PALM BEACH COUNTY, Fla. — Parents, the school year in Palm Beach County will be delayed.
But by how long is still unclear.
That's what Dr. Donald Fennoy, the superintendent of the School District of Palm Beach County, said on Thursday morning, just hours after the school board voted 7-0 to start the 2020-21 academic year with distance learning for all students.
"The board's will and pleasure right now is to delay it, and it will be delayed," Fennoy said.
WATCH SUPERINTENDENT INTERVIEW:
The school year is currently slated to start in Palm Beach County on Monday, Aug. 10
However, during a marathon 10-hour meeting on Wednesday, board members debated delaying the start date anywhere from Aug. 24 into September.
"We had already done some preliminary work and figured that, a week or two, we could probably do that with minimal disruption. But once you get beyond that, so we need to take the time this week to really dig into that," Fennoy said.
The superintendent said many factors need to be considered in planning a school calendar including union contracts, employee and parent schedules, and the number of days students need to take part in learning.
Fennoy said he'll present options to the school board at next week's meeting on July 22, and board members will officially vote on a start date then.
SPECIAL COVERAGE: Back To School
Under Fennoy's plan, all students will begin the year with distance learning, and they'll eventually return to in-person instruction when COVID-19 conditions improve and Palm Beach County is allowed to enter Phase Two of Florida's reopening plan.
"I firmly believe the best education you can provide is face-to-face," Fennoy said. "When you talk about kids' socialization skills, their ability to learn."
Once health conditions are safe, students will return to brick and mortar schools in a staggered approach.
"My number one goal is to get students back in school," Fennoy said. "The way that the team has presented to the board the plan of phasing kids into the building will allow us to test the situation, look at it, monitor it."
Pre-kindergarten, kindergarten, first grade, sixth grade, ninth grade, ESE centers, and alternative education sites will begin in-person classroom instruction first.
In the next stage, students in second grade, third grade, seventh grade, and tenth grade will be allowed to return to class.
In the final stage, all students in pre-kindergarten through twelfth grade can return to in-person instruction.
"As soon as we move into Phase Two, there's no excuse if this administration doesn't put the children back in, and that's the plan," said school board chairman Frank Barbieri, Jr. on Thursday. "Certainly parents that want to bring their children back at that point will be able to do that. And the parents that want to continue with virtual learning will be able to do that also."
WATCH INTERVIEW WITH BARBIERI:
Barbieri supports delaying the start of the school year, saying teachers could use additional training on the virtual programming, and because 10% of students in the school district don't have reliable connectivity to the district's online system, which Barbieri said equates to 15,000 to 18,000 children.
"There's no way that I'm gonna support starting the school year virtually if we have children that can't do that," Barbieri said. "Those are the poorest children in the district. Those are the ones that don't have WiFi at home, they don't have cable at home."
School officials said they're working with Comcast to improve connectivity for students and they've also ordered additional digital devices that will be distributed to students next month.
"The supply chain is a challenge. But we have a commitment to receive 10,000 a week once those start coming in in August, and we're gonna do everything in our power to meet those demands," Fennoy said.
Barbieri added the virtual learning experience is "miles better" now compared to March when teachers and students had just days to abruptly transition to online education.
"The way we handled virtual education at the end of the last school year was a stopgap measure. I mean, suddenly we had to close down the schools. There was no training, there was no preparation," Barbieri said. "Is it as good as children sitting in a classroom? Absolutely not. Is it better than last year? Absolutely it is."
Many educators have expressed concerns about a "pay gap" they may experience if the school year is delayed. Barbieri said that wouldn't be the case.
"There wouldn’t be a pay gap for teachers in any event because we have them in training and we can pay them while they’re in training," Barbieri said. "If we have to dip into the reserve fund at this point to pay people that are working, I’m not suggesting we pay people that aren’t working, but we can keep everyone working because there’s training that everyone needs."
Fennoy said a lot of uncertainty remains, and it's unclear how long distance-only learning will last. He admitted that if students return to class and COVID-19 cases worsen, the school district may have to return to online education.
"If things get really, really bad, we're gonna have to do a hard stop and go back to full distance learning," Fennoy said.
After the school board approves a start date for the 2020-21 academic year at next week's meeting, the district will send its reopening plan to the Florida Department of Education for final approval.
The district has until July 31 to submit its plan to the state.