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Pinellas County teachers rally against returning to classrooms

Coronavirus

PINELLAS COUNTY, Fla. (WFLA) — The Pinellas County School Board met online Tuesday to discuss plans for reopening schools as coronavirus cases continue to surge in Florida.

Ahead of the meeting Tuesday, a number of teachers gathered outside the school district headquarters and called for a virtual return to the classroom.

The school district released a draft of its 37-page back-to-school plan on Friday. According to the proposal, parents can choose to send students to their school or have them do online learning.

Educators like Dr. Christy Foust say they feel unsafe with the drafted plan.

“This isn’t about teachers saying, ‘I don’t feel safe going back to work.’ This is about it being unsafe for our students to go back to school,” Foust, a high school teacher said.

Foust is among a group of teachers who say they have a better plan.

“We’re calling for a virtual return to school and that when we do ultimately go back we go back with 14 days of no new cases,” Foust said. “Teachers are not blind to the fact that for some of our most vulnerable students, virtual learning is not the most equitable, but our perspective on that is we want them alive. They have no chance to learn if they’re dead or in ICU.”

It was announced in Tuesday’s Pinellas County’s School Board Workshop meeting that beginning Wednesday, July 15, families will be asked to choose one of three learning options for the 2020-2021 school year. 

The school district is asking families to make a decision by July 27 at 5 p.m. There will be three options: a traditional school option, Florida Virtual School, or MyPCS Online. The school district said come July 15, its website would have all details needed for parents. However, 8 on Your Side went to that website on July 14th and it was still down. The district says the site should be up and running by July 16th.

Here is a brief breakdown of the 3 options:

  1. TRADITIONAL SCHOOL: The traditional school setting would be where students attend school inside the brick and mortar building and are face-to-face with teachers.
  2. MYPCS ONLINE: MyPCS Online would allow students to stay in that assigned school for a nine-week commitment, meaning if students choose that option it is something they have to do for nine weeks. All instruction will be delivered regularly with a normal bell schedule. Teachers and students would be expected to participate with one another. Students would be expected to be in the first period at first period time, not whenever they want. Teacher training for MyPCS Online will begin July 27 where they will be paid to learn the program.
  3. PINELLAS VIRTUAL SCHOOL: Students who opt for virtual school will no longer be enrolled at their assigned school. They’ll be required to enroll in six courses each semester and must complete their assignments in 16-18 weeks, and they can work at their own pace.

At the beginning of the Pinellas County workshop meeting, some school board members were upset that many of them didn’t know about the vote until Thursday night when it was put online. Some leaders said the plan was accidentally published on the website without the word “draft,” leaving some Pinellas County families to think a decision had already been made. Some school board leaders apologized for the mishap and assured the public no decision had been made yet.

Masking

The Pinellas County Superintendent said they’ve been working with the Florida Department Of Health Director in Pinellas County and many local doctors, including those from Johns Hopkins All Children’s hospital.

In the meeting, doctors focused on how universal masking is so important for everyone in the school atmosphere. A Johns Hopkins All Children’s doctor said they have seen patients with COVID-19 but noted cases in children have usually been mild.

The topic of kindergartners and pre-K not being required to wear masks came up with some concern about teacher safety. There was talk from leaders about getting teachers and nurses put in high-risk situations extra PPE such as plexiglass shields to wear in addition to masks as extra protection.

Social distancing

There was also talk amongst school leaders about how to keep students socially distant in the classrooms. Some school board leaders said they would be able to distance the children by at least four feet by taking all extra furniture out of classrooms and leaving just teacher and student desks. Leaders talked about kids having assigned seats so that it would be easier to do contact tracing if necessary.

Sanitizing

Disinfecting and cleaning were also on the agenda for discussion. Leaders said in March they started working with recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and got together with maintenance staff to align protocols with the cleaning and sanitizing of school and workspaces. Protocols are a step-by-step process that plant operators can use to decide what they need. One step the school is taking is filming the cleaning of classrooms to remain transparent and to show parents what they’re doing.

School leaders said there is also a district-wide COVID-strike team that would be able to clean a school at a high level. They said some things like landscaping and power washing may be skipped to help with cleaning in classrooms. Carpeting will be vacuumed every night and school ventilation systems would remain on 24/7. While they might not be dispersing cold air, they said there will be continuous generations.

However, school leaders said there is no plan to clean down and disinfect tables between classrooms between each use. Teachers will be given disinfectant materials and encouraged to wipe down all high-touch areas or get trusted students to do so. There will be sanitizer at each door and kids will be asked to sanitize when entering or leaving a room. School leaders said all the chemicals used in classrooms would be safe for children.

Extracurricular activities

School leaders said there will be no field trips. Clubs will continue to operate but will be encouraged to be online when possible. Extended learning programs will continue. All PTA meetings will be virtual.

As of now, sports are only allowed in outdoor, voluntary, small group workouts. A determination on fall sports will be made Monday by the Florida High School Athletic Association. No decision on middle school athletics will be made until the high school decision happens.

Lunchtime

School leaders acknowledged the cafeteria is going to be a challenge. There is talk about schools that previously had two lunches expanding so they have four sessions. Some leaders sad if lunch was previously over two hours it might now be four hours and kids could spread out as much as possible – from the cafeteria to an outside perimeter or even on stages and anywhere nearby.

Other measures

8 On Your Side is told the Department of Health is working on case-by-case scenarios, like what the reopening of a third-grade classroom would look like. 

Some school leaders expressed their concern about sick time for teachers – many are being told the second they feel sick to stay home. But they have two weeks of sick time, so all their sick time would be used for that first quarantine.

From a legal standpoint, school members said there won’t be disciplinary actions against students who are non-compliant about wearing masks but those students may be placed into another school and that could be MyPCS online.

It was asked in the meeting if there was a reason there was nothing said about temperatures being checked before walking into school. School leaders said the risk of herding students together to take their temperatures in an efficient manner would not be worth the risk so they’re asking parents to take on that responsibility. The school district said it would be sending home a checklist of COVID signs and symptoms to look for and what parents should do before sending kids to school.

The district said they already purchased additional music supplies and art supplies in preparation to not share as many supplies this school year. They said whenever possible, physical fitness education will be done outdoors. Performing arts will be focused on small groups so students can not use masks when possible. In extracurriculars like music, art, and performing arts, they will be limiting the sharing of materials whenever possible.

This district said they plan to submit their plan to the Department of Education by July 31st.

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