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Palm Beach County School Board votes to begin 2020-21 academic year with distance learning

Start date to be determined at July 22 school board meeting
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Posted at 6:42 AM, Jul 15, 2020
and last updated 2020-07-16 09:56:26-04

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — The Palm Beach County School Board voted 7-0 early Thursday morning in favor of the superintendent's recommendation to begin the 2020-21 academic year with virtual learning. However, they were unable to decide on an official start date for the school year.

In addition to online classes, the plan includes reopening school campuses with a staggered approach as COVID-19 conditions improve and once Palm Beach County is allowed to enter Phase Two of Florida's reopening plan.

The marathon meeting began at 2 p.m. on Wednesday and went until just before 12:30 a.m.

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The first half of the meeting entailed school board members listening to comments from parents, teachers, and other members of the public. Comments from the public finally ended just after 8 p.m.

Board member Barbara McQuinn recommended delaying the start of the school year until September, raising concerns about the coronavirus and the availability of technology for virtual learning.

The school board then discussed possibly starting the school year on Aug. 31. Superintendent of Schools Dr. Donald Fennoy said he was comfortable starting the school year on Aug. 24.

The new school year in Palm Beach County is currently slated to begin Monday, Aug. 10, but it appears that date will now be shifted.

"I think the public knows what our intent is, but I don't want to tie everyone's hands around it. Clearly they know we are not going to be starting on the date we had originally set," board member Karen Brill said.

Among the issues that were discussed about delaying the start of schools was the impact on the school calendar and staff pay.

At the conclusion of the meeting, Fennoy said his team would convene and bring the board back more information for next week's meeting on Wednesday, July 22 to determine an official start date.

There was a lot of discussion and concerns regarding students and families that don't have access to WiFi. The district said it's working to make the internet and computers more available in many communities.

The board also listened to the expectations for distancing learning and how to keep children safe when classes at schools resume.

"During this pandemic, we must commit to pouring all of our resources and the wealth of our knowledge into making distance learning a robust alternative until we can safely resume in-person instruction," Fennoy said.

RELATED: School District's decision doesn't only affect students, staff, parents

Fennoy's plan calls for a return to in-person instruction when Palm Beach County is allowed to enter Phase Two.

However, Fennoy added that "the District must also be prepared to pivot back to distance learning should conditions deteriorate due to a subsequent wave of outbreaks."

"Let me be clear, the goal is to get students back in school as soon and safely as possible," Fennoy told board members on Wednesday. "During this pandemic, we must commit to pouring all of our resources and the wealth of our knowledge into making distance learning a robust alternative until we can safely resume in-person instruction."

The district will still have to submit its plan to the Florida Department of Education for final approval.

"There is no doubt in any of our minds that no matter what plan this board approves for the reopening of our school system, that there are going to be a great many of you who are not going to be pleased," said school board chairman Frank Barbieri, Jr.

"The decision that we are making regarding the opening of schools are by far the most difficult I have made while serving on this school board," Brill said.

Last week, the school board reached a consensus to begin the 2020-21 academic year with online-only classes due to a spike in COVID-19 cases in Florida, along with advice from a panel of health experts.

Barbieri said on Wednesday that Dr. Alina Alonso, the director of the Florida Department of Health in Palm Beach County, has recommended that brick and mortar schools in the county should not reopen next month.

RELATED: Palm Beach County superintendent's recommendation not well-received by parents, students

Fennoy's recommendation to start the year with distance learning elicited strong opinions on both sides, with some parents relieved and others upset they don’t have the option to send their children to school.

In a 52-page presentation, Fennoy outlined his plans for virtual learning and a phased approach to in-person instruction.

"This situation is challenging. But this situation is not forever," Fennoy told board members on Wednesday.

READ FENNOY'S RECOMMENDATION:

Earlier on Wednesday, Gov. Ron DeSantis told Florida education officials that he feels brick and mortar schools can reopen safely.