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Polk Co. school superintendent stays the course, as board members disagree on reopening plans

Polk County

POLK COUNTY, Fla. (WFLA) – Polk County school board members lack consensus when it comes to reopening plans but so far, they are not casting a vote on how students return to learning on Aug. 24.

That decision has been made by superintendent Jacqueline Byrd.

“Looking at the downward trend, we’re still on schedule with our approved plan from [Department of Education] to reopen on the 24th, brick and mortar. We have virtual options that are available for the parents as well,” she said during a work session Tuesday.

During the three hour work session, school board members weighed in on the plans, with a variety of opinions.

“I am not 100% on this and it concerns me,” said school board member Lisa Miller.

School board member Kay Fields said the district needs to keep its promise to the community.

“And that was if results came back and if they had leveled off and the trend was not going upward, we would open back up our schools. I think that’s what we need to do,” she said.

According to health officials, coronavirus cases are on the decline in Polk County, as are COVID-19 related hospitalizations and the positive test rate.

“If the decision is made to go ahead and open, the health department would be working closely with the school district to help ensure it’s as safe as possible,” said Dr. Joy Jackson, head of the Florida Department of Health in Polk County.

School board member Billy Townsend was hoping for more concrete advice from Dr. Jackson, accusing her of not being “allowed” to tell the board what she thinks.

“I’m extremely disappointed that our health officials lack the integrity to answer yes or no, under which they thought was a better approach, a big bang approach or a staggered start,” he said.

Townsend floated the idea of slowly introducing students back into the classroom rather than starting all at once.

Current plans have all students returning to in-person, e-learning or Polk Virtual School on August 24.

At least 38,000 students will return to campus learning that day, according to school leadership.

They will have to wear masks and be separated as much as possible.

High speed thermometers have been installed at George Jenkins High School for random temperature checks.

Courtesy Polk County Public Schools

“We’re going to have six of these on our campuses, with that we feel like we’ll get well over 90% of our students and staff checked, combined, our whole campus, every single day,” said Tom Patton, principal of George Jenkins Senior High School, in reopening videos produced by Polk County Public Schools.

Townsend said he believes the district’s plan would lead to the deaths of 5 – 10 staff members.

“Our compliance [with the DOE order] is creating, frankly, the dumbest possible approach to opening schools. I almost think we want it to fail,” he said.

Other school board members took issue with reports of teachers who wanted to teach virtually, not being granted that request.

“It is incredibly important, and I can’t emphasize this enough, that we keep our promise to everyone who said they don’t want to come back, that they want to teach virtually, that we keep that promise,” said school board member Lynn WIlson.

According to the district, 28% of teachers preferred a campus eLearning assignment for the school year.

“I am very conflicted at what we’re doing,” said school board member Lisa Miller. “I think if we’d have rolled out some kind of plan for our staff to assure them of safety, to give them a clear plan of how to ask for virtual. If the governor tells them they’re allowed to teach virtually and we are denying that, we need to have a good reason and we need to have a publicized process to have a committee decide that, how are we deciding that?

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