The School District of Palm Beach County held a press conference Thursday, April 15 to provide an overview of back-to-school expectations and plans for the coming summer and school year.
The key message was the announcement that brick and mortar schools will be fully reopened, and the in-person/virtual hybrid learning model will no longer be an option once the 2021-22 school year begins Aug. 10.
“While many major decisions have already been made, the school board, the superintendent and his leadership team are constantly evaluating pandemic conditions, the academic and emotional needs of our students, financial considerations and other critical factors, which must be considered as we finalize our plans,” Chief of Staff Edward Tierney said. “We want to keep you informed every step of the way.”
Superintendent Dr. Donald Fennoy acknowledged the difficulties of the past year.
“This has been a challenging journey for all of us, some more so than others,” he said. “But it has also been a time in which we collectively as a community have turned many challenges into opportunities that will benefit our students for years to come.”
He said that the goal is to have all students in the school buildings.
“While many students in distance learning have flourished, others have fallen behind academically and socially. My intent is a full return to brick and mortar when schools open on Aug. 10,” he said. “I believe it is in the best interest of our students and our staff.”
Fennoy made it clear that with the number of staff vaccinated and the state’s strict stance on K-12 campuses staying open, the school district is committed to equity and access for every student, including their social and emotional health.
“Our safety protocols, such as enhanced sanitizing, higher-rated HVAC systems, social distancing and other measures designed to keep our campuses healthy will continue,” he said. “A full return to campus-based learning will, for the most part, put an end to simultaneous instruction, which has been a very heavy lift for our teachers.”
Fennoy explained there might be individual situations in which a teacher or school may elect to stream or record the daily lesson to accommodate a student who was unable to attend in person. He added that the district will continue its sports programs and social events.
Deputy Superintendent Keith Oswald addressed the importance of returning to on-campus learning for most students.
“One of the issues we’ve seen is a 13 percent increase in the number of students who are failing one of their core courses. This is because of this distance learning issue, so when they get back in our campuses, we are better able to address those particular needs,” he said.
Student absences are also on the rise, Oswald noted, which also calls for a return to having students on campus.
For parents not ready to return to in-person schooling, Palm Beach Virtual School is an option that has been in place for many years. Palm Beach Virtual School is now accepting applications for enrollment next year.
“If a parent is interested in this virtual option, they should go to www.palmbeachvirtual.org. To apply for the virtual option, click on full-time enrollment, apply now and complete the application, and someone will reach out,” Oswald explained. “It’s a little bit different. Here, a student will complete a pre-set curriculum at their own pace. There is a lot more autonomy for the student. They work, they establish their own hours, and there is not the direct instruction on a day-to-day basis like there is now.”
Face masks are expected to be required next school year, but the school board and administration will continue to monitor that situation. There have been no conversations about requiring vaccines for students. All students attending public schools will have access to transportation by bus, but social distancing will not be enforced on the bus.
“From the beginning, we said we would not social distance on the bus,” Chief Operating Officer Wanda Paul said. “One of the critical things we asked our students to do, is when they are at the bus stop, social distance, keep their mask on and make sure that they wash their hands when they get off. In addition, we use the electrostatic sprayers to make sure there is no spread. We do keep seating charts, so if someone does become sick, we can trace [the spread].”
Oswald also addressed the recent executive order released by the Florida Department of Education regarding grading and assessments.
“What’s most important is our seniors. All the standards when it comes to credit and GPA are still in place — those are not waived,” he said.
Exams may not be used for a student’s grades, but state assessments still carry weight. “The only pieces that may be waved on a case-by-case basis that are tied back to a state assessment [are] algebra and ELA,” Oswald said. “The School District must establish the student has met that requirement. This only applies to seniors graduating in spring of 2021.”
The example Oswald provided was the ELA exam taken in 10th grade, which is directly tied to a student receiving their high school diploma. That requirement is not waived. Also, regarding third-grade students moving up to fourth grade, not taking the third-grade assessments does not mean a child will automatically promote. The school and the district must determine that the student still meets promotion criteria.
Regarding Bright Futures scholarships, volunteer hours can only be waived on a case-by-case basis, and the ACT/SAT are not waived, although the deadline for completion is extended through Dec. 1.
Chief Financial Officer Mike Burke addressed the loss of student enrollment, both in school and in other school-related programs due to the pandemic, resulting in about 6,000 fewer students and less revenue for the district.
“It has been a challenge, and it has been costly to operate schools during a pandemic,” said Burke, who said that reaching the one-to-one student to device ratio cost about $25 million for 80,000 computers. “We also covered internet costs for students in need. That cost about 1.5 million.”
The federal government has approved funding to help schools recover from the pandemic, resulting in about $500 million over the next three years. But those dollars are temporary and will stop, meaning some jobs created with those funds will be temporary as well.
A student academic support plan is also in place for the summer, said Chief Academic Officer Dr. Glenda Sheffield. However, she warned that learning gaps created during the pandemic will not be closed during this summer alone.
The summer programs will all take place in person and run from June 28 to July 22. Families of students identified as needing support from these programs will be contacted. The programs include an expansion of the VPK program, a K-2 summer academy for rising first, second and third grades, a summer reading academy for grade three, a transition to middle school academy for rising sixth graders, a middle school course recovery program targeting eighth graders and the Jump Start to High School program for select seventh graders.
There is also a high school graduation support program prioritizing seniors who need to attend in the summer for credit deficiencies. Driver’s education will also return.
The district will also continue to provide meals for students during the summer. Grab-and-go meal distribution will provide seven days’ worth of breakfast and lunch for students not attending summer programs, and all students coming to sites will receive free breakfast and lunch on site. Bus transportation for summer programs is also provided.
For more information on these and other programs, visit www.palmbeachschools.org.