SUTTON – The Sutton schools reopened on Sept. 1 under the continuing cloud of the COVID-19 pandemic, but Superintendent Theodore Friend told the School Committee his upbeat message to staff and students is to have fun and joy every day and make this school year as “normal as possible.’’
In speaking at the Aug. 30 School Committee meeting, Friend said the state has mandated that all staff and students must wear face masks inside school buildings until at least Oct. 1. But social distancing has been relaxed and no masks are required outside, such as at extracurricular events.
“The children have been through a lot in the last year and a half,’’ Friend said. “We need to do our best to make this school year as normal as possible.”
In addressing staff, Friend stressed the importance of “bringing joy and happiness into our schools every day. Having high expectations and a rigorous curriculum is not mutually exclusive to having fun and joy every day.’’
Friend said several large tents have been erected at the schools so classes can be held outside without wearing a mask and enjoying the fall weather.
Uptick in homeschooling
But there are those families who remain concerned about catching COVID-19, Friend said noting a recent uptick in students being homeschooled. In the past nine years, the school district has averaged 20 homeschooled students per year.
Last year, 68 Sutton students opted for homeschooling, and this year the number is 39. He expects homeschooling numbers will return to pre-COVID levels next year, but that could depend on COVID numbers.
“It makes sense since many families have concerns about COVID,’’ Friend said.
Homeschooling is now the most popular option for worried parents who want to keep their children home, since the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education in May cut the cord on school districts offering remote learning.
DESE’s goal has been to return to an in-school, classroom environment where students learn better. To keep the schools open, DESE urged districts to continue with current health and safety guidelines, such as hand washing, and encourages staff and students to stay home when they are sick.
“Each morning a parent should screen their child for signs of COVID,’’ Friend said. “If there are signs, please keep them home.’’
The school district has applied to the state for funding to continue the districts in-school COVID-19 testing protocols administered by school nurses.
Friend notified the committee that the first month of school, the district has budgeted for four full-time nurses to deal with the increased workload of COVID-related issues. But typically, the school budget only funds a full-time and part-time nurse per school, he said.
And the impact of COVID-19 has gone beyond the classroom.
Friend said he wants to “prepare parents’’ for many potential school bus issues this fall. Nationwide and locally, there is a “huge’’ shortage of school bus drivers, he said.
During the COVID shutdown of schools, the buses didn’t roll and some drivers found work elsewhere. And many bus drivers are over age 65 years or have pre-existing health conditions which puts them at greater medical risk from COVID-19, according to an April article in HopSkipDrive, transportation publication.
Due to the shortage, bus companies are battling for workers in a wage war.
While the district’s bus contractor has enough drivers to meet Sutton’s needs, the company is still “overwhelmed,’’ and Friend asks parents to be patient when there is confusion about bus routes.
Wage wars are not just among bus companies. The district is having a “real difficult time’’ hiring three custodians and four or five instructional assistants because Sutton’s wages aren’t competitive, Friend said.
“A big part of this is our pay scale for these types of positions are not competitive in our area,’’ Friend told the committee. “It’s something we have to pay attention to…’’ he said.
An entry-level custodian with up to five years of experience will start at $15.71 per hour, while the Worcester Public Schools offered $16.54 per hour and Hopkinton schools posted a custodian’s job for $22.85 per hour.
An instructional assistant in the Sutton schools earns about the say hourly rate as a custodian. An assistant without a degree but with up to four years of experience has a starting rate of $15.19 per hour, while someone with a degree and up to four years of experience is looking at $16.22 per hour.
The unfilled custodial positions are especially concerning given those workers are a critical cog in keeping the schools clean and sanitized during the pandemic.
Friend said the current custodial staff has agreed to overtime, and the superintendent has reached out to see if any high school students might want to earn some money cleaning after school.
“It’s not how I want to run a school district, but we will do whatever it takes to make sure the buildings stay clean and safe for our students,’’ he told the committee.