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Non-renewal notices thrust Newton school staff, students, and families into uncertainty

For the past three years, Newton Public Schools Behavioral Therapist Stephanie Canavan spent the whole school day with the same autistic elementary school student — picking her up at the bus stop in the morning, sitting with her in class, and walking her to the bus stop at the end of the day. It took time to build trust, and when the student switched schools, Canavan followed.

On March 12, as she did everyday, Canavan told her student she would see her tomorrow. But after three years, a pandemic, and an unexpected non-renewed contract, Canavan might never see this girl again.

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After months of virtual learning across Newton Public Schools, the district did not renew the contracts of 118 staff members due to the uncertainty of the next academic year, Superintendent David Fleishman said in an interview June 17. The non-renewed contracts were all from Unit C which had a total of 713 members, including special education aides, behavior therapists, and other educational assistants.

“Given the uncertainty of the educational model that will be utilized when school reopens in the fall, we are not in a position to renew all employees within this group,” Fleishman said in a statement regarding the situation sent to those who had e-mailed with questions or concerns. “We are currently awaiting guidance from DESE to determine how districts will be required to operate in the next school year.”

On June 25, Governor Charlie Baker announced guidelines for Massachusetts public schools to follow to reduce the spread of coronavirus. However, many logistics remain unclear.

During a State House briefing, Baker pointed to how returning back to school is especially important for children with special needs.

Across the state, other public school systems such as Randolph and Brookline have reported similar situations to Newton. In an article published before the decision not to renew contracts, Fleishman told the Boston Globe the school district was planning to keep regular teaching staff but looking into cutting 100 aides.

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“There needs to be greater transparency,” said Jeff Knoedler, a Newton South teacher who said he found out about the non-renewals from a Newton Teachers Association meeting. “It just seems a little sneaky.”

Newton Public Schools has not released any official statement yet regarding the non-renewals. The School Committee published a statement in their newsletter and on social media.

Fleishman said he thought an official statement from the district was unnecessary since not renewing contracts is an annual practice. But in interviews, some parents, teachers and others said the lack of a public statement has caused confusion.

On June 22, the School Committee held a regularly scheduled, public meeting in which they discussed their plans and uncertainties for the fall.

Georg Gerber, a parent of two Newton elementary school students on Individualized Education Plans, said during the meeting how he wanted the School Committee to talk to the students and families involved with Unit C staff members.

In a previous interview, Gerber said he was frustrated with the special education program before COVID-19 and the non-renewals. He said it was a battle just to get his children the help they needed, and services were minimal during virtual learning.

“My son had an aide before the pandemic, and they basically stopped using him,” Gerber said. “He would show up on a few of these Zoom calls and just kind of be in the background, and they told us they weren’t letting the aides work with the kids 1-on-1 on Zoom.”

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Gerber said he originally thought it was because they were training the aides, however, he said by the end of the school year nothing had changed.

“It’s very unclear that Newton plans to actually offer a comprehensive or even reasonable distance learning for disabled kids in the district,‘' Gerber said. “They didn’t do that in the spring, and I don’t know that they plan to do that in the fall.”

When asked about these concerns, Fleishman said the virtual transition is challenging, but hopes the summer will give more time to prepare for special education students if virtual in the fall. Fleishman said he will make sure schools “meet the needs of our student’s IEPs.”

Alex Shames, an aide at Bigelow Middle School who said he was not renewed, said this is about more than just meeting a student’s special education plans.

“For some kids, maybe their aide is one of two or three adults in the entire building who they trust,” Shames said. “Maybe their aide is one of the only people in the building who knows their learning style and their background well enough to deliver the content in a way that is accessible to them.”

Canavan said she can find another job, but she is worried about how her student will adjust. “Will my student have another emotional connection with another adult the way she had with me?” Canavan said.

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Fleishman said while these contracts are not renewed, that does not mean these staff members cannot still be hired back in the fall. He said he hopes to have the majority of the 118 staff members back.

Mia McCarthy can be reached at newtonreport@globe.com.