Board members push back start of school date and mandate face coverings.
Now seeking approval from the state, the Sarasota County School Board plans to push back the start of the school year to Aug. 31 to allow more time to prepare for COVID-19.
During a workshop Tuesday, board members said moving the start date from Aug. 10 to Aug. 31 will allow more time for administrators to roll out new policies and install additional safety features in schools. To meet the state’s instructional hours requirements, the school year will be extended by three weeks.
Although there are many reasons to delay school opening, Board Chair Caroline Zucker said the priority is student safety. Board members said the additional time would keep students out of schools while COVID-19 cases in Sarasota continue to rise.
“The bottom line is: Do you want to save lives, or do you want to open schools?” Zucker said. “Do you think opening later would save lives? I do.”
The decision to push back the school start date has to be approved by the Florida Department of Education, along with the rest of the district’s reopening plan. The Department of Education on July 6 issued a directive that all districts need to open brick-and-mortar schools five days a week in August.
The district’s plan would start school on the last day allowed. Assistant Superintendent and Chief Academic Advisor Laura Kingsley said she’s seen similar plans receive state approval.
Board members would ask teachers to return to work Aug. 17 — two weeks ahead of the students — to receive additional COVID-19 training. Teachers are typically on a 196-day contract, district attorney Art Hardy said, which allows for one week of training before school begins.
Therefore, the district will require teachers to return Aug. 24 but offer five extra duty days to all teachers, so they could return Aug. 17 for the additional training.
The board will require all students and staff to wear face coverings while on school buses and campuses. Those with special educational or health needs can receive a waiver excusing them from the coverings, though those with personal objections will not be exempt.
"We don't want teachers to have to make the decision," board member Jane Goodwin said. "They don't want to make the decision. Now is the time for strong leadership."
As board members were talking about back-to-school plans, teachers, students and parents filled the parking lot to protest schools reopening. Many stayed in their decorated cars and honked their horns every few minutes to express their disapproval.
Tiffany Pepsin, a Sarasota High School teacher, said that although she misses her students, she feels it’s not safe to return to schools.
“We all want to come back. We desperately miss our students and our classrooms,” Pepsin said. “But we don’t want to come back until the community spread stops and it is safe to return.”
Not everyone feels that way though. As the protesters circled the building, a small group of counterprotesters were advocating for a return. Sherri Tennerino, who has two high school students in the district, said she wants her children to get a quality education in the schools.
“The educational losses that our children are experiencing every day since they’ve been out of school since March are huge,” Tennerino said. “Their best chance of an education and graduating in the next few years will be dramatically improved if they’re back in school. I don’t think sitting behind a computer screen is beneficial.”
Although there was more support for remote learning in the parking lot, more parents approve of brick-and-mortar learning, according to a district survey.
Out of more than 17,000 parents surveyed, 74% said they would prefer their child return to brick-and-mortar schools. However, of the approximate 4,000 teachers surveyed, only 28% said they’d like to return to campus.
Board Member Eric Robinson said he’s heard from several district employees who are “scared for their lives” to return to work, but they need their paycheck.
Chief Operations Officer Jody Dumas said there are no good solutions and that the district has to follow mandates from the state. The district will open a window for teachers to apply for a one-year leave of absence if they are not comfortable returning.
Robinson said that solution doesn’t work for people who rely on their paycheck month-to-month.
“As long as I’ve been on the board, we’ve thrown out words like culture and respect,” he said. “Now is the time to walk the walk with teachers. Now is the time to show how we feel about them and show them if you feel they’re just widgets in a factory or they’re human beings and professionals who deserve our respect.”
Pepsin, who said she’d take a leave of absence if the district returns in August, agreed. She said the district pushing to return so quickly sends a message to teachers that they’re expendable.
“Some of our staff and teachers have been doing this for 20 years, and they’re one or two years away from retirement,” Pepsin said. “They poured their blood, sweat and tears into this profession and this district, and it’s a slap in the face to hear, ‘Well if you don’t like it, go find another job.’”
In addition to plans for face coverings, Dumas said the district is working on a plan for contact tracing in the event that a student or teacher tests positive for COVID-19. With direction from health officials, the district will work to determine which students and staff would need to quarantine following contact with a positively diagnosed student, though that list is dramatically decreased with a face covering mandate, he said.
During the quarantine, Dumas said the district would work with teachers who are not feeling COVID-19 symptoms to continue working remotely so they don't have to take 14 days of sick leave.
Additionally, the district is looking at concurrent learning opportunities for students who opt to learn remotely. This could include the addition of 180-degree cameras in some classrooms that would allow remote learners to Zoom into lessons along with in-class students.
The district also is planning to offer some online-only classes, but teachers will still be expected to teach those courses from a district campus.
To apply to teach remote courses, a teacher must have a doctor's note stating they have an underlying condition. Teachers will then be chosen by seniority, though Kingsley said because of concurrent classrooms, demand for remote only teachers will be low. Teachers who apply to teach remote classes may receive a mix of in-person and online classes.
The district will now submit its reopening plan to the state for approval.