ahern middle school building

Ahern Middle School.

For public education, like virtually every sector of a struggling economy, the coronavirus pandemic has ramped up the cost of doing business.

According to school Business Administrator William Yukna, that incremental price tag in Foxboro is currently estimated at $1.7 million by year’s end — a figure all but certain to grow during the second half of the school year.

Yukna this week said that all additional costs have thus far been covered by federal grants administered at the state level. But he cautioned those grants will expire on Dec. 31, with no guarantees the government will continue to pick up the tab into 2021 and beyond.

“The fear is that we don’t see this as a resolution by Dec. 31,” Yukna told school board members on Tuesday night.

By far the biggest single cost factor has been the decision to spend $800,000 on 2,600 new laptop computers and related technology — one for every student in the district. Unfortunately, local students are still awaiting delivery of the new units.

Ordered last April and originally scheduled for delivery in late August, before the start of classes, the one-time equipment purchase has been plagued by supply-chain delays. Officials now say the laptops are expected to arrive by Oct. 30, and would be distributed to students approximately three weeks later.

With sanitation an obvious concern, the school department is paying $6,500 a week for additional cleaning supplies plus added labor costs for custodians and maintenance staff.

All told, Yukna said, the school department has added the equivalent of five additional positions to meet the demand, fueled in part by the addition of mid-day cleaning requirements between morning and afternoon sessions at the town’s three elementary schools.

“It’s one of the only ways we can get this process and keep the cleaning levels to the standards we have set,” he said.

Beyond the need for health and safety supplies and other protective equipment, complex logistics associated with the hybrid learning program also have been significant cost drivers, placing new and unfamiliar demands on teachers and support staff.

The response, in part, has been to beef up hours for part-time staff and make new hires when necessary. For example, Yukna said the school department agreed to guarantee hours for substitutes at the middle and high school level to ensure they would be available if needed.

In addition, an additional school nurse was hired to float between buildings, partly to help ease rising workloads, but also as an insurance policy in the event a staff nurse is lost for an extended period.

“Our biggest concern was that losing a nurse at any of our facilities at this time would put us at very high risk of being able to appropriately manage,” Yukna explained. “We made that decision early on.”

Bus drivers also have seen their roles expanded, most notably by the addition of mid-day routes to accommodate the morning/afternoon schedule for elementary students. The added price tag, over the course of the entire school year, is projected at $100,000.

“I would have to say we’re stressed everywhere,” he observed. “Every single employee is being asked to do more.”

On the curriculum front, Foxboro schools are spending $261,000 to purchase the online content for students whose parents have requested a full remote learning option for their children. Acquired through an online management system offered by the state Department of Education, it was presumably a cheaper option that hiring temporary staff to teach the virtual courses.

Yukna said that school officials have done a good job keep up with orders for sanitary supplies and protective equipment, and currently have a six-week inventory of critical items on hand.

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