WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Palm Beach County school board members reached a consensus Wednesday to go to online-only learning when classes resume next month as coronavirus cases and deaths in the county surge.
During the workshop, the seven board members did not vote on the issue but expect to officially make a decision next Wednesday to keep campuses closed indefinitely.
"I'm thrilled to hear everybody saying distant learning," board member Debra Robinson, a medical doctor, said during the virtual meeting that lasted five hours. "I know you are all going to wait until next week, but folks just need to know to make plans."
Superintendent Donald Fennoy said a panel of health experts had recommended that campuses not reopen until the rate of new COVID-19 cases improves. Classes are scheduled to resume on August 10.
"I’m not even going to scare you about when we can go to regular school. We'll take one month at a time," Robinson said. "I hope we can make it to hybrid but we have to have all those protocols outlined."
The school district's Reopening Task Force presented school board members with a 32-page presentation looking at the challenges and opportunities of each reopening option.
The School District of Palm Beach County has been considering three educational options for students: full-time in-person instruction on campus, full-time distance learning, or a hybrid combination of the two.
Based on parent surveys and feedback, the district said more than one option may be necessary.
"I wrestle with the reality of knowing the decisions we make will impact our most fragile children," Fennoy said at Wednesday's workshop.
Wednesday's discussion comes two days after the Florida Department of Education issued an order requiring public school districts to open brick and mortar schools five days a week.
Fennoy said the School District of Palm Beach County has some flexibility with this, as the district takes recommendations and advice from health leaders.
Earlier Wednesday, President Donald Trump said he wants schools opened nationwide and threatened to cut federal money if they don't reopen.
After the school board votes on the plan next week, it will be sent to Tallahassee for approval.
Board members also discussed making sure they know what metrics they are looking for to be able to open schools, and when to revisit going back to on campus learning. They said the idea of "unending distance learning is terrifying."
They also discussed giving teachers access to their classrooms. There are also concerns about how to tutor students who are struggling, and making sure no student gets left behind.
"I'm extremely concerned that we are going to have a bunch of children out there who are going to be collateral damage to this situation," board member Frank Barbieri said. "I told the superintendent I'm not voting for any distance learning unless I'm absolutely sure that every child out there, especially those children from the most impoverished families that don't have someone who can help them, that maybe don't have parents educated enough to understand how to teach them, or help them get on the computers. I want to make sure those children have a fighting chance of getting the education they need this year and I'm scared to death that we’re going to fail those kids."
"This is the first time this board will ever make a decision in the 12 years I've been here that at least 50% of the people are not happy with," he added. "And we're not going to make 50% of the people happy, but we're not here to make people happy. We're here to do what's in the best interest of children and I just want to make sure that we're doing that."