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Ormond Beach Observer Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2020 3 months ago

Countdown to reopening: Volusia County Schools putting procedures in place for new school year

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Volusia County School District continues to outline mask policy, and board members unanimously approve the submittal of two waivers to the state.
by: Jarleene Almenas Associate Editor

Volusia County teachers returned to the classroom on Tuesday, Aug. 11, and while safety during the COVID-19 pandemic is still a concern with reopening, the school district continues to prepare to welcome students back on Aug. 31, at both virtual and brick and mortar schools. 

And unfortunately, part of planning for that welcome means hammering down what to do if a student or faculty member tests positive. 

“It’s almost time, if not already, perhaps to shift a little bit and start really planning on how we respond when COVID is present in our schools and in our classrooms, because it is going to happen," said School Board member Carl Persis during the board's meeting on Aug. 11. 

Patricia Boswell, the Florida Department of Health administrator for Volusia County, informed the board that the DOH testing sites will close to the general public on Aug. 21 to prioritize testing for schools, a decision she said she felt comfortable making since the Florida Division of Emergency Management will be offering a drive-thru testing site beginning Aug. 14 at the Volusia County Fair Grounds, located at 3150 E. New York Ave. in DeLand. Though she didn't provide specifics of the testing site during the School Board meeting, the county issued a press release about the site later that day. Testing will be available from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursdays-Tuesdays, and an appointment is recommended. 

In addition, Boswell said that DOH is working on a draft letter that will be used to notify people in case of an exposure at a school. The main piece of advice is still to stay home if you're sick, or if you've been in close contact with someone who has contracted COVID-19. 

“When people are either not aware that they’re infectious or they’re not personally taking the responsibility that’s expected of them, and isolating, then that increases transmission," she said. 

If students are arriving to school sick, Boswell said they must be isolated. While the specifics on what would constitute an outbreak are still up for debate, Boswell said two cases of COVID at a school could fall within that definition. Publicity on outbreaks will be determined on a case-by-case basis, she added. 

School Board member Linda Cuthbert asked if Boswell could advise them on whether or not schools are safe to reopen.

“I’m sorry but that’s not my role as your health officer," Boswell said. "I can provide guidance on how to make the schools as safe as possible for your staff, faculty and students.”

A student body larger than local universities

Students have three options for returning to school in the fall: They can go to a brick and mortar, livestream lessons with Volusia Live, or opt for enhanced Volusia Online. 

That last option has over 9,000 students on board so far. In a regular school year, Volusia Online's student population hovers in the hundreds. 

Interim Superintendent Dr. Carmen Balgobin said the district is making it a priority to ensure Volusia Online will be ready to go on Aug. 31. The district has added another administrator and is planning to add more guidance counselors.

“There is no option not to be ready," Balgobin said. "We must be ready.”

School Board member Jamie Haynes the need to add dedicated faculty to Volusia Online is great. Three of the local universities — Bethune-Cookman, Stetson and Embry-Riddle — all have smaller school populations compared to Volusia Online this school year.

“Look at the sheer numbers," Haynes said. "I want to know if anyone sitting here today thinks that they’re capable of opening a virtual school with over 9,000 kids without a team to help you do it.”

Balgobin agreed, explaining that she understands the staff that have been deployed to help out are not sufficient. She said she will be setting up weekly meetings with Volusia Online's principal to stay on top of the issue.

Looking to the future

At its meeting, the board also unanimously approved the submittal of two waivers to the state, asking to maintain its current state funding in Spring 2021 for public Volusia schools due to smaller class size averages — a side-effect of implementing the Volusia Live model — as well as waiving the school grade calculation for the 2020-2021 school year and enforcement of high-stakes testing. The board requests that the state instead use the testing results to establish a baseline measurement for future standardized testing. 

“What we essentially are asking the Department of Education is to approve waivers that provide clear and consistent guidance on the operations of public schools this school year," said Kevin Pendley, the district's general counsel. 

It's yet another measure the district is hoping to implement to stave off non-health related issues that could stem from the coronavirus pandemic. But, Cuthbert pointed out during her final remarks of the meeting that there are things out of the district's reach.

“As much as our district has done everything to mitigate, has done everything to plan, put procedures and policies in place to address every issue, there is so much out there that we can’t control," she said.

Persis said he's often asked if it is safe to return to school. He responds that the district is trying to make schools as safe as they can be.

“However, if you’re asking me, ‘Can you guarantee there will not be a COVID case at my child’s school?’ the answer is no," Persis said. "Absolutely not. Let’s not kid ourselves or give any false expectation that it isn’t going to happen.”

The coronavirus has altered the future of the way education is delivered, said School Board Chair Ida Wright. Parents will expectt the different models, and there is no turning back now. All they can do, she said, is look to the future.

“Things have changed," Wright said. "We’re in a different world, but we have to embrace change and prepare for it.”

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