NEWTOWN — During the Board of Education meeting on Tuesday, December 15, Kimberly Longobucco Ed.D., principal at Newtown High School, described Hope Squad as a school-based peer-to-peer suicide prevention program intended to reduce youth suicide through education, training and peer intervention.

She noted that suicide rates have increased in nearly every state.

The program asks students to nominate three peers they would feel comfortable talking to if they were struggling.

Training helps students learn to recognize suicide warning signs and how to act.

The program also builds positive relationships among peers to promote acceptance of those seeking help and changes the school culture by reducing stigmas about suicide and mental health.

Dr. Longobucco expects to bring updates back to the education board as the program moves forward.

As the education board reviewed the financial report prior to approval, board member Dan R. Delia noted $1.5 million in expenses related to Covid-19, although the budget does not reflect a deficit in that amount.

He explained that unspent funds may make it appear as if there is no strain on the budget, but there is a significant stress there.

Assistant Director of Business and Finance Tanja Vadas agreed with the assessment, pointing to savings that have occurred during the pandemic and areas where some expenses have not yet been paid.

The Education Cost Sharing Grant came in $300,000 lower than expected and Ms. Vadas recommended a transfer of $400,000.

There is a deficit in teaching and specialists’ salaries and Ms. Vadas recommended the board focus on these line items during budget season. “This is going to be an area of concern.”

The lunch program has a loss due to decreased population and the lack of participation.

Last year, there was a small profit of $7,716 in November 2019 but, in November 2020, revenue has dropped by 50 percent for an overall loss of $39,774.

The high school program qualifies for reimbursement from the federal lunch program.

December’s loss is estimated at $15,000 with a total loss of $363,000 for the school year.

Superintendent Dr. Lorrie Rodrigue reminded the board that students in kindergarten through sixth grade would return to school January 4 and older students will return shortly after.

She said that staff coverage is an issue due to the need for quarantining of staff members, thanking parents and other adults for stepping up to fill out applications to help fill the gap.

The board discussed the staffing issue and competitive compensation, with board member John N. Vouros suggesting a review of substitute pay rates during budget season.

Dr. Rodrigue said safety remains a consistent priority. “There is no spread at schools.”

The superintendent felt confident that students could safely return to schools.

Parents can choose to keep their students at home to learn.

There has been no change in the process of working with the health district and weekly updates are posted to the school district website.

Donna M. Culbert, MPH, P.E., R.S., director of health, attended the meeting and credited students and staff with facilitating contact tracing that allows schools to remain open.

She asked everyone to be prepared as the overall number of cases increases. “We may not peak until mid-January.”

She expressed confidence in the systems already in place.

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