WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — It appears distance learning may be here to stay for the start of next school year, according to the head of the School District of Palm Beach County.
Superintendent Dr. Donald Fennoy told WPTV on Thursday he's preparing to begin the 2021-22 academic year on Aug 10. in a dual modality of in-classroom and remote instruction.
"I told my team, we're gonna keep preparing and improving our distance learning platforms, because who knows?" Fennoy said. "I'm just gonna prepare for the worst and hope for the best."
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Ultimately, the future of distance learning in Palm Beach County will come from Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Florida Department of Education, according to Fennoy.
While the superintendent praised teachers, students, and parents for their flexibility and dedication during this unprecedented period in education, he also acknowledged the academic losses that thousands of Palm Beach County children are suffering as a result of remote learning from home.
"The long-term effects of this are really worrying me," Fennoy said. "I still am encouraging families and pushing to get our kids that are struggling back in the schools."
According to newly released numbers from the School District of Palm Beach County, officials requested that 18,578 students in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade switch from distance learning to brick-and-mortar instruction for the second semester because of poor engagement or progress.
But only 6,107, or 33%, agreed to return to physical classrooms, something Fennoy admitted he's disappointed with.
"I'm worried about kids' socialization skills," Fennoy said.
The superintendent added that many students have suffered from not having the structure that brick-and-mortar schools provide.
"When you're with us, we can model certain behaviors from you. We can talk to you. I can look in your eyes and see you're having a bad day," Fennoy said. "Many kids at home, when they're in classes and they're not having a good day, they just turn the screen off. So we don't even really know what's going on."
According to the district's Student Academic Support Plan that was presented to school board members on Wednesday, 51,658 total students as of December "need high levels of support" in both English Language Arts and Math because they're underperforming.
"We realize, when we see this kind of numbers, that we're gonna have to put together a massive effort in trying to identify, to work with our families, and let them know how critical the needs are," Dr. Glenda Sheffield, the district's chief academic officer, told school board members.
According to Fennoy, that painstaking effort includes going to the homes of struggling students, making contact with families, and giving them the resources they need to succeed.
"We're not gonna quit until we find all of our kids and at least make contact with families and say, hey, this is what the school can offer, and we really want you to come back, if we can convince you that it's safe," Fennoy said.
The latest numbers from the School District of Palm Beach County show that roughly 52% of students are in classrooms for the second semester, while 48% are doing remote learning from home.
In total, an additional 15,689 students are back in brick-and-mortar schools this semester.
Because of that, Fennoy said schools have been forced to call back 54 of the 800 educators who are teaching remotely from home.
"What a lot of schools are figuring out over time is how to create a structure where they can keep a teacher at home, dedicated with a group of kids, and those who want to be in the building keep the in-person class," Fennoy said, praising schools and teachers for evolving during these challenging times.
Last month, Fennoy sent a letter to DeSantis, asking him to make the COVID-19 vaccine available to all school district staffers, particularly those with direct student contact.
At a news conference in Pahokee on Wednesday, the governor said he has no plans to prioritize teachers under 65 to receive the vaccine.
"Teachers, police, all that, of course a priority. But the question is, who needs to be the top priority?" DeSantis said while standing just feet away from Fennoy at Anquan Boldin Stadium. "Seniors first is clearly the right policy. So we're gonna continue to do that."
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"If we can get vaccines into our employees who are in direct contact with students, it will make it a whole lot easier for all of us to keep our schools open," Fennoy told WPTV on Thursday.
In an important move to help educators gain access to the COVID-19 vaccine, Palm Beach County commissioners voted earlier this week to ask the Florida Department of Health in Palm Beach County and Health Care District of Palm Beach County to create a dedicated point of distribution, or POD, to vaccinate employees of the School District of Palm Beach County who are 65 and older.
Fennoy said there's no word yet on where that POD will be set up, but he emphasized that the school district is committed to helping educators who are 65 and older get vaccinated.
"I'm thankful that the conversation has been heard and that they are willing to create this POD for us," Fennoy said. "You still have to have the vaccine. So it still boils down to supply and demand."
The School District of Palm Beach County has created a special webpage for teachers, students, and parents to get the latest information about the COVID-19 pandemic. You can learn more by clicking here.
"Our principals and our teacher leaders have done a great job of preparing for these realities," Fennoy said. "We're in this together. We've done it this far, so we're just gonna keep pushing."