WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Just days before students head back to brick-and-mortar schools in Palm Beach County, top officials addressed the public on Friday to make sure parents, children, and staff members are prepared.
Mayor Dave Kerner was joined by Superintendent of Schools Dr. Donald Fennoy, school board Chairman Frank Barbieri, health director Dr. Alina Alonso, and other officials at a news conference.
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Fennoy said nearly 60,000 students are planning to return to brick-and-mortar schools on Monday, while roughly 85,000 will continue distance learning at home.
85% of parents and guardians have responded to a school district survey about whether their children are returning to in-classroom instruction.
"Our principals have been calling those families that have not reached out to the schools all summer long," Fennoy said. "Traditionally, when we open schools, they just show up. So our principals are preparing for every student to show up."
While Fennoy said the school district is "prepared" for in-classroom instruction, he urged everyone to be nimble and flexible, adding that school leaders will be fine-tuning operations along the way.
"Parents and students, please understand the pressures that our educators are under," Fennoy said. "We need everyone to be patient, supportive, and remember, we are all in this together."
Some of the safety measures that will be in place on Monday include mandatory facial coverings for all students and staff members on buses and school campuses, social distancing in classrooms, one-way hallways, improved air filters, and more frequent sanitization.
Fennoy is urging parents to play their part as well.
"We need you to keep your children home if they are showing any signs or symptoms of COVID-19 or if they have recently been exposed," Fennoy said.
If a student shows symptoms of COVID-19 while on a school campus, they will be isolated and evaluated by a school nurse and physicians from the Health Care District of Palm Beach County, according to Dr. Alonso.
"If it's determined that, yes, that person just needs to go home, they're just having allergies or something like that, the child will be told to go home, see their pediatrician and come back when they're well. If, on the other case, the child is thought that this could be COVID, they're gonna be told to go home," Alonso said. "They will be treated as VIPs at any one of our locations. All the clinical locations for the health care district are doing testing."
If a child is sent home with a suspected case of COVID-19, they'll be asked to get tested. For parents who are unable to get their children tested, those children will be required to stay home for 14 days.
Alonso said if a student is confirmed to have COVID-19, health officials will use "surgical precision" to perform contact tracing.
"We're gonna be looking at where the children are sitting, the wearing of their masks, what activities they were doing," Alonso said. "Asking where that child was, what was happening, what activities they were doing, so that we can make an appropriate decision on who are the contacts as a result of that particular case, and who needs to come out and who else can stay."
Alonso admitted that if everyone is wearing their masks and social distancing, it's possible that only the sick student will be sent home, and not an entire class.
"Contact tracing is not saying, oh, we've got a case of COVID in the school, we gotta close the school down," Alonso said. "That's not acceptable."
"All campus modifications are in place for one reason. To keep students and staff as safe as possible," Fennoy said.
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 school 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.
Dr. Alonso said Palm Beach County had been averaging around 150 cases of COVID-19 per day. However, over the last two days, the average has risen to the low 200s.
While Alonso admitted the cases have "creeped up a little bit," she attributes that to an increase in cases in long-term care facilities and among college students who are going out at night.
"That's where they're going into places that are not wearing masks, that are crowded, loud music, partying, and that's where they're coming across other individuals who are positive," Alonso said.
Kerner reminded everyone that bars in Palm Beach County remain closed, even though Gov. Ron DeSantis allowed bars to reopen across the state, with the exception of Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach counties.
"In Palm Beach County, we're being a little bit more cautious due to our unique demographic in this county and the amount of population that we have," Kerner said, adding that the county administrator is working on a plan to safely reopen bars.
According to the latest numbers from the Florida Department of Health, there are 44,906 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 1,272 coronavirus-related deaths in Palm Beach County.