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All eyes on Manatee County as school district plans to reopen Monday amid pandemic

Coronavirus

MANATEE COUNTY (WFLA) – The first day of school in Manatee County is still set for Aug. 17. The school district is the first in the Tampa Bay area to reopen schools for in-person classes.

The district has been working around the clock to ensure the safest reopening possible in the middle of a pandemic. Every classroom county-wide will be stocked with sanitizer, wipes, and disinfectant spray to help keep common areas clean.

“In addition, the district has initiated a District Operations Center (DOC) located at the School Support Center which will be staffed with district and health department personnel starting Monday to assist in collecting, coordinating and responding to reported incidents of COVID-19 throughout the district. The DOC is a central clearinghouse for information related to those reports,” said district Communications Director Michael Barber.

In the last two weeks since teachers arrived back on campus, multiple people have been exposed to the virus. The school district confirmed cases at the following district locations in the last two weeks:

  • Ballard Elementary School
  • Bayshore High School
  • Buffalo Creek Middle School
  • Harllee Center
  • Manatee Technical College
  • Palmetto High School
  • Samoset Elementary School
  • School Support Center

School Board members in Manatee County are well aware that all eyes are on the school district as it reopens next week.

“The conversation I had with teachers and directors at the schools I visited is these first couple of weeks before Labor Day weekend is really a time for orientation,” said School Board Member Dr. Scott Hopes. “The students have not been in school for five months. That is a long time. There is anxiety, there is excitement and that is what we need to concentrate on for the first couple of weeks. There’s going to be hiccups, there are going to be bumps in the road. We are one of the first, I think, we are the first large district in the state to really open up. We are going to find out how well the planning is going to be implemented and where we have to modify plans,” he continued.

Dr. Hopes is a school board member and a longtime epidemiologist. He feels it’s time for the district to put its plan into action.

“Sometimes you just have to say OK, this is the date. This is the date we are going to move forward and we are going to tweak things as we move along. I am comfortable as an epidemiologist that we are checking off as many boxes as possible, but we need our employees and we need our public to follow CDC guidelines every day,” explained the epidemiologist.

School Board Vice Chair Charlie Kennedy has been hesitant about reopening schools brick and mortar so soon.

“It is really three things –it is supplies, it is scheduling, and it is preparing for the inevitable, but to be clear, I do think this for secondary school only. I do think elementary is probably ready to go,” said Kennedy.

Kennedy says starting with an E-learning model for the first two weeks would be helpful to ensure that everyone has the access to technology needed should the district need to shut down — something he thinks will likely happen.

“I hope I am wrong. I really do hope that I am wrong, but I really feel like we are going to have to shut down schools sometime in the near future, probably early to mid-September because when you bring hundreds of kids back together, it is just inevitable. Even with masks and other mitigation techniques, I think whatever we can do to start getting technology into kids hands, that would be one of the other benefits of this E-learning start,” said Kennedy.

Families sending their children back to school Monday tell 8 On Your Side, they are staying optimistic.

“Every time we go out, we wear our masks and do social distancing and stay away from people, so hopefully they will continue that in the school system to keep them safe as possible,” said grandmother Danita Driskill.

The School Board held an emergency meeting Friday afternoon and made revisions to the district’s face mask policy.

The policy mandates all employees, visitors and students wear a face mask that covers the nose and mouth while on school property, facilities, transportation vehicle, including school buses and/or engaged in school activities.

These are the revisions agreed upon Friday afternoon:

  • Students who need a break from their face mask, may do so with teacher permission provided social distancing can be maintained under specific outdoor circumstance (not indoor).
  • No face covering is required during physical education classes, recess, or other outdoor activities as long as social distancing practices are in place.  Students must wear cloth face masks to and from physical education class and to and from the recess location or activity. 
  • Face shields that completely cover the face, wrap around the face and extend below the chin, will be allowed to be worn by students in Grades PreK-5 and students with disabilities only in the classroom during specific instructional periods as long as either social distancing practices are in place and/or physical barriers of separation are in place between students.  A cloth face mask must be worn during all other times and locations.  Face shields are not substitutes for cloth face masks nor are being used for normal everyday activities and only allowed in this narrow use. 
  • Employees who need a break from wearing their face mask while on school property, may do so if alone in their own office or classroom or outdoors maintaining social distancing.  An employee may not utilize common space, for example a conference room, break room, stairwell or any unoccupied location for a mask break.  A cloth face mask must be worn during all other times and locations.

“In addition, the protocols recognize the CDC guidance that ‘wearing face masks may not be possible in every situation or for some people. In some situations, wearing a face mask may exacerbate a physical or mental health condition, lead to a medical emergency, or introduce significant safety concerns. Adaptations and alternatives should be considered whenever possible to increase the feasibility of wearing a face mask or to reduce the risk of COVID-19 spreading if it is not possible to wear one.’,” according to a district press release.

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