PALM BEACH COUNTY, Fla. — South Florida's oppressive heat, enhanced school security, and the latest political controversy surrounding Advanced Placement Psychology all took center stage Wednesday as Palm Beach County education leaders addressed the public ahead of the first day of school.
With an excessive heat warning in effect and the heat index hitting the triple digits, Superintendent Mike Burke urged parents to keep your children hydrated on Thursday as they head to school or wait for their school bus.
"As far as walking to school and the bus stop, [the school district's] reach is limited. So that's why we're asking our parents to help us with that," Burke said. "Maybe provide their child some water. If they can drive them to school, great."
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To protect student-athletes, all Palm Beach County high schools follow the Zachary Martin Act — which was enacted statewide for heat safety guidelines — and use thermometers to track temperatures and make adjustments to workouts, as needed.
"We have put procedures in place to protect our students and our student-athletes with the heat, such as awareness of temperatures through thermometers and electrolytes and cold water immersion options at every opportunity on every campus," Burke said.
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In the latest twist in the controversy involving AP Psychology, Burke announced Wednesday the School District of Palm Beach County will offer the course starting on Thursday.
It comes after the College Board — which creates the program's curriculum — advised Florida school districts on Aug. 3 to not offer AP Psychology based on guidance from the Florida Department of Education.
At issue is a section of the course which deals with gender identity and sexual orientation that may conflict with state law.
However, Florida education commissioner Manny Diaz later said the course can be taught in its "entirety in a manner that is age and developmentally appropriate."
Burke on Wednesday said that, after speaking with Florida's education chancellor and the College Board, Palm Beach County will offer the course after all.
"There was one section of that course that was kind of in question with the Parents' Bill of Rights. We believe that can be accomplished. We're gonna teach the course in its entirety. But with that particular lesson plan, we'll just be very careful to make sure it's taught in an age and developmentally appropriate manner," Burke said.
The superintendent added the school district is crafting a lesson plan in partnership with Miami-Dade and Collier counties to ensure the AP Psychology curriculum falls within the confines of the law.
"The students taking this course, for the most part, are juniors and seniors in high school. So age appropriate would be suited to juniors and seniors in high school," Burke said.
When it comes to safety, a new layer of security this year is metal detectors being tested at four Palm Beach County schools: Seminole Ridge Community High School, Palm Beach Lakes Community High School, John I. Leonard High School, and Palm Beach Gardens Community High School.
Chief Sarah Mooney of the School District of Palm Beach County's Police Department said that, depending on the results of a pilot program starting Thursday, metal detectors could eventually be expanded to all high schools in the district.
"They got the equipment earlier this summer and have been working with it throughout the summer to try to make the adjustments to the way that we do entry onto the campuses. We're gonna hope to do this as efficiently as possible," Mooney said.
Every Palm Beach County public school will have at least one law enforcement officer on campus, as required by state law.
In addition, Mooney said the panic alert buttons on the ID badges of all school district employees have been upgraded over the summer to improve connectivity.
However, the most important component to ensuring school safety and security, according to Mooney, will always be the human factor and reporting suspicious activity in-person or through the Fortify Florida app.
"If you become aware of a threat, you need to report it," Mooney said.
In terms of transportation, the School District of Palm Beach County is piloting a new program at seven schools this year called "Here Comes The Bus," allowing parents to use an app to track where their child's bus is.
"The seven-school sample will give us an idea to fine-tune that. And once we're comfortable with it, we'll roll it out to the entire district," Burke said.
The schools apart of the pilot program are Limestone Creek Elementary School, Pahokee Elementary School, Lake Shore Middle School, Don Estridge High Tech Middle School, John I. Leonard High School, Seminole Ridge High School, and Royal Palm School.
If you child is planning to ride the bus, parents are reminded to use the "Register Your Ride" feature on the school district's website to register your student for the bus, as well as verify the location of their bus stop and pick-up and drop-off times.
"We ask for patience from the community. The first days of school are always a little challenging," said Joseph Sanches, the chief operating officer for the district.
Sanches added that all 475 school bus routes will be covered on Thursday, despite a shortage of about 100 drivers.
The new academic year also brings the opening of two new schools.
Dr. Joaquín García High School, located on Lyons Road, just north of Lantana Road in western Lake Worth, will open its doors to about 1,700 students on Thursday.
The school will feature business information technology and medical sciences programs, along with a blue artificial turf sports field.
In addition, West Boynton Middle School will open Thursday off Boynton Beach Boulevard, just west of Florida's Turnpike.
The school has been in the works for more than 10 years and will specialize in medical and information technology programs, and will feature a financial literary classroom with a live stock ticker.
"The students going through that course will be, they'll have a chance to test their hand in the market. They'll be given $10,000. Not real U.S. dollars, but electronic artificial investing dollars for mock investing," Burke said.
Burke on Wednesday said all Palm Beach County public school students will be issued a new universal ID badge which will allow them to sign materials out of the media center, pay for food in the school cafeteria, and get onto school buses.
In addition, because of a new state law, the social media program TikTok will now be banned on any district-owned devices and on the school district's digital network.