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Remote learning during shutdown discussed; geothermal wells scrapped

UPDATED, March 29: The Arlington School Committee’s regular meeting Thursday, March 26, was conducted virtually for the first time, using the online video conferencing platform Zoom, as committee members were self-isolating because of the Covid-19 outbreak.

School Committee logo

School Budget logoThe main focus of the meeting was the Arlington School District’s plan for finishing the school year remotely after schools officially closed on March 12 through April 6 due to coronavirus. Gov. Baker has since extended the closing of all schools to May 4.

The committee also learned that geothermal wells will not be installed at the new high school after drillers ran into contamination. Building Committee Chairman Jeff Thielman has provided an update, below.

As to remote learning, schools' Superintendent Kathleen Bodie said, “We really start to realize how special schools are, because it's really hard to provide everything students need in this situation. It’s going to be difficult.”

Guiding principles released

Earlier in the day March 26, the Department of Education and Secondary Instruction (DESI) released guiding principles for Massachusetts school districts to follow as they begin remote education. Much of the meeting was spent discussing these new guidelines, and how Arlington Public Schools can best follow them.

The DESI guidelines encourage schools to develop a remote learning model, something Arlington schools are still working on. DESI says teachers should design plans to engage students in “meaningful and productive learning” for approximately half the length of a traditional school day, and should include several hours of academic learning, some physical activity and engagement with the arts.

DESI recommends that teachers give feedback on student work, but not grades.

March 27, 2020: For online teachers (and students), school is a work in progress

Several School Committee members expressed skepticism that students will realistically be able to meet all of those recommendations without access to a school building or support staff. Several noted that for younger students, the responsibility falls on parents to do most of the educating.

“There are equity issues when the learning is not directed by educators,” said committee member Jennifer Susse. “Leaving parents to go through these materials and learn how to craft instruction from that is something some parents can do better than others.”

More concrete online plans sought

Susse and committee Chair Len Kardon both emphasized that Arlington schools need to figure out more standardized and concrete remote-learning plans, and fast. Susse said she has heard feedback from some parents that the education materials that they have been receiving from teachers online are not enough.

“Parents are frustrated they are just getting links,” Susse said. “Something that’s much more robust is something I think parents are looking for.”

The committee also discussed digital equity, making sure every student has the ability to access the technology devices and Internet connections to be able to do school online.

Bodie said the district already owns enough Chromebook devices to be able to provide one to every nearly student, though until now, students had not been permitted to take them home.

Bodie also expressed interest in buying Wi-Fi hot spots to give to students with the Chromebooks. She said she looked into buying them last week, but found there were none available for sale because of high demand.

She said the first challenge is doing enough outreach to figure out which students need access to devices or Wi-Fi so they know whom to serve.

Grab-go lunches ending

Students who need access to meals while schools are closed are being served through a partnership with Arlington EATS, a nonprofit organization that was until Tuesday providing grab-and-go lunches at Thompson Elementary School on weekdays.

At Thursday’s meeting, Bodie announced that the group will stop the grab-and-go on March 30, and switching to a home-delivery system instead, to protect workers and families from illness. Families who need meals or groceries are encouraged to call the food hot line at 781-316-3400.

Committee member Jeff Thielman encouraged Bodie to document everything the school district is doing to switch to remote learning, to make it easier to do so in the future if it becomes necessary.

“We are going to have to, as a society, get used to periods where we may have to go remote and use distance learning,” Thielman said. “I think its important to document everything you’re experiencing, think about how we can do it next time and think about how we can continue learning in the future.” 

Scrap geothermal wells

Also at Thursday’s meeting, Bodie announced that the Building Committee has decided to scrap the plan to use geothermal wells in the Arlington High School construction project.

The previous plan had been to try and give the school an energy-efficient heating and cooling system by drilling geothermal wells to circulate water. Bodie said drilling the wells would be too risky on the property, in part because some experimental drilling in the area behind the Massachusetts Avenue Stop & Shop led to the discovery of contaminants in the bedrock. 

“A lot of us, the whole committee was very committed to wanting this to happen, but there were just so many reasons why it just wouldn’t work on this site,” Bodie said. 

She said that any alternative will be less expensive than the geothermal wells, which means there will be some extra money to play with in the construction budget.

Currently, the district plans to continue the construction project as scheduled, even with the coronavirus outbreak, but that plan is subject to change.

Estimated $5M freed up

In response to questions from YourArlington about the geothermal wells, Thielman wrote March 28:

"On February 24, 2020, our drilling subcontractor began drilling a test well on the Peirce practice field. When the drilling firm got to a depth of 95 to 100 feet, the drillers noted a moth ball odor and determined that this was likely the odor of Naphthalene, which is associated with coal tar and a byproduct of coal gas manufacturing. The team continued to drill to about 160 feet, stopped work, and covered up the hole.

"The engineers do not believe the test well will disturb other contamination below the surface. But, given the likelihood of more contamination throughout the site, we determined that we could not continue with geothermal wells.

"We estimate that the elimination of the geothermal wells will decrease our project cost estimate by approximately $5 million. The building will be all-electric that will get its energy from the electric grid.

"We do have solar panels in the building, and we have directed the engineers to find ways to use some of the $5 million in savings to increase energy storage and efficiency in the building, including greater solar capacity.

"This was not an easy decision for us. The committee was very excited about geothermal wells and their potential to transfer thermal energy from the ground into the facility. The analysis done by the committee and the design team showed that our operating costs would be lower with geothermal wells. I don't have that number at hand.

"While we are disappointed that we cannot have geothermal wells, we are going to have an all-electric building, we are going to do all we can to increase energy storage in the building, and we will have a much more energy efficient building than we have now." 

Organizational-meeting rules waived

At the same meeting, the committee voted unanimously by role-call vote to waive traditional rules for the Arlington School Committee organizational meeting, which usually happens in person to elect the new members of the committee. Since the group cannot assemble in person during the coronavirus outbreak, usual protocol for that meeting will be waived until after new officers are elected. 

The Select Board voted March 23 to postpone the town election from April 4 until June 6 or 13.

The committee also voted unanimously to approve the members of the Arlington Education Association negotiations subcommittee.

The online meeting went smoothly, with only a few minor technology issues. Several times, committee members began speaking with their microphones muted and had to be reminded to unmute themselves. The meeting was recorded by ACMi and will be available for public viewing online, as are the regular, in-person meetings.

The Arlington School Committee is scheduled to next meet via Zoom on April 9.

March 25-27, 2020: 12 positive town cases of Covid-19 reported; testing-swab shortage had shut down hospitals

Jan.-Feb. 2020: Tests well drilling for AHS rebuild underway

This news summary by YourArlington freelancer Eileen O'Grady was published Friday, March 27. It was updated March 28, to add a link, and March 29, to add comments.

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