School campuses open with few takers: Two-thirds of kids, 1 in 12 teachers stay home

The Palm Beach Post | by Sonja Isger, Jodie Wagner, Kristina Webb and Andrew Marra | Updated September 22, 2020

Palm Beach County’s public schools opened their doors to students for the first time in six months, and as expected, most students declined the invitation.

Just a third of the school district’s 164,000 students elected to attend classes in person Monday on campuses radically transformed by pandemic safeguards, the district said.

Those who did were greeted by masked teachers, mostly empty classrooms and a set of new rules to minimize the risk of COVID-19 infections.

Teachers and students worked in most cases to make the most of the opportunity to interact face to face, even if it was behind a mask.

Apprehensive about her children returning to Boca Raton High, Jennifer Curley was pleasantly surprised when all three came home with positive stories.

“Everything went really well,” she said. “Boca High was fantastic. All kids reported back that it was way more organized than expected.”

But not all students who arrived on campuses found their teacher awaiting them.

Nearly 950 teachers stayed home Monday, roughly one of every 12 in the district, according to the district’s human resources department. It was nearly twice the number absent the first day of school last year.

Dozens more educators taught from home thanks to newly approved remote-work privileges.

Teacher’s aide Andresa Holzandorf greets students and sprays hand sanitizer into their hands as they get off the bus at Lincoln Elementary School in Riviera Beach on Monday.

Teacher’s aide Andresa Holzandorf greets students and sprays hand sanitizer into their hands as they get on the bus at Lincoln Elementary School in Riviera Beach on Monday. Joseph Forzano, The Palm Beach Post

The crush of missing teachers, many of whom called in sick, left some students without classrooms for portions of the day.

In some cases, teacher-less students were ushered into overflow rooms to study on their own until their next class began, Deputy Superintendent Keith Oswald said.

The reopening of campuses comes after weeks of bitter infighting among teachers, principals, school board members and district administrators, culminating last week in the teachers union calling for Superintendent Donald Fennoy to be fired.

Underscoring the frayed emotions, the school board’s longest-serving member, Dr. Debra Robinson, said on Facebook Sunday evening that she was “heartsick” and that the district’s “reopening plan is just wrong.”

Many parents who sent their children to campus did so with conflicting emotions.

“I’m having a tough time with it,” said Lisa Kokalis of Jupiter after dropping off her children at Limestone Creek Elementary. “I’m just nervous, but I know that they’re doing all that they can. It’s motherly worry.”  

The small class sizes were a boon to many.

Not only did fewer students mean less risk of contagion, some children appeared to thrive in the more intimate setting, even as majority of classmates continued to look on from their computer screens at home.

Palm Beach County Schools Superintendent Donald Fennoy greets students on the first day that schools were open for in-person learning. [SCHOOL DISTRICT OF PALM BEACH COUNTY]

Palm Beach County Schools Superintendent Donal Fenoy greets students on the first day that schools were open for in-person learning. Palm Beach County School District

Rhonda Ilene’s younger son, a fourth-grader at Equestrian Trails Elementary, was one of just six in his class and was glad for the opportunity to meet his teachers face to face.

“He was happy to get to know his teachers in person rather than via the screen,” the Wellington mother said. “They were obviously also teaching virtually. He really enjoyed recess, because that’s when he could interact with his peers and actually speak to them.”

As expected, many teachers reported struggling with the task of teaching students online and in-person at once.

Teachers have been teaching their students virtually for weeks, but doing so in a classroom of students presented new challenges. Many teachers are now calling for the district to separate virtual and in-person students into separate classrooms.

Oswald acknowledged the concerns but said he was confident teachers will adjust and work through them.

“Obviously, it’s not ideal,” he said. “But I was in a lot of classrooms today, and the teachers were doing amazing jobs. The first day, there’s going to be some hiccups as teachers learn to navigate the cameras and work through the kinks to make it happen.”

The number of students attending in person was low enough to handle social distancing in classrooms, Oswald said, meaning that overflow rooms appeared to be in use only for classes where teachers stayed home.

While more than 900 teachers failed to show Monday, Oswald said that Tuesday looked more promising, with schools reporting they need about 200 fewer substitutes for the second day.

School district administrators said it is inevitable that COVID-19 cases will soon begin to impact campuses. Monday afternoon, the district unveiled an online dashboard where the public can track the number of reported cases on each campus.

When it went live, the dashboard showed 19 employees already confirmed to have contracted the disease since it began collecting data Wednesday.

The employees work at elementary, middle and high schools as well as at two of the district’s transportation facilities, according to the online tool. Only one school reported more than a single case: Highland Elementary with two cases.

Campuses are not expected to remain so empty for long.

Parents unnerved by the pandemic and the recent upheaval will likely start to return when they see classrooms function smoothly, Fennoy said.

“More and more students will come back – that’s what we’ve learned from other districts,” Fennoy said. “The first week is pretty slow, but later more and more return to brick and mortar.” 

Main Photo: Students return to school at Polo Middle school on the first day of brick and mortar schooling following the COVID-19 pandemic Monday in Wellington. Allen Eyestone, The Palm Beach Post

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