School meeting notes: Remote learning, Financial decisions, Start Time proposal, Solar project and more

Last week, the district’s combined school committees met for over 3½ hours. They covered a lot of ground beyond the new hires info I already shared. They covered survey results, initiatives in the works, financial decisions, and more. Here are the highlights.

Remote Learning update

NSBORO-CONNECT 2.0 survey results

Superintendent Gregory Martineau said he was pleased overall with the remote learning survey results, though some challenges were highlighted.

The latest newsletter issued on Friday shared some of the results (here) and the data (here). There were 1,127 parent responses*, 1,426 student responses (for grades -12), and over 400 teacher responses. Below are some highlights I pulled from those figures. (Click to enlarge)

Rating of experience Manageability Lessons completed

Last Wednesday, Martineau told the committees that a common issue reported was lack of consistency in how teachers are using the common platforms. He noted that Canvas (the digital platform for middle school and Algonquin) was never designed to be the primary source for teacher-student communications. In the lower schools even Google Classroom was being used differently by different teachers.

The district will be working to streamline information and manage it more consistently. He also indicated that they would be working to increase/make more consistent the amount of zoom time that teachers have with students. With the lengthened closure, families struggling, and worries about maintaining motivation, they also hope to increase student independence.

Calculating Grades

Martineau said guidance from the state oversimplified challenges for determining grades this year. District educators are still working out how to handle it – especially for GPAs. The schools are having conversations with the wider education community. For lower schools, report cards may look more like a narrative with teachers commenting on students’ abilities.

Algonquin Graduation

The school is forming plans to allow families to watch students get their diplomas. Students will receive “swag bags” with a cap and gown and “memories”. A modified ceremony will likely be recorded in the parking lot with a live celebration scheduled for November. Stay tuned for details.

Financial decisions

Renogotiated Bus Contract

The district was part of a group of schools negotiating revised bus fees for the closure period. NRT agreed to reduce fees for mid-March through the end of the school year by 20%. The company will still pay drivers for the closure period. If another school district negotiates a lower rate, all of the contracted districts will get the lower rate. If NRT received funding from the federal CARES Act, the district will also benefit.

Paying hourly workers

Currently, most of the district’s hourly workers are working in some capacity. Custodians are now able to return and will be keeping the buildings in working order. Administrative Assistants and Educational Support Personnel have also been working from home. Some cafeteria workers have been putting together lunches that are delivered to students. But not all caf workers are on that assignment. Those that haven’t have had some at home training opportunities. 

At home caf workers were the one group that committee members discussed possibly furloughing. A downside is the ability of workers to continue collecting unemployment over the summer. The district would have to pay 25% of their wage. That money would be paid for by the Towns out of non-school budget funds. The administration was looking at possibility of bringing them back the last day of school to avoid that. For now, the committees all agreed to pay all hourly workers through the end of the year.

Partial pre-K tuition refund

During the closure, the district’s preschools have offered some remote learning. Still, it’s not the experience that parents expected when they paid tuition. Finance Director Rebecca Pellegrino recommended granting a 50% reimbursement for the closure period. The other 50% is for paying staff and to have enough in the revolving fund to resume classes in the fall. The committees agreed.

Algonquin start time

The administration previewed what the Start Time Task Force plans to recommend in June. Staff are presenting a plan to NRT that would shift Algonquin students’ first bell to 8:00 am. [Editor’s Note: While it still wouldn’t meet the American Academy of Pediatrician’s recommendation for 8:30 am or later, it’s a 40 minute improvement over the school’s 7:20 am bell.]

The proposal would be to minimize any time changes to K-8 schools. To keep down transportation costs, the three tiers of buses would be condensed to two. Middle school and high school students would be bused together.

Operations Director Keith Lavoie explained that the change would reduce ripple effect of late buses which magnify over three tiers. Prior to the proposal in June, the task force will be reaching out to the community for feedback. Any new plan wouldn’t take effect until fall 2021.

Solar Energy Projects

The Regional School Committee signed off on a project to install solar panels on Algonquin’s roof. It is one of three schools in Northborough that the district was exploring projects for. The biggest savings were available for ARHS.

Solect Energy of Hopkinton will design, procure, install, interconnect, monitor and maintain the project.” In exchange, the district will purchase the energy collected at a low fixed rate for 20 years. At the end of the term, the vendor will remove the panels.

The first year’s savings would be $25K, with a hope for a savings of $500K over the course of the project. (That’s if energy costs stay the same. If the market goes up, the savings will be more.) The project is expected to cover 5% of the school’s electrical costs.

The panel mounting won’t penetrate the roof membrane, so the roof warranty won’t be voided.

The district will try this as a proof-of-concept project and expand if they wish. (Another vendor’s method would have required going in whole hog, allowing them to put up as many panels on parking lot canopies as they wanted.)

The hope is for the project to be approved by the state incentive program in time for installation by early fall.

Strategic and Improvement Planning

The next Strategic Plan draft is still in the works. In the meantime, the administration is revamping the School Improvement Planning Process. School Improvement Plans have followed a variety of processes and were staggered. Starting in the 2021-22 school year, all schools will be on the same schedule using the same development process. Each improvement plan will be aligned to the district’s overall strategic plan. This will improve the schools’ ability to work together.

*Parents were instructed to complete the survey once for each student, so that doesn’t indicate the number of parents who responded.

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