law. And there’s literally nothing that we can do about that.”
During the public comments portion of the meeting, Dionisio was also asked what would cause Verona to pull back from in-person learning or switch to entirely remote. “That really is hard to pinpoint,” he said, “because it depends on where the concentration of that would be would it be in a grade level, [and] where the close contacts would be in a specific school. So it’s a very nuanced, very fluid matter and it really depends once again on the guidance of the Montclair Health Department.”
Also at the meeting, the BOE accepted a donation of tech equipment valued at $36,500 from Mike Dupree, a Verona school parent, on behalf of his employer, Twitter. The donation included Asus Speakermics that integrate with Google Hangouts, and Logitech PTZ and Huddly videoconferencing cameras. Dupree praised Eltion Ballaj, district technology manager, for his help in managing the donation. “The big unsung hero in all of this is Eltion Ballaj,” Dupree said, “who had the distinct privilege of figuring out what to do with all this equipment and try to try to make it compatible with the classroom.”