As the pandemic worsens, PBC School Board members weigh postponing classes

Palm Beach Post | by Andrea Marra | June 24, 2020

Either alternative – opening campuses on Aug. 10 or postponing – risks harm to students and their families, board members say.

A majority of Palm Beach County School Board members said Wednesday that they would be willing to postpone the new school year if coronavirus infections continue to spike, opening a potential new front in the debate about reopening campuses.

Citing Florida’s record-breaking rise in new cases this month, School Board member Debra Robinson called for her colleagues to “start with the science” and delay the public schools’ academic year until the rate of new infections declines.

“It can’t be based on the calendar,” said Robinson, a retired physician. “It has to be based on the epidemiology.”

Three other board members – Marcia Andrews, Karen Brill and Chuck Shaw – agreed they would be willing to delay classes for at least a few weeks if the pandemic continues to worsen, while two board members – Barbara McQuinn and Erica Whitfield – argued it was important to open campuses to at least some students by Aug. 10.

While there are no current plans to delay the Aug. 10 start date, the first public discussion of the possibility underscored growing concerns about the ability to safely resume in-person classes amid a new uptick in confirmed infections.

The talk of postponement comes as school district administrators work to devise a school-reopening plan that balances the board’s desire for resuming at least some in-person classes with the need for social distancing measures.

Schools Superintendent Donald Fennoy, who is expected to present board members with a proposal next month, said he was “absolutely open to whatever the board decides in terms of pushing the time back.”

Permeating the debate at Wednesday’s school board meeting was the acknowledgment that either alternative – opening campuses or not – risked significant harm to students and their families.

Whitfield pointed out that by closing campuses in March and pivoting to online classes, “we are already doing harm” to many children.

“I really want school to start,” she said. “I think there are children that are really, really suffering from not being in school and children who have been home without anyone watching them since March.”

While conceding the increased risk of infections if in-person classes resume, she said she worried about the possibility of more child abuse incidents, poor nutrition and the psychological impact of extended social isolation if campuses remain shuttered.

McQuinn echoed the need to start classes on Aug. 10 but raised the possibility of opening campuses first to elementary students, then welcoming middle and high school students later.

“I think our priority needs to be our elementary school students who are not supervised,” she said.

Siding with Robinson, Andrews said the rise in cases, particularly in the county’s Glades region, had her so worried that “I can’t put my finger on any date (to open) right now.”

“It’s about the students’ health right now,” she said, “and that should be the guide to us.”

Even as the rate of infections rises across the state, Gov. Ron DeSantis has called for public schools to reopen completely in August.

His administration argues that extending online classes into a new academic year will do long-lasting harm to children’s educations. But he has said it will be up to county school boards to decide how and when to reopen.

The school district has not yet announced its reopening plans, but some district leaders appear to favor a “blended” model in which students spend two days a week in in-person classes and learn virtually the rest of the week.

Brill said she doubted delaying the start of school by a few weeks would significantly affect the risks on campus. But she said she would be open to pushing the start of school until September since doing so would bring the district more in line with school calendars in the Northeast.

But she warned that parents would need to know the start date with plenty of advance warning.

“We need flexibility,” she said, “and I think the public needs to know a date that they can plan with.”

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