The Palm Beach County School Board has agreed to start the school year using distance learning, making that recommendation to the Florida Department of Education after a meeting Wednesday, July 15 that went on for more than 10 hours.
The board heard almost five hours of public comment before hearing reports from school district staff on the details of returning to school this fall.
At the conclusion of the meeting at 12:30 a.m. Thursday, School Board Member Dr. Debra Robinson made a motion to accept staff’s recommendation for a return to school starting with distance learning, and then evolving back to normal operations as health and state officials advise. The motion carried 7-0.
Not included in the decision was the exact start date of the academic year, but it seems likely that the Monday, Aug. 10 start of school will be delayed. Dates such as Aug. 24 and Aug. 31 were discussed. Staff will return next week with a recommendation on a final date.
Superintendent Dr. Donald Fennoy stressed that all decisions would be driven by reason and science, following the recommendations of Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Florida Department of Education as quickly and as safely as possible.
“Our goal is to re-open schools as soon as it is safe,” Fennoy said. “I give you my word, virtual learning will be more robust than it was in the spring.”
He said that his staff is developing computer learning methods that can be tracked and that student progress will continue to be carefully monitored.
“There is no one solution,” Fennoy said. “My hope is you encourage your children to make the best of this situation.”
He encouraged parents to be supportive of their children and not undermine their virtual learning environment.
“We are a village, and we are all in this together,” Fennoy said. “We must come together and support our entire community.”
School Board Member Sharon Brill said the decisions being made were the most difficult she had ever made, noting that she had heard Florida Department of Health-Palm Beach County Director Dr. Alina Alonso say that 36 percent of children 18 and under who had been tested came back as positive for the virus.
“The safety of our children and staff is of paramount importance,” Brill said. “We need to work together and do the best we can.”
School Board Member Marcia Andrews said she heard and appreciated the comments from all the speakers and callers, whose opinions ranged from advocating for virtual learning to returning to a normal school learning environment.
“I want to do the best for our children,” Andrews said. “I promise I am listening to you.”
School Board Chair Frank Barbieri Jr. said he was angry that Florida’s surgeon general had called Alonso, who is on the school board’s Health Advisory Committee, telling her to “keep her mouth shut” after she recommend against re-opening schools.
“It’s shameful as hell to ask her to stay out of this,” Barbieri said. “I think the public should know that.”
During public comment, Paulette Burdick, who has served as both a school board member and a county commissioner in Palm Beach County, said she supported keeping education online for now.
“This is an unrelenting virus,” Burdick said. “Alonso said it is headed in the wrong direction. We need to keep our employees and children safe and heed the advice of medical professionals.”
Some parents, especially working parents, encouraged a return to brick-and-mortar learning. One parent pointed out that her children have athletic abilities, and without athletic programs, they would miss out on college scholarship opportunities.
School district staff members have developed a plan they feel follows the governor’s edict that leaves Palm Beach County, along with Broward and Miami-Dade counties, still under Phase 1 re-opening. A limited return to the actual school buildings, with social distancing, would begin once Palm Beach County is moved into Phase 2.
School Board Member Chuck Shaw said he was concerned what the school district would do if the state rejects its plan.
Deputy School Superintendent Keith Oswald, who presented much of the proposed plan, said the governor’s order said that they weren’t going to endorse distance learning, but his orders also provide that Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties remain in Phase 1, while the rest of the state has gone to Phase 2.
Read the school district’s plan for re-opening schools at www.palmbeachschools.org.