The Palm Beach County School Board was bombarded with comments Wednesday, June 10 from frustrated parents wanting their children to return to normal school sessions this fall in the face of a pandemic that could be fatal for older people, even though an affected child often has little more than a sniffle.
Several dozen people, many of them working parents, called in to the virtual meeting to say that “distance learning” implemented by the school district in March was ineffectual, and that forcing children to wear masks during school would distract them from learning.
Their comments were balanced with statements by school board members and school district staff, who reviewed returning to the 2020-21 school year with blended learning options that include returning to school sessions as they were before COVID-19, a hybrid program of school attendance and distance learning, and remaining on mostly distance learning.
“Even before COVID-19 disrupted our lifestyle, we knew that education as we knew it was changing,” Superintendent Dr. Donald Fennoy said. “The pandemic and recent developments involving racial tension have accelerated that evolution. The launch of the new school year is not simply picking up where we left off; it’s about returning and recovering.”
Fennoy said that he has directed strategic back-to-school initiatives, including the evaluation of input from tens of thousands of parents who have responded to a school district survey to guide decisions that will be made at the district level. He has also instituted a health advisory committee made up of medical experts, who will assure that the school district’s priorities remain on the health, safety and well-being of students and staff.
“We were also presented with a potentially devastating financial shortfall,” Fennoy said. “As we brace for the totality of the negative financial impact on our school district caused by COVID-19, we also realize that there are previously unrealized and unexpected expenses.”
School Administrator Larry Clawson, who is preparing a report on returning to school, said the coming year may be a mix of in-school attendance and distance learning, where half the school body goes to class and practices social distancing on certain days while the other half remains at home. He added that the school district looks to improve on the distance learning model that was put in place in March.
Surveys of parents, teachers and staff will continue to be collected, and a final strategic presentation will be made on July 15, Clawson said.
“The plan will be robust and inclusive,” he said. “Students, parents, elected officials and union representatives will be meeting with the superintendent and staff.”
School Board Member Barbara McQuinn said some teachers are worried about losing their jobs, and Fennoy said the schools’ budgets will not be touched, although there will be budget shortfalls.
School Board Member Dr. Debra Robinson added that the school district is in a dilemma, being placed in a situation of balancing frustrated working parents wanting their kids back in school with controlling a pandemic.
“None of us want to be here,” Robinson said. “We want to go back to the way it was, [but] we’re talking about re-opening schools in a space we don’t understand.”
She referred to one parent caller, who said she wanted students to return to school “as long as it’s safe.”
“This is the thing — it is risk reduction,” Robinson said. “I don’t know when it will be safe, but parents will go completely crazy if we wait for it to be 100 percent safe.”
Fennoy said that the school district has ordered and warehoused a million protective masks for staff, but they are still struggling with compliance guidelines.
“We follow CDC guidelines to the best of our ability,” he said. “If we followed CDC guidelines exactly, we wouldn’t be able to have school.”