Need to know: The Volusia County School Board will hold a virtual meeting 4:30 p.m. Tuesday, July 21, where members will vote on the reopening plan, and on the calendar for the school year. The School Board will choose either Aug. 24 or Aug. 31 as the start date for the school year.
Three options for parents as school is set to begin in August
- Traditional classroom setting
- Volusia Live (real-time live-streaming): This option is pending approval by the Florida Department of Education. Students will remain at home, but follow the same daily class schedule as their classmates who are in traditional school.
- Enhanced Volusia Online Learning: An at-your-own pace, virtual option that has been available to VCS students for years. Enrollment ends July 31. Visit www.volusiaonlinelearning.com for more information.
What will not be offered is a hybrid model that combines these attendance styles. There will, however, be options to transition to traditional classrooms from virtual, the district said.
Reopening presentation: CLICK HERE
Full board meeting: CLICK HERE
Despite rising numbers of coronavirus cases across Volusia County, and the reluctance of some School Board members, the school district has no alternative but to plan for an August start date for classes in school buildings.
That fact led to a somewhat surreal School Board meeting July 15, as board members assessed reopening plans and considered two opening dates — Aug. 24, and Aug. 31.
Some acknowledged that if they had their druthers, schools wouldn’t open physically at all.
“I know as a parent, if I had children right now, I wouldn’t send them to school on Aug. 24,” Board Member Carl Persis said.
“If we start up, I could very easily see within two weeks of shutting completely down because of the spread. And so that is my concern: Even though our spread is increasing, it’s going to — it’s like gas being added to a bonfire, is what my great concern is,” Board Member Linda Cuthbert said.
Volusia County Schools has some 63,000 students and is the largest employer in the county, Cuthbert pointed out.
Many parents have spouses who work for the district, and the quarantining of one could have a ripple effect on other classrooms, or even other schools, Cuthbert said.
On top of that, some schools are already overcrowded.
“Restaurants right now are set for 50-percent capacity. How do we do 50-percent capacity in our cafeterias?” Cuthbert asked.
Expecting 6-year-olds to wear masks and not hug their friends seems like an unrealistic expectation, she added.
“I see it as almost an impossibility to keep our students separate,” Cuthbert said.
But the governor’s July 6 order makes it clear that schools are expected to start in full in August. Flexibility on the dates is very limited, according to the general counsel for the School Board, Kevin Pendley.
“In order to be in compliance with that emergency order of the department and [Florida Department of Education] Commissioner Corcoran, it’s true brick and mortar schools are required to reopen in August. That means prior to Aug. 31, 2020, they must be open for at least five days per week for all students,” Pendley said.
“What are the consequences if we, as a board decide, you know what, this is not in the best safety for our students and teachers. What does that look like?” Board Member Ruben Colón asked School Board Attorney Ted Doran.
“I don’t think anybody really can say with any degree of certainty what exactly that would look like. It would be a question that ultimately would have to be resolved in the courts,” Doran replied.
Doran said there may be financial repercussions for not complying with the order, and the general counsel pointed out that some state funding is contingent on successfully submitting, and receiving approval for, a reopening plan.
While the courts decide — and presumably, districts with more financial wiggle room push the case — Volusia must move forward.
One caveat of the state order is that reopening is “subject to the advice and orders of the Florida Department of Health,” which itself has executive orders from the governor’s office, Pendley said.
“Do you feel that the current COVID rates for our county are conducive to the safe reopening of Volusia County Schools at this time?” Colón asked Patricia Boswell, administrator of the Volusia County office of the Florida Department of Health, which is set to have an unprecedented involvement in the operation of schools for the 2020-21 school year.
“We’ve been advised that our role here is to just advise as to … what can we do to make the environment in schools as safe as possible with COVID-19. It is not to make a decision on whether or not to open up a school,” Boswell replied.
“OK, and so now I’ll turn to my colleagues and say that one of the things that we’ll have to consider is that the Department of Health is not telling us that it is safe for students and teachers to come back to school,” Colón said. “I personally don’t believe that schools are safe to open and so I am turning to the folks that … we are supposed to be working with, and we’re not getting that advice. So I have deep concern, and I truly believe that this burden is going to be on us.”
Despite vast amounts of work by the district to implement what some board members characterized as an impossibility, there are few options other than placing a burden on the teachers and students in the classroom, board members said.
For some grade levels, students will be responsible for disinfecting their desks every class period; in others, the teachers will clean the desks.
“A lot of that responsibility seems to fall on the students, as well as the teachers, like in terms of cleaning things and so on. And I just don’t have a lot of faith of that happening consistently, every day,” Member Carl Persis said.
Teachers already have a huge burden with their regular duties, he said, and expecting children to be responsible for following CDC recommendations may be a fool’s errand.
“I think it’s I think we’re kidding ourselves if we think that that’s going to happen,” Persis said.
“What happens if a student gets on a bus or even comes to school and refuses to put on a mask or refuses to have a temperature taken?” Cuthbert asked. “How can we enforce all of this when we were not very successful with enforcing our own dress code?”
In this impossible situation, there are practical problems even with the best-case scenarios (like attempting to go fully virtual), board members pointed out.
“I hear the teachers. I’m very empathetic, about, you know, going virtual; I can’t vote for that for me, because we did not do a good job when we were forced to, No. 1. No. 2, we do not have the technology,” School Board Chair Ida Wright said.
She added, “We have a population that do not own devices [for virtual learning]. You are really, really putting a true population of children at a great disadvantage and I cannot, I just cannot, see that I would agree with that.”
“I mean, I know kids need to see other kids. There is an intangible benefit about being social and interacting with other humans. We learn and we grow just from that, and keeping kids away from that for a long, long, long, long time is stressful for them, too,” Persis said.
Colón acknowledged the task ahead, and that for the DOH.
“I think we’re all being put in a really, really, weird scenario,” Colón said.
CLEANING: The School Board also discussed its concerns about ABM, the company under contract to provide janitorial services in schools.
“I personally have no faith in ABM. Honest to goodness, I do not,” School Board Member Linda Cuthbert said.
“We have a contract with ABM, and they are supposed to provide specific cleaning. And that cleaning is not happening on our campuses,” Member Jamie Haynes said. “And so when I look at this entire presentation today, and I think of everyone that worked on it, and all of the time that went into it, and all the committees and everything — that work hinges on the classrooms being clean. And not just the daily cleaning that would take place when students and teachers and staff return, but we’re talking about them walking in on day one, to a very clean environment. And that’s not what we have.”
COVID TESTING AND SCHOOLS: The reopening plan includes temperature checks of all students at the entrances of the schools, but in-house COVID-19 testing is not yet possible.
Volusia County Health Department administrator Patricia Boswell commented on the limitations of testing.
“A negative test is only a negative test on the day that the test was taken,” she told the School Board. “It’s saying that you were negative at that moment, it doesn’t mean that you weren’t infected with the virus the day before or the day after. … So I think that we don’t have the capacity to test — as I think someone else mentioned — in a real-enough time to say, all right, I went in, I took the test today, I’m negative.”
The DOH receives all positive test results and will be responsible for contact tracing in the schools, Boswell said.
“The county will be recruiting 45 additional staff — I would say half of them will be epidemiologists and contact tracers,” Boswell said. “That’s going to be the resource that we’re going to have available. And I plan to create a team specifically for Volusia County schools to work together with the staff.”
SUPPLY-CHAIN PROBLEMS: Interim Volusia County Schools Superintendent Carmen Balgobin commented on the growing difficulties of buying the devices needed to fully integrate virtual learning:
“The availability of inventory is becoming very challenging every day,” she said. “So the supply chain for raw materials and precious metals to manufacture devices — we’re having a large shortage.”
DOH DOES BY THE NUMBERS AS OF JULY 14
45: people assigned by DOH to monitor school district — roughly half as contact tracers for students and staff.
County-wide cumulative COVID-19 cases for children:
51 cases between the ages of 0 and 4
144 cases between 5 and 14
190 cases between the ages of 15 and 19
385 cumulative cases for children under the age of 18 in Volusia, or 8 percent of all county cases.
4,355 cases in Volusia out of 53,122 tests
3,760: the number of cases in Volusia County, excluding cases in facilities
42: the median age of COVID-19-positive people
19 percent (or 820) of COVID-positive people are between the ages of 25 and 34
144 individuals are currently hospitalized in Volusia County with COVID
48 of those are in the ICU
27 are on a ventilator
300,000 statewide cases
4,500 deaths statewide