WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — The Palm Beach County School Board held its final meeting before in-person learning starts next week and also addressed the concerns of teachers and staff about the leadership of Superintendent Dr. Donald Fennoy.
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Earlier in the day, the Palm Beach County teachers union called for Fennoy's removal, saying union members "have lost all faith and now have zero confidence that a righting of this rudderless ship is possible without immediate change."
For much of the nearly five-hour meeting, the focus was on Fennoy. Many questioned whether the superintendent was fit to stay at the helm of the country's 10th largest school district.
While talking about the school reopening policies, Fennoy acknowledged Wednesday that confusion arose over the last few weeks about the return to in-person learning.
"While I remember saying to the board, 'I'd like some time to examine this with the team,' I should have been more forceful about the dangers of moving hastily when it comes to complicated policy. I promise you, I promise the board after speaking to them individually, and I promise this community, I will be more forceful in the future," Fennoy said.
The superintendent suggested creating a communication action plan that will include virtual community forums and a weekly message that he will provide.
Fennoy said 43 percent of students plan to start in-person learning on Monday.
Parents can change their choice via the student portal at any time. However, new requests for in-person learning will take one week to accommodate.
State Sen. Bobby Powell, D-West Palm Beach, spoke in support of Fennoy and asked the Classroom Teachers Association to work with the superintendent to "right the ship."
"A few days before our schools reopen, this is not the time to try to be divisive, to try to eliminate this man from this position," Powell said.
Classroom Teachers Association President Justin Katz spoke to the Palm Beach County School Board and said the district has a "crisis of leadership."
"In the past few months, our employees have been deceived, the public has been deceived, and even you, by your own admission on the school board, have been deceived in many cases. This is unacceptable," Katz said.
Katz said the school district has "inexplicably neglected" to duplicate some of the necessary health and safety protocols that other school districts are using in the U.S.
"All we asked, and it was promised to us but not delivered to us until we raised hay about it two weeks ago, was for these teachers to have a chance to do this remotely, that is all," Katz told WPTV NewsChannel 5.
However, multiple non-agenda speakers spoke in support of Fennoy, some saying it would be detrimental to make a change only a few days before in-person instruction is set to resume.
Dr. Alina Alonso, the director of the Florida Department of Health- Palm Beach County, laid out a plan for contact tracing if a student contracts the coronavirus.
Alonso said, ideally, she would like school nurses to have rapid coronavirus tests they could administer to a sick child.
"We're not going to be closing down schools (if a student contracts COVID-19). We're not going to be closing down classes," Alonso said. "We're going to try to do it precisely based on the contact that has existed."
At the meeting, the district played a nearly 11-minute video about health protocols and procedures in place at schools.
District Seven school board member Dr. Debra Robinson said she felt that school employees have had their voices marginalized and their voices minimalized.
"We have got to do better. I pray that we will," Robinson said. "There's a lot of blame going on, and I think that we each own some of it, some more than others. … For me, blaming at this point is counterproductive."
District Four Board Member Erica Whitfield said that Fennoy still had her full support, calling the situation "unprecedented."
"We're doing the best we can with a bad situation," Whitfield said.
District Two Board Member Chuck Shaw echoed those comments, saying right now was not the time to discuss the removal of the superintendent.
"We don't need to have an uproar from all of the people that we represent, the students, their parents, the teachers, the principals, everybody, the media. We've really been in turmoil over the last few weeks," said District Six Board Member Marcia Andrews.
Andrews complimented Katz, calling him a "real good partner" of the school district and said the problems he outlined are real.
"We have to do a better job as a school board, and we have to help Dr. Fennoy," Andrews said.
District 3 School Board Member Karen Brill spoke about Fennoy's upcoming review, saying now was not the right time to evaluate his performance given the "heat of the moment" with "heavy emotions."
"I need the superintendent to be focused on opening the schools and doing what's right for our students and our employees and keeping everybody safe. I don't think this is the time to talk about an evaluation [of Fennoy.] I think that right now, we have to keep our focus on the prize," Brill said.
This was the first time the school board met in-person since March due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Palm Beach County public schools began remote learning on Aug. 31.