PINELLAS COUNTY, FL — Starting Tuesday, parents of Pinellas County public school children are being asked to make a big decision – whether to send their children back to school or enroll them in online instruction.
During a four-hour Pinellas School Board workshop, Pinellas County Schools Superintendent Mike Grego and his staff reviewed the district’s reopening plan and answered questions from school board members as the district prepares to reopen schools Aug. 12.
Pinellas County school parents have until July 27 at 5 p.m. to declare whether their children will attend a brick-and-mortar school or choose one of two online learning options: Pinellas Virtual School or Pinellas County Schools online (mypcsonline), which Grego described as a hybrid program.
School district attorney David Koperski said the Florida Department of Education issued an emergency order on July 6 mandating that all school districts must open brick-and-mortar schools at least five days a week in August to be eligible to receive state funding.
The state also requires school districts to submit any alternative online school choices for approval by July 31.
Grego emphasized that it’s critical for the county to submit the mypcsonline by the deadline because this plan would be fully funded by the state. Pinellas Virtual School, modeled on the Florida Virtual School, is funded at $2,600 less per student than mypcsonline.
Additionally, the school district receives virtual school funding only on successful completion by the student.
Without the mypcsonline option, Grego said the district would stand to lose $26 million in state funding. The other advantage of mypcsonline is that it’s only a nine-week commitment so students can keep their seat at the school of their choice.
“It’s a huge financial issue in terms of what the state is providing,” said Grego.
Nevertheless, as Aug. 12 approaches and Pinellas County experiences a spike in the number of coronavirus cases, parents and staff are questioning whether it’s safe for schools to reopen.
School board member Nicole Carr noted that the White House guidelines have advised schools in counties experiencing an upward trend in coronavirus cases not to reopen.
“The plan today in front of us is being put forward for our approval to comply with the emergency order,” she said. “But this is an ever-changing environment.”
“It’s a question that certainly keeps me up,” Grego said. “I’ve never used the word ‘unprecedented’ more in my life. This document is based on what we know today. We’re staying in close contact with the Florida Department of Health. If things continue to go in a downward trajectory, we’re prepared to pivot and go virtual.”
Grego said the school district surveyed more than 43,000 students and family members and held 11 focus groups consisting of 130 teachers and parents.
“We heard loud and clear from folks that they want details on specific issues,” he said. “They said online options were needed and they need to be very interactive so we’re moving in that direction.”
Under the plan, all school employees and students will be required to wear masks throughout the school day, with various times set aside for mask breaks.
Dr. Allison Massina of Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg, who’s been consulting for the school district, told the school board that face masks combined with social distancing, thorough hand washing and the use of sanitizers are the best defense available to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
For children who can’t wear masks due to certain sensory or medical disabilities, she suggested teachers consider wearing Plexiglas face shields or medical-grade masks rather than cloth masks.
“Masks are the biggest bang for our buck that we can get for protecting students in our schools,” said Sara O’Toole, managing officer of School Health Services, noting that the school district has purchased 500,000 masks for students and staff.
Dr. Christina Canody, who oversees BayCare’s pediatrics services, agreed.
In addition to being a practicing pediatrician, she’s the mother of 13-year-old and 17-year-old sons, so she said she has a doubly invested interest in the reopening of schools.
Fortunately, she said, the coronavirus has not had the health impact on children that it has had on older adults. At BayCare, more than 1,000 children have tested positive for the coronavirus but only 10 have been hospitalized. Of those 10, only one child with a number of pre-existing conditions was placed in intensive care.
“Masks absolutely do protect people,” she said “What we need to emphasize to the students is wearing masks protects the people around you, so students are really protecting their teachers and administrators when they wear masks.”
Additionally, she said returning to an in-school setting is important to a child’s development.
“If they’re wearing masks, they are more likely to have social well-being because they get to be around their friends,” she said.
School board member Carol Cane, however, said she doesn’t think the school district fully understands what they’re asking of students and staff.
Cane owns a performing arts school, which opened for a three-week summer camp for children ages 6 to 15. Masks were mandated at the camp.
“Based on my personal experience, it was near impossible to enforce,” she said. “The older they were, the harder it was to enforce. What’s not being said is how it feels to wear the mask all day long.”
She wondered about recalcitrant teens who may refuse to wear a mask.
Koperski said the school district can legally require students to wear masks and “a student who is intentionally noncompliant may be given placement outside the brick-and-mortar school.”
Cane’s other concern is the health impact of masks. She said while she’s young and healthy with no pre-existing conditions, wearing a mask while teaching vocal classes took its toll on her health.
“You need to speak two to three times louder through mask, and we’re asking teachers to do this for six to seven hours a day,” she said. “This caused me vocal fatigue, which feels like a sore throat. I started feeling tired, had anxiety and heart palpitations, which can then make you feel sick. Like some people feel motion sickness and others do not, there may be teachers that experience these things on a day-to-day basis.”
She predicted teachers calling in sick with sore throats, mistaking vocal stress for illness.
She said wearing masks will be equally taxing on the students. The mother of four children, Cane said the most time her children have worn masks were about an hour during a trip to the grocery store.
Now the school district Is expecting children to wear masks for seven to eight hours a day.
“We’re asking a lot of teachers to enforce this when a student may legitimately feel sick after wearing a mask for so long,” Cane said. “I know we’re going to plan for mask breaks but how are we going to handle it if multiple children begin feeling sick? And who on staff is going to be enforcing the rules? We already see adults breaking the rules, and these are children.”
“You bring up great points,” Grego said. “We haven’t looked at the vocal situation.”
He said it may be possible for teachers to remove their masks as long as they remain more than 6 feet away from their students.
“Social distancing is a compromise,” he said. “It’s going to be a different environment, no doubt about that. It’s not going to be perfect, but If we’re able to mask up 70 to 80 percent of time, we’re heading in the right direction.”
He also said he would look into obtaining microphones so teachers can project their voices through the masks.
Parents To Administer Health Screenings
School board members were also concerned about leaving daily health screenings of students up to the parents.
“The screenings by parents before school is probably the most critical element of this to prevent a sick child from attending school,” Grego said.
School board member Carol Cook noted that businesses take the temperatures of customers before they enter. She wondered why the school district isn’t doing the same.
Canody said temperature taking is practical in controlled environments with a limited number of people being admitted. However, herding thousands of children together to take temperatures before they enter schools would only increase their exposure to the coronavirus. In addition, more than 50 percent of those who test positive for the virus are asymptomatic so temperature scans might not detect a child with the coronavirus.
“Temperature checks would increase the risk rather than be beneficial,” she said. “That’s why we’re asking parents to take temperatures before they leave for school.”
School board member Nicole Carr said she was concerned about parents complying.
“Many parents have to go to work and we can’t rely on families not to send sick children to school so they won’t miss work,” she said.
O’Toole said that possibility hasn’t escaped the authors of the reopening plan.
“Student screening and keeping students at home when they’re not well is key,” she said. “The best prevention we can do to keep students and staff safe is to keep those out who are not well. And parents know their students best. They’ll see the signs if their child is sick.”
With that in mind, parents will be asked to sign a wellness responsibility testing form and will receive a checklist of symptoms they should watch for in their children before sending them to school.
“We want students to be in school but the best thing we can do is to keep unwell people at home so parents should have plans in place if a student becomes unwell when not in school and they can’t get off work,” she said.
Teachers and other staff members will receive an email at 6:30 a.m. each morning to affirm that they have none of the symptoms of coronavirus, O’Toole said.
Visitors to schools will be limited but those who have essential business at the school will be asked to fill out the same emailed form.
Each school will also set up two clinic rooms. There will be a clean room for students who aren’t sick but still need nursing care for a skinned knee or to obtain prescribed medication. There also will be an isolation room or sick room for students who may have a fever or other signs of illness. The students will remain in the isolation room where they will be monitored while the parent is contacted to pick up the student.
“We won’t put a sick student on a bus or in after-school program,” she said.
School board member Eileen Long said she’s equally concerned about teachers coming to school sick.
“This is going to be a difficult call for a lot of teachers,” she said. “If they have to isolate 14 days, there goes their entire sick bank. I was guilty myself as a teacher of going to school when I wasn’t feeling well. I think we need to look at that for the teachers and lay out some assurances.”
Paula Texel, representing the Pinellas County schools teachers’ union made up of 15,000 school employees, said teachers will be provided 80 hours of emergency leave in addition to their usual sick leave.
Nevertheless, school board member Rene Flowers said she has “serious concerns” about reopening schools.
She said a friend who is a teacher returned to school on June 29 to meet with her teaching team and contracted the coronavirus from another member of the team. She then transmitted it to her husband.
“They both are really sick,” Flowers said. “She was upset because some employees refused to put masks on. I truly believe, Dr. Grego, that you and your staff are doing the best with the hand you were given. But we’ve seen the numbers in our own communities rise and heard reports about hospitals in Pinellas County that are already at capacity. We just can’t guarantee the safety of anyone through this. It’s nobody’s fault but I’m not in support of exposing our staff and students to further harm.”
Cane agreed, asking if there’s any way to delay the start of the school year or open schools only to students whose parents are first responders.
Unfortunately, Grego said, that’s not an option under the statewide order although parents can always opt for online learning.
“The only way we’re fully funded is with seat time,” he said. “The state will pay us the full-tie equivalent for the mypcsonlineface-to-face virtual learning if our plan is accepted. We will need teachers for that plan so, if someone is compromised, they have that alternative.”
He added that mypcsonline will also be the vehicle students use if they must be quarantined for 14 days. Pinellas Virtual School requires a full semester commitment from students.
Preparing To Learn Online
In preparation for parents choosing the online option, the school district has purchased 41,000 laptop computers with cameras and speakers in addition to the 2,600 computers the school district already gave out to students without devices during the last semester of school.
The 41,000 laptop computers, which will arrive in September, will also allow the school district to go to all online learning if schools need to be closed.
“We don’t know where we’re going to pivot, so we’re posturing ourselves for any of these pathways,” Grego said.
As for social distancing, Bill Corbett, associate superintendent of schools, said the school district is looking at class sizes of 18 students, 22 students and 25 students.
With 18-student classrooms, the desks can be arranged for 6-foot social distancing but, with 25-student classrooms, the distance would drop to 5 feet between desks. However, that deficiency would be offset with face masks.
“The cafeteria is more challenging,” he said. “If we tried to get 4 feet apart, elementary schools would have to stretch their lunch hours from two to three hours.”
Students will be required to wear their masks to and from the cafeteria and can only remove them when sitting down and eating.
Carr said that’s a concern because the student would have his or her mask off for more than 15 minutes while eating with 4 feet of social distancing, increasing the exposure risks.
Teaching special education and non-English-speaking students poses another challenge, said Kevin Hendrick, associate superintendent of teaching and learning services.
For students who are deaf, hard of hearing, learning English or taking speech lessons, teachers will be outfitted with face shields so the students can see the teacher’s face or will has Plexiglas dividers for therapy sessions.
Special education programs will only use hands-on materials that can be easily sanitized and the district will limit the sharing of materials as much as possible. To prepare, the district has ordered additional musical instruments and art supplies.
High School Athletics
Al Bennett, director of athletics for the school district, said high school athletic programs have also been presented a quandary during the age of the coronavirus.
“After being off and sitting around watching TV, we wanted the coaches to have the athletes get back into shape for fall and looked at how we could do this safely,” he said.
The coaches decided on a three-phased approach that began June 15 with no more than 30 athletes on campus at a time working on conditioning in groups of 10 for about an hour.
In the second phase, which began June 29, the coaches kept the athletes outside and expanded the groups to 20, including the coach.
Bennett said he decided to delay the third phase of the program due to the spike in coronavirus cases.
He said the Florida High School Athletic Association will meet Monday to discuss practices for the fall.
“We were scheduled to start practices July 27 but its clear that’s been moved back,” he said.
Other Details Of The Reopening Plan
Students will be supplied with hand sanitizer and opportunities to thoroughly wash their hands during the school day.
Nonessential visitors will be limited for the first nine weeks of school.
Strike teams will be deployed to clean the schools throughout the day, and check that hand sanitizer and soap is available. Grego said only 18 more staff members will be needed for this new protocol.
No field trips will be scheduled at this time.
School-based clubs will continue to meet.
Attending student competitions will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis.
Back-to-school nights and open houses will be held virtually.
PTA, booster events and school advisory committee meetings will be held virtually.
Physical education will take place outdoors.
Band, orchestra and chorus programs will be broken down into smaller ensemble groups to meet social distancing guidelines.
This article originally appeared on the Dunedin Patch