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Thousands of Palm Beach County students head back to classrooms on Monday

Up to 54,000 students return to brick-and-mortar schools, school district estimates
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Posted at 5:00 AM, Sep 21, 2020
and last updated 2020-09-21 20:29:14-04

PALM BEACH COUNTY, Fla. — Tens of thousands of Palm Beach County students headed back to classrooms on Monday for the first time in more than six months.

The School District of Palm Beach County estimates that up to 54,000 students attended brick-and-mortar schools, while up to 107,000 children took part in distance learning.

"We're as ready as we can be right now," Superintendent Dr. Donald Fennoy told WPTV's Stephanie Susskind in a one-on-one interview on Monday morning. "Would it be great to have more time? Absolutely. But we were given a charge to be ready by the 21st."

INTERVIEW WITH DR. FENNOY:

WEB EXTRA: Interview with Palm Beach County Superintendent Dr. Donald Fennoy

SPECIAL COVERAGE: Back To School | Coronavirus

The last time Palm Beach County students sat in classrooms was on March 13, before the COVID-19 pandemic forced the school district to switch to distance learning later that month.

Several safety changes are now in place at brick-and-mortar schools including mandatory face masks for all children and staff members on school buses and campuses, spaced out desks in classrooms, social distancing markers on the floors, one-way hallways, one-sided cafeteria tables, improved air filters, and more frequent sanitation.

READ: Palm Beach County's school safety plan

Fennoy admitted the district is anticipating teachers being out on Monday and there are plans in place to cover those spots in classrooms.

"I think it's a lot of anxiety. I think we're gonna be shuffling things around to accommodate potential teacher vacancies," Fennoy said. "A lot of people who work in these buildings or in support roles who have teaching certifications are out in school helping cover classes. So I think that's gonna be adjusting."

A school district spokeswoman said 944 teachers were out on Monday, but between substitutes and district employees, the district was able to cover those absences. To put that number into perspective, 480 teachers were absent on the first day of school last year.

There are currently 2,800 substitute teachers in the district, compared to 3,019 last year, a spokeswoman said.

The superintendent is urging students and parents to be patient, saying adjustments will likely be made for weeks in each school.

"As COVID cases present themselves, we'll be making adjustments," Fennoy said. "We create big policy, we create the big decisions. But it's on the ground where the decisions are made. The architecture of the schools are different. Our principals understand their populations."

On Monday, the School District of Palm Beach County launched an online dashboard to track COVID-19 cases in each school. Fennoy said, however, none of patients will be identified.

"Schools are nothing more than a microcosm of American society. So if it's happening in the real world, it's going to happen in the school," Fennoy said. "We're gonna be as transparent as possible."

Officials are urging parents to keep your children home if they're showing any signs or symptoms of COVID-19, or if they've recently been exposed to the virus.

RELATED: Palm Beach County health director talks COVID-19 protocols in schools

Fennoy, who sent his 11-year-old son to school on Monday while keeping his kindergarten-aged daughter home for distance learning, is spending the day visiting school campuses and classrooms to greet students and employees.

School officials said that if parents want to transition your child from distance learning to in-classroom instruction, you can do so through the student portal. However, it will take a week for the change to happen.

All 179 schools will have at least one school district police officer and behavioral specialist on campus this year.

The School District of Palm Beach County has answers on its website to many common questions regarding in-classroom instruction, health and safety within schools, and information for school employees and bus drivers. You can find those answers by clicking here.

The district has also set up a hotline to answer your questions Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. in English, Spanish, and Haitian Creole. The hotline number is 561-969-5840.

"We're here, so let's enjoy the moment. I think I want everybody to be patient," Fennoy said. "But I also want everyone to give us the feedback necessary so we can keep making the adjustments."

A class action lawsuit involving several teachers was filed against the School District of Palm Beach County on Friday. The lawsuit seeks to delay the reopening of brick-and-mortar schools because of safety concerns.

A virtual court hearing on the lawsuit will be held on Wednesday at 2 p.m.

In response to the lawsuit, the district released a statement to WPTV on Sunday which read, in part:

"The District's legal team is handling the litigation of the matter and does not comment on the strategies of matters that are in litigation. As for District campuses, many efforts have been made to balance the need to have teachers in the classroom for those students who have chosen to return to brick and mortar. The District has been working hard to ensure that both employees and students have an enjoyable and safe return."

On Monday, Fennoy expressed his gratitude to Palm Beach County teachers, thanking them for their patience and flexibility during this ever-changing situation.

"I think all of us are in a position to make a lot of really hard choices," Fennoy said. "I understand this is hard. This is so hard. But I think as we push through and we become more comfortable with the situation, as we learn more and we adjust, I hope that those who are choosing to stay out will come back to work."

Just last week, the Palm Beach County Classroom Teachers Association called for Fennoy's removal, saying the teachers union has "lost all faith" in his leadership.

Fennoy said he meets with the CTA regularly and wants to ensure a healthy working relationship with the union.

"Continue to do our best to work with them, to listen to their concerns. But also be very clear on what can and cannot happen as we keep moving this district forward," Fennoy said.

The superintendent admitted that, in hindsight, the school district could've done a better job with internal communication to employees, especially when it came to explaining decisions that were made on short notice.

"We put out the information as we knew it in the times that we knew it," Fennoy said. "A lot of times, the pressures of deadlines sometimes get in the way of sending out information. We were communicating, but maybe not necessarily to the right people all the time internally, which then causes confusion, and then people start making stuff up."

RELATED: Spanish River High School principal ready to welcome back students on Monday

Conditioning is scheduled to begin on Monday for fall sports in Palm Beach County schools including football, cross country, girls volleyball, swimming and diving, golf, bowling, and cheerleading.

All of those sports, however, will not be eligible for state championships, as the School District of Palm Beach County has opted out of the Florida High School Athletic Association's state series.

Instead, Palm Beach County schools will compete for tri-county championships against schools from Miami-Dade and Broward counties.