by SARAH NACHIN
On Monday, July 20, the Hernando County School Board met in a special session to discuss issues revolving around the reopening of schools and came to several important decisions. In attendance were all five board members: Gus Guadagnino, Kay Hatch, Jimmy Lodato, Linda Prescott, and Susan Duval, Chairperson of the board. School Superintendent, John Stratton; School Board Attorney, Dennis Alfonso; Executive director of Student Support Services, Lisa Cropley; and Assistant Superintendent of Teaching & Learning, Gina Michalicka also were present at the two-hour meeting. Public interest in these important issues was evident by the more than 400 emails submitted by parents, teachers, students and the general public prior to the meeting.
A brief summary of the decisions made include the approval of the Digital Home Learning option for students who are not yet ready to return to their school campus due to coronavirus. This new option allows students to remain enrolled at their current school while they learn remotely. A new deadline for parents to choose a learning option for their child was set as Monday, July 27th at noon. The School Board approved mandatory face coverings for all students while on school property including buses. Finally, the first day of school for students was postponed to Aug. 31, 2020.
The first and most important item on the agenda dealt with what alternatives for the students’ education will be provided and how these will be implemented. Ms. Cropley addressed these in great detail and answered questions from the school board members.
The first alternative is returning to in-school education as students had done prior to the pandemic. However, safeguards will be put in place. Social distancing will be practiced wherever feasible and students will be required to wear masks or other facial coverings when social distancing isn’t possible. This would include classroom situations and while riding the bus. Face coverings will not be required for recess or P.E. and when eating in the cafeteria. The people responsible for planning the reopening of schools covered every base. For example, drinking fountains.
“Instead of shutting them off entirely, there will be signs on the ones that are open telling students not to drink from them, but only to use them to fill up their water bottles,” Ms. Cropley stated.
Social distancing will be practiced in the cafeteria and there will be enough equipment and personnel to do this. Meals will be served from portable carts so that students don’t have to stand in line. The meals, along with cutlery, will be prepackaged. Students will be expected to wear their face coverings on buses, since social distancing cannot be practiced here. Special air conditioning filtration systems will be in place where clinics are located in the school. They’re also ramping up the airflow as much as possible throughout the schools.
The second alternative is for students to enroll in E-School. If parents opt for this choice, the students have to stick with this alternative for an entire semester. E-School is the system that was in effect the last nine weeks of school this year. The school board will not provide laptops for the students, as it did for the last few weeks of school this year because of the cost. Also, many students did not return the laptops that they borrowed or the computers came back damaged.
The third alternative is for students to enroll in digital home learning. With this option, the students will have some classes taught by a teacher via a learning platform called Microsoft Team which allows face-to-face interaction. Other classes will be taught using similar methods used for E-School. Microsoft Team is superior to Zoom, which was used before and had quite a few technical glitches. With this option students can switch to a different mode of learning after nine weeks if they want.
Just as in a regular classroom situation, in the two alternatives, attendance will be taken, students will be required to turn in assignments and take tests and grades will be given.
All five board members voted in favor of these three alternatives.
The second item on the agenda was the matter of face coverings. Ms. Michalicka led the discussion on this issue. Her task force came to the conclusion that face coverings, whether they are masks or shields, should be mandatory for the protection of students, teachers and staff. Superintendent Stratton agreed.
“Based on feedback and based on information from the CDC [Center for Disease Control], I’m making the recommendation that we make masks mandatory,” Stratton commented.
If a student has a documented medical condition in which he or she cannot wear a mask, then a face shield can be used instead. Students will be exempt also if they are hearing-impaired and need to see someone’s mouth in order to understand what is being said.
Ms. Michalicka stated, “If it impedes instruction in any way, the mask would not be worn during that time. The district will provide two cloth face coverings to our students.”
There will also be a limited number of disposable face masks in case the child forgets to bring his and for other emergencies. Because the masks are sometimes uncomfortable, especially for small children, “mask breaks” will occur throughout the day.
Every attempt will be made to make accommodations for a student who cannot wear face coverings. If parents do not want their child to wear one, then the school will work with them to come up with an alternative mode of learning.
There will be measures in place to handle students who refuse to wear a face covering. It will be a four step process coinciding with the number of times, the student refuses. Step one: the student will be given a verbal reminder. The second time the infraction occurs, the school will reach out to the parent. In Step 3, a conference will take place with the parents and there will be a discussion about a digital or virtual option for school. If Step 4 occurs then the school will consider that a violation of safety and that will fall under the Student Code of Conduct. At the discretion of the school administrator, there would be in-school suspension of one to three days with social distancing. The parent will be contacted again and this is where the final decision is going to happen regarding an alternate educational setting for that student.
After discussing the matter of face coverings thoroughly, the school board unanimously voted to require these measures for the safety of all concerned.
The board proceeded to discuss the school schedule and consider delaying the opening of school until August 31. This would give the board more time to implement plans and to assess the COVID situation.
Jimmy Lodato commented, “This gives us time to have one more meeting. If the [COVID] figures do not show justifiably that the numbers are going down, we can re-adjust our plans. We are not going to jeopardize our students and our teachers.”
Susan Duval read a personal statement expressing her feelings about the governor’s Executive Order to re-open the schools on August 31. Based on her research, she stated in part:
“I do not understand why the state leadership issued the mandate to open schools after the Safe Smart Step-by-Step Plan developed by the Reopen Florida Task Force stated that Phase 2 re-opening would not take place until there was no evidence of a rebound in COVID-19 cases. At the beginning of Phase One on May 18th, there were 5,000 positive cases in the state. When Phase Two started on June 5th, the number of cases were at 6,500. The most recent number of cases now stands at 350,000. Hernando County had 11 cases on May 18th, around 100 on June 5th and the last numbers were 1,135. The Florida Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatricians issued a statement that each district should decide when and how they reopen based on COVID data.”
After several more minutes of discussion the school board voted to postpone the opening of school until August 31st and to extend the deadline until July 27 for parents to decide what learning option they want for their children.
As Superintendent Stratton said in summing up the results of the meeting, “It’s all about keeping everybody safe and providing a top notch education.”