LARGO — Masks, masks and even more masks.
That’s the message Pinellas County Schools Superintendent Michael Grego stressed during a special presentation of the district’s reopening plan today during a workshop with School Board members.
During the five-hour meeting, Grego and district staff laid out health and wellness protocols, as well as new instructional learning opportunities for the upcoming school year.
The 37-page plan, dubbed Florida’s Optional Innovative Reopening Plan, was made in coordination with local hospitals and doctors, the health department, and with input from more than 43,000 Pinellas families, and offers sweeping directives to maximize social distancing, even as cases of COVID-19 continue on an upward trend throughout the state.
Parents will have three options for academic instruction the year — the traditional brick-and-mortar model, where students will return to classrooms; instruction via MyPCS Online, a virtual classroom that will include school district curriculum, with lessons developed and taught by local teachers in grades K-12; and Pinellas Virtual School, a state-based program that includes curriculum taught by Pinellas Virtual Schools teachers and utilizes the Canvas Learning Management platform.
Wear your masks
One of the biggest hurdles the school district will face is convincing students and parents alike about the necessity of face coverings.
The proposal will require every student from first grade through the 12th grade to wear a mask on campus at all times, with the exception of lunch periods. Students in prekindergarten, kindergarten and classes with special needs students will not be expected to wear masks at this time.
Teachers and staff who will be in contact with unmasked students will be supplied the added protection of a face shield.
Students and employees will also be required to wear masks or facial coverings on the bus.
“Masks are the biggest bang for our buck when it comes to keeping our kids safe,” said Sara O’Toole, managing officer for Student Health Services.
Noncompliant students will not face disciplinary action for not wearing a mask, but will run the risk of being transferred to a virtual learning platform, School Board attorney David Koperski said.
Board member Lisa Cane said she felt like asking students to wear masks for seven or eight hours a day is not fair to the students or their teachers.
“In my experience, it’s been virtually impossible to enforce,” said Cane, who operates a performing arts school. “We have adults in the community who don’t follow the rules. How are we going to enforce this with students?”
Cane also voiced concerns for teachers who will have to speak significantly louder due to the masks and the vocal fatigue that may occur because of it.
“We are asking a lot of our teachers,” Cane said.
Grego said staff would look into the purchase of voice lapel microphones or voice enhancers for teachers.
“These things, these nuances, we are going to have to figure out,” Grego said. “They are all challenges I don’t know how to answer right now.
“It’s not going to be perfect,” he continued.
In addition to mask requirements, classrooms and lunchrooms will be arranged to maximize space and social distancing between students. Longer lunch blocks may also be necessary to accommodate social distancing.
Employees will be required to sign off on daily attestations affirming that they are not sick or currently showing any symptoms of COVID-19.
The district will limit campus and facility visits by nonessential visitors. There will be no scheduled field trips in the first quarter, and there will be no PTA-sponsored events planned for the first quarter.
Visitors will also be asked to confirm they are not sick whenever coming to campus and urged to keep sick children at home. Students who report not feeling well will be taken to a special nurse’s station for evaluation.
“This is the best prevention we can do to keep our students and staff safe,” O’Toole said.
Grego also said he is working with BayCare Health System for access to rapid coronavirus tests for teachers should they be worried of infection.
The district has issued a cleaning manual that focuses on cleaning and sanitizing surfaces and common, high-risk areas on campus through the targeted use of CDC- and EPA-approved disinfectants.
Three different instructional models were discussed at length during the meeting.
• The traditional model calls for face-to-face classroom instruction following a regular student schedule, calendar and bell times. Students who opt for this model will remain enrolled in their assigned school and will keep their seat in district application programs.
Should a need for classroom or campuswide quarantine arise, instruction will transition to a digital model through MyPCS Online until students can return.
• With the MyPCS Online model, students will remain enrolled in their assigned school and will keep their seat in district application programs. All instruction will be digitally-based, following a daily schedule and will be taught PCS curriculum by district teachers through the Canvas Learning Management platform. Class meetings and live lessons with be conducted through Microsoft Teams. This form of instruction will require a nine-week commitment to digital learning.
This platform will also allow the school district to continue to be fully funded for each student, whether they are in the classroom or going the digital route.
• The last instructional option will be through Pinellas Virtual School. In this model, students will no longer be enrolled in their assigned schools. It requires a full semester — 18 weeks — commitment, and students must enroll in six class courses. Instruction will be conducted by a virtual teacher not associated with the district. Students will be able to work at their own pace.
This platform will not allow the school district to receive any funding for the student.
Through the traditional and MyPCS models, the district will continue to provide specialized instructions for students with Individual Education Plans, English learners and services for vulnerable populations.
The important thing to remember, Grego said, was to do what works for your family.
“This is your choice,” he said.
The proposed plan must be submitted to state educational officials for approval.
Risk of infection
Dr. Allison Messina, chair of the division of Infectious Disease with Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital, was included in the Zoom meeting to discuss the risk and transmission of COVID-19 among a pediatric population.
While children certainly can become infected, they recover much more quickly, with less complications, Messina said.
“We are seeing milder cases of COVID in children,” Messina said, adding that many children will be diagnosed and sent home to recover because their symptoms will not require hospitalizations. Children with underlying health conditions are the exception, she said.
Messina also stressed the importance of mask wearing, not just in the school setting, but everywhere anyone might go in public.
“People can have this and not know it,” she said. “That’s why we are so adamant about masking.”
Messina underscored the fact that pediatric transmission to other students is a lot lower than transmission to teachers and staff, as 50% of children are asymptomatic carriers.
What if Pinellas continues upward trend of COVID-19?
Board member Rene Flowers asked Grego what would be done if the rate of coronavirus cases continues to increase, as the Department of Health has recorded record-breaking numbers over the last month.
According to an executive order issued by Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran, school districts must offer brick-and-mortar campuses available for students five days a week.
However, local health officials could potentially override the order should they deem reopening to be a risk to public health.
Grego said he and district officials continue to be in contact health officials, especially Dr. Ulyee Choe, the director of DOH for Pinellas County.
“We’ve had a lot of conversations about this,” he said. “We don’t know what we will see 28 days from now. This is an ever-fluid situation.
“This is a document based on what we know today,” he continued.
Although Grego and his staff presented the reopening plan to the School Board, members don’t actually get to vote on it.
However, more than half of the members present for the meeting said if given the chance, they would not approve it.
“I still have some serious concerns,” Flowers said. “We’ve seen the number of infected in our hospitals. We just can’t guarantee the safety of anyone in this.
“I’m not in support of exposing staff and students to further harm,” she continued.
Flowers said her position was not against Grego or the plan itself.
“I know you are doing the best with the hand you’ve been given,” she said. “I just can’t bring myself to be responsible because the governor of Florida has made a decision that he wants to hurry up and open.”
Cane said she agreed with Flowers’ position.
“If we as a community do not feel it is safe to open every business and send adults to work, it’s incomprehensible that it is safe and acceptable to send children into a building to go to school,” she said. “If we don’t feel comfortable letting parents come in to do PTA meetings, how can we expect them to feel safe sending their children into the building?”
Board member Nicole Carr echoed the sentiments of her fellow Board members.
“I agree with you wholeheartedly,” she said. “We are not ready to go face-to-face.”
Board chairperson Carol Cook said that while she agreed, she pointed out that the plan presented was not a referendum on whether schools should reopen, but rather what can be done when they reopen.
“This is a good plan,” she said. “This plan gives us options for whenever we come back.”
Parents have until 5 p.m. Monday, July 27, to select an academic platform.
The district is in the process of creating a website with information, videos and guidance about the plan. It can be found at www.pcsb.org/reopening.