PALM BEACH COUNTY, Fla. — The important topics of classroom curriculum, school security, bus transportation, and more took center stage Monday when the School District of Palm Beach County hosted its annual back-to-school news conference.
Superintendent Mike Burke and other school district leaders delivered information to help students, parents, and teachers plan for the upcoming academic year, which starts on Aug. 10.
SPECIAL COVERAGE: Education
WATCH: Palm Beach County back-to-school news conference
"In Palm Beach County, school security is always our top priority," Burke said. "As we always are striving to continuously improve, we've added some additional measures to help further harden our campuses."
One of the biggest additions to safety in Palm Beach County public schools is the CENTEGIX CrisisAlert system, which will equip every school district employee with a panic button on their ID badge.
Burke said plans for the system were in the works for the School District of Palm Beach County since before the tragic mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas on May 24.
Once the button is pushed, it will send an automatic alert to local 911 call centers and immediately lock down a school campus.
"When that is triggered, it calls in the cavalry. It's connected to 911. And everyone will come to the crisis," Burke said. "Our officers are trained to take out the threat. They're not advised to stand down and wait for backup. They go straight to the assailant."
Chief Sarah Mooney of the school district's police department said the panic button system will be in place and fully operational at every Palm Beach County public school by Aug. 10.
"This is a significant, significant piece of technology that's gonna make it very easy for teachers and/or any other staff on the campus to make an emergency alert if they need to," Mooney said.
In addition to the CENTEGIX system, the district has added hundreds of surveillance cameras, card readers, and intrusion detection devices to campuses over the summer, and is continually adding fencing and gates to campuses to bolster security, officials said.
Mooney added that school police officers took part in numerous active shooter training drills over the summer with other local agencies.
As required by state law, every Palm Beach County public school campus has at least one law enforcement officer on duty.
Burke said the school district's police department currently has about 75 vacancies, and school board members on Wednesday will vote on a contract agreement to allow 45 officers from local agencies to patrol school campuses.
WATCH: How Palm Beach County school police keep watchful eyes on campuses
Mooney on Monday urged students and parents to be aware of the school district's Zero Tolerance policy, which bans students from bringing weapons like firearms, knives, or tasers onto campuses.
"We don't want our kids not feeling safe," Mooney said. "Last year, there were several incidents where parents thought they were doing the right thing by giving their kids something to defend themselves with, whether on their way to school or on their way home from school."
Those weapons can result in criminal charges or an expulsion for students.
Instead, Mooney said, if your child is being bullied, report it to school administrators or school police immediately so they can help work toward a safer outcome.
"We want to help be a resolution to that, not to be the enforcers of that," Mooney said.
CLASSROOM CURRICULUM & PARENTAL RIGHTS
"Teachers are apprehensive. There's some anxiety around that, because everyone's afraid they're going to get sued," Burke said.
Florida schools are embroiled in culture wars with the recent passage of the "Parental Rights In Education" law, which critics call the "Don't Say Gay" measure, along with the "Individual Freedom" law that supporters have dubbed the "Stop WOKE Act."
School district officials on Monday emphasized that students won't see any major changes because of the legislation.
"We've gone through a lot of process to review our curriculum. But at the end of the day, there's not really a seismic change," Burke said. "We're emphasizing to the teacher's role, that they're there to facilitate the conversation, to teach on the standards, and not try to impose any personal viewpoint."
The "Parental Rights In Education" law bans classroom instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through third grade, as well as in a manner that's not "age appropriate" for older students.
WATCH: Palm Beach County schools offer guidance to teachers regarding sexuality, race education
Deputy Superintendent Edward Tierney said the district is in full compliance with the law after reviewing instructional materials and countless books in school media centers.
Only a small number of materials and books that were in K-3 classrooms had to be moved to an intermediate section in school libraries.
"We are gonna ensure that all of our students are educated in a warm, caring, and supportive environment," Tierney said.
"The more that we've broken it down and provided that guidance, you kind of come to the conclusion that this isn't really going to have a huge impact or dramatically change what we're doing," Burke said. "There's just a few things we have to be very careful of, particularly around grades K through three."
The "Parental Rights In Education" law also requires parents and guardians to provide "clear consent" for their child to receive all health services, screenings, and emergency care offered by the district.
All parents — regardless if your student is a new or returning student — must complete the consent section on the "New and Returning Student Registration Form" before Aug. 10.
The School District of Palm Beach County currently has more than 400 teaching vacancies, according to Burke, which is above the norm.
The shortages have been brought on by a variety of factors including lower teacher pay compared to the rest of the country, security concerns, culture wars in education, and the lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
"There's always a certain level of vacancies in our teacher ranks. Usually we hover about 200, or 2%. We're a little higher than that going into this school year. So we're trying to remedy that," Burke said.
Some of those remedies include the Palm Beach County School Board earlier this year approving an average 3.5% pay raise for teachers, the highest in the state.
Burke admitted, however, that if there are not enough teachers on Aug. 10, some temporary solutions will be to combine classes and tap district specialists to substitute teach.
"Palm Beach County is the best place to work," Burke said. "Teachers are well-supported here. And we do everything within our control to welcome them and hopefully retain them."
WATCH: Palm Beach County teachers get pay raise
The staffing shortages carry over to the school district's transportation department, which currently needs about 80 more bus drivers.
To alleviate any school bus delays, officials said Monday the district has reduced bus routes by more than 100 and also tapped mechanics, office staff members, and private providers with the proper license to operate school buses as needed.
ACADEMICS & TESTING
Gone are the controversial Florida Standards Assessments, and in their place this school year will be a new testing system for Sunshine State public schools.
Students will now take a series of progress monitoring exams in the fall, winter, and spring, designed to more quickly address any learning difficulties they're having during the year.
"Instead of having one major test at the end of the year which provided no feedback to students before the summer came, we would do progress monitoring that would monitor progress throughout the school year," Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said at a March 15 news conference. "It would be shorter, it would be more individualized, and it would provide good feedback for students, for teachers, and for parents."
Burke on Monday said the School District of Palm Beach County will conduct an "infrastructure trial" soon to make sure the technology is working properly.
The superintendent admitted, however, the district has received limited information thus far from the Florida Department of Education about how the progress monitoring exams will be carried out.
"We were hopeful and optimistic based on the governor's initial press release that it would be less testing. But so far it feels like it's actually a little bit more testing," Burke said. "Hopefully this sequencing of the tests will prove to be beneficial, but it's a little too early to tell."
While the main concern one year ago was the spread of COVID-19 in local schools, the start of the 2022/23 academic year will be much different in terms of coronavirus protocols.
Facial coverings remain optional for students, staff members, and visitors on Palm Beach County public school campuses.
The district will, however, continue to test symptomatic students for COVID-19 if their parents consent. If a child tests positive, he or she will be sent home for five days, per guidelines from the Florida Department of Health and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.