WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Less than a week after Palm Beach County students wrapped up a challenging and unprecedented school year, the focus is now turning to what things will look like in the fall.
Superintendent Dr. Donald Fennoy on Wednesday presented a plan to school board members, outlining the district's COVID-19 safety protocols and operating strategy for the 2021/22 academic year, which is slated to begin on Aug. 10.
"We will be reopening schools fully to in-person instruction and returning to normal activities that empower and engage our students academically and emotionally," Fennoy said.
WATCH SUPERINTENDENT'S PRESENTATION:
Ahead of the superintendent's presentation, nearly three dozen parents addressed school board members, voicing both their support and concerns with the district's plan.
The School District of Palm Beach County has already announced optional face masks for students with a full return to in-person learning, but Fennoy is also allowing face coverings to be optional for employees and visitors.
In addition, masks will be optional on school district transportation, and drivers will sanitize high-touch surfaces on vehicles in-between routes.
"To be clear, I am not recommending rule-making decisions today, but rather opting to suspend three options of the COVID-19 policies in advance of a formal adoption and modification before the board," Fennoy said.
Social distancing will be "encouraged to the extent possible," and rapid COVID-19 tests will continue to be administered to students by school nurses with parental permission.
According to the plan, field trips and before-and-after-school programs will resume, along with clubs and performances in-person at all levels. In addition, sports will realign with the Florida High School Athletic Association schedule, and concession stands will be open at athletic events.
There are also changes to health procedures and quarantines. For example, fully vaccinated employees will not be sent home if exposed to COVID-19, unless they are showing symptoms.
If a student reports a positive COVID-19 test, he or she must stay home until they are symptom-free, including no fever of 100.4 degrees or higher for at least 24 hours without fever-reducing medicine.
If a student or staff member tests positive for COVID-19, contact tracers will come in to determine if anyone else was exposed. Officials said if students and staff members have received the coronavirus vaccine, they may not need to quarantine.
"Through that process, they would come up with a list of individuals that would need to quarantine or self-isolate for a given period of time," said Keith Oswald, the chief of equity and wellness for the School District of Palm Beach County.
However, Oswald said distance learning is being suspended when students are forced to quarantine and stay home from school.
"Any time a student is out sick, we would provide them the make-up work that they're missing," Oswald said.
SPECIAL COVERAGE: State Of Education
Board Member Dr. Debra Robinson said she was "bitterly disappointed" with Fennoy's plan, saying it assumes that "everything is normal" regarding the COVID-19 pandemic in our community.
"If [the plan] opened with a statement that said, assuming the viral load in the community continues to decrease, this is what we will do, I would feel so much better," Robinson said. "But it doesn't say that! It just says, everything is normal. And it's not!"
Robinson further expressed concerns that the plan was made without consulting a wide range of medical professionals.
"I suggested that we talk to schools of public health, to epidemiologists. I don't hear any feedback," Robinson said. "So apparently we haven't had any of those conversations."
WATCH ROBINSON'S COMMENTS:
Robinson asked Fennoy if the school district would allow principals to have both "masked" and "unmasked" classrooms based on parent, student, and teacher choice.
"We can look at it, but I cannot make that commitment today," Fennoy responded. "That is not something that we had considered. So we can look at it, but I can't make a commitment that we're gonna segregate those classrooms. I can't do that."
The Palm Beach County School Board did not vote on any policy changes on Wednesday, and board members can make adjustments and revisions to the COVID-19 safety protocols over the coming weeks.
You can read the full presentation by clicking here.
For students who aren't quite ready for the return to in-person instruction or enjoyed the virtual learning atmosphere, there are still options available like Florida Virtual School and Palm Beach Virtual School. You can learn more by clicking here.