One week into the school year, COVID-19 has created a series of significant operational challenges for Sarasota County Schools, with hundreds of students and dozens of staff members absent from facilities because of positive tests and contact tracing.
During a School Board workshop today, a representative for Sarasota Memorial Hospital said the effects of the pandemic are currently as bad as they’ve ever been. School district employees expressed concern about the ability to provide adequate transportation, dining and custodial service because of absences associated with COVID-19.
“We can’t afford to lose any more of our employees, because we’ll just not be able to run the school system,” Superintendent Brennan Asplen said.
As a result, the School Board will have an emergency meeting at 3 p.m. Friday to consider the adoption of a mandatory mask policy in schools. Before the school year, the board adopted an optional mask policy. Multiple board members expressed an interest in settling a continuing debate over masks amid a rise in COVID-19 cases.
“We aren’t doing everything we can, and I think we need to take actions to do more,” Brown said.
According to the school district’s COVID-19 dashboard today, there are 204 students and 50 staff members who have tested positive and are currently isolating. An additional 226 students and 59 staff members are quarantined because of contact tracing.
Manuel Gordillo, an infectious disease specialist at Sarasota Memorial Hospital, told the School Board he recommended adoption of a mask mandate without an opt-out provision, such as the one included in new regulations in Manatee County. Gordillo said there was an acute need for preventative measures at this point in time, suggesting a mandate could be relaxed if case numbers and positivity rates fall.
For now, however, he characterized the situation surrounding COVID-19 as a crisis.
“We are at the worst of the pandemic in Florida,” Gordillo said. “We’re at the worst of the pandemic in Sarasota, and we need your help.”
Administrative school district staff recounted the challenges that emerged during the first week of classes. Brandon Johnson, executive director of elementary schools, said one school had a full administrative team absent on its first day. Another with 30 staff members had 13 teachers out. Asplen said one school had 35 adult employees absent yesterday. The superintendent also said assistant principals have been focused almost exclusively on contact tracing, unable to talk to teachers about instruction.
“I’m concerned about our students’ education because of all of this,” Asplen said.
Jody Dumas, the district’s chief operations officer, said transportation, custodial and food services staff were nearing a breaking point. Although the district sought to find contingencies for absences, two schools had to shift to grab-and-go food service. Dumas said additional absences among bus drivers could require the district to shift to a “double run” system, where a single driver would have to service multiple routes, with the second route facing significant delays in arriving at homes or at school.
Dumas praised the work of school operations staff, but he said it was difficult to develop a plan for maintaining an adequate level of service if more workers become unavailable.
“I’m in a position where I don’t have a lot of answers,” Dumas said.
Board member Bridget Ziegler expressed concern about the prospect of a mask mandate as the district’s response to COVID-19 issues, both because she questioned the legality of pursuing a measure Gov. Ron DeSantis has attempted to restrict, and because she said she feared the issues associated with the spread of the coronavirus would not go away just because of masking. Board Member Karen Rose also expressed opposition to a policy that violated state law.
Ziegler asked what conditions would lead to the school district no longer being able to provide essential services, and what contingencies were in place in case of such a situation. District officials said that depended on the department and the school — it’s more difficult to find a replacement for a credentialed bus driver than it is for other staff positions, for example. Asplen said he’s been exploring the same questions and was struggling to arrive at a definitive answer.
“At what point do you call it a day?” Asplen said. “I’m not sure.”
Board member Jane Goodwin expressed her support for a mask mandate at today’s workshop, stating the conditions in Sarasota schools demanded such a measure. Board member Tom Edwards said he supported a 30-day mandate, allowing school officials to evaluate the numbers and assess a new direction after a month of mask-wearing.
Edwards also said he wanted the district to definitively settle its mask policy one way or another, expressing an interest in bringing some closure to a contentious topic. The School Board meeting that followed today’s workshop featured nearly two hours of public input from speakers on both sides of the mask debate.
“The community is so upset and so divided that we can’t get work done,” Edwards said.
Asplen said the district would continue to try to explore options for slowing the spread of COVID-19 in schools. He said he understood those who dislike masks and would generally support a policy that allowed parents and students the freedom to choose whether to comply with the preventative health measure. But he also said the district is facing an unprecedented challenge to its operations during this peak of the pandemic.
“I can’t put my head in the sand as to what’s going on in our school system on a daily basis,” Asplen said.
This is a developing story and will be updated as more information becomes available.