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The Volusia County School Board has met every week since July in preparation for opening schools in very challenging circumstances.

On Aug. 4, the School Board’s topics of discussion included the much-beleaguered relationship with the company contracted to do custodial work, the lack of a one-to-one ratio of electronic devices to students (a goal that was to be achieved in 2020), and a presentation by Department of Health administrator Patricia Boswell on current COVID-19 statistics regarding children.

ABM: You’d better shape up

ABM, the company contracted to clean Volusia County’s public-school facilities, has been under fire from board members for years.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, the School Board was talking about the possibility of canceling their five-year contract — a deal worth about $12.4 million a year that isn’t scheduled to end until 2023.

That discussion was derailed by COVID-19. Now, the School Board is stuck with a cleaning company that most board members are distinctly unhappy with, while the necessity for clean classrooms has grown all the more important — and, potentially, even pricier.

In a presentation to the board Aug. 4, ABM representative Brandon Clark told board members the kind of cleaning necessary to comply with Center for Disease Control standards during the coronavirus pandemic is outside of the current contract.

Those guidelines call for some surfaces to be disinfected — killing pathogens, as opposed to sanitizing, or reducing pathogens — every night.

Clark said that is “out of scope of work in the contract.” The “scope gap,” he said, is about $11.2 million.

“What I am really worried about is moving forward. And so, as we look at your plans for moving forward, I will share with you that I, as Ruben Colón — only one member of this board — I would not give you one more penny,” School Board Member Ruben Colón told Clark. “I think that your perception and my perception are way off.”

A frequent complaint about ABM has been a discrepancy between inspection reports of the schools, which indicate most schools pass inspection, and the on-site reports of teachers, staff and School Board members. That led to a somewhat esoteric discussion of the “perception of cleanliness.”

“I think it’s fair to say that you have your perception, I have my perception, but the data shows that core sections are in line with the administrators, are aligned with ABM’s perception,” Clark said.

The School Board wasn’t satisfied.

“I’m not going to authorize — and I’m one person — another penny to your department,” School Board Member Jamie Haynes said.

On Monday, Aug. 10, teachers will return to the classrooms.

“You’re saying that every classroom will be cleaned and disinfected for Monday morning when our teachers arrive?” Colón asked.

“Yes, they will be cleaned and disinfected,” Clark replied.

“Cleanliness… should not be a perception,” Interim Superintendent Carmen Balbogin concluded. “It either meets criteria, or it does not.”

Balbogin said she had a recent conversation with ABM about how they keep data about cleanliness, and about what they need to do differently to reach an expected standard. To that end, a survey for teachers will be sent out soon, she said.

“I will echo this and say it again: our board, the superintendent and the team here expect that level of cleanliness to be taking place … on a day-to-day basis,” Balbogin said. “We look forward to a new face of what ABM in our schools would look like.”

Enough devices for students

A long-awaited goal of the district — a one-to-one ratio of digital-learning devices to students — is now a top priority for the district, which aims to complete the task over the next 12 months.

With funding from the half-cent sales tax and CAREs Act Funding, the district is slated to spend $9 million during the next fiscal year to put digital tools in students’ hands. This time, instead of buying devices, the district is eyeing agreements to lease the technology.

“We have pretty consistently spent around $5 million per year. That’s no small feat financially,” Chief Information Officer Clint Griffin said of past efforts. “The problem is, a lot of devices that we procured every year started to attrition themselves out, or aged out to where we were replacing as fast as we were surplusing, to where we never started making up ground.”

Now that fast-tracking technology is paramount, the school district has decided on the alternative strategy of leasing agreements to provide the tech, Griffin said. Which company the district will use is still up in the air.

Children and COVID

The School Board also heard from Patricia Boswell of the Florida Department of Health in Volusia County.

She reported that, as of Aug. 2, Volusia County’s 7,194 cases of COVID included 99 cases among children ages 0 to 4, including three hospitalizations. There also have been 251 cases among children ages 5-14, with two hospitalizations.

Among 3,555 tests done on young people under the age of 18, Boswell said, 14.9 percent have been positive. That’s 495 cases.

There have been no deaths among COVID victims under the age of 34, Boswell told the School Board.

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