With COVID-19 cases continuing to rise in Volusia, the majority of the board fears outcome of opening schools too quickly.
The Volusia County School Board has unanimously voted to approve its fall reopening plan for schools — notably to submit a livestreamed lesson option for students to the state and a two-week delayed start date of Aug. 31 — a decision made in an eight-hour meeting that began at 4:30 p.m. on Tuesday, July 21, and wrapped up at 12:50 a.m. Wednesday, July 22.
It was not a decision made lightly, and it may not mean brick and mortar schools will open in Volusia County on Aug. 31, as three of the five board members were in favor of procuring a waiver from the Department of Education that will allow the board, and not the state, to have final say on whether students should be allowed back on campus. With COVID-19 cases continuing to spike in Volusia, the Department of Health having reported almost 1,300 new cases since July 14, School Board members Carl Persis, Ruben Colon and Linda Cuthbert all said that unless cases and the positivity rate dramatically decreased, it wouldn't be safe to reopen schools.
Persis said the community as a whole lacks the "voluntary spirit" to help control the spread of COVID-19, and that the county will need to be directed by a higher authority — the state, the federal government or Volusia County government — to put in place measures to stop the spread.
"What if school was starting tomorrow?" Persis said. "How safe would any of us be, by sending our children there, about teaching there? It's not good, and someone's got to do something different to get us all to control this spread."
Colon said he could not support the reopening of schools if the society isn't changing their actions that are continuing to spread the virus. He also said that the board hasn't voted to reopen schools or not — the vote is to submit a plan to the state, of which he was in favor. Regarding option two, he said the district should explore grouping students so as a teacher doesn't have to simultaneously teach in-person and virtually.
We're being forced to create a new path, Colon said, and there is still work to be done.
"School as we know it is different, and that's a very hard reality to swallow," Colon said.
From July 22-28, the district will be sending out a survey for parent to pre-register which of the three learning options they prefer for their children.
Public voices their opinions
The board listened to about three hours and forty minutes of public comments made by many teachers, parents and at least one student; some wanted Volusia County Schools to move forward with reopening brick and mortar schools, and others implored the board to find another solution.
Volusia resident Greg Gimbert asked that the board consider splitting the start date between the groups and allow students and teachers who feel comfortable to return to school on Aug. 31. The teachers and students who have fear should not return to a brick and mortar, he said. As the county is under an emergency situation, he said the board should cancel the teacher's union contract and offer $1,000 a week to the teachers that return to work.
"This is an emergency situation," Gimbert said. "Once it's over, we can go back to the normal order of business, but right now students' lives will not go on hold for all the teachers to feel safe."
DeLand teacher Jane Corlett said educators have dedicated their lives to their students, sacrificing pay, their families' needs and their health. No choice during the pandemic will be perfect for all students, Corlett said, but they have to go with the safest option.
"We beseech you, before you make possibly a disastrous choice, that you believe in the science that's before you and please do what you signed up for," Corlett said.
One of the people who also called in to the virtual meeting was a nurse in a Volusia hospital, who said they are currently experiencing a surge in patients. He told the board children were at risk and that they should reconsider opening schools when the COVID-19 case numbers are lower.
The reopening dilemma
Could VCS bypass the state mandate to reopen brick and mortar schools? School Board Attorney Ted Doran said there was a good chance. He said the board members had clearly done a lot of research and that while he wasn't prepared to give an opinion on whether they need a waiver or not, he said there was a path to gaining the authority to reopen or not. He also referenced the fact Patricia Boswell, the Volusia County Department of Health administrator, did not tell the board it was safe to reopen schools at their meeting on Wednesday, July 15, despite having been directly asked to give her opinion by Colon, who said her department's lack of guidance is a "big hole" in the executive order.
"There's a lot to work with here," Doran said. "If you're going to make a decision not to open brick and mortar, you've laid out in the last hour or so all the reasons not to do it."
But if the board chooses not to reopen brick and mortar schools, students who do not have access to technology or internet may fall behind. School Board member Jamie Haynes said that there are families in her district who live in a rural area without a wi-fi connection. School Board Chair Ida Wright also pointed out that the district does not have the technology to have each of its 63,000 participate in distance learning; they would need to purchase between 35,000-40,000 devices and they wouldn't arrive in time.
"We cannot receive them before April," Wright said. "I hear everyone's concern. That was why when we initially started down this road, we talked about a delayed start."
Distance learning, in addition, would not allow the district to provide a "full array of services" mandated by law in the executive order, Wright said. She told the board about an email she recently received, where a parent who worked at Publix posed the question: If it's okay for them to risk their lives at work, why doesn't the district have "skin in the game" to provide a basic need?
"Her children's basic needs are not being met," Wright said. "And we should be just as essential as the person working in a grocery store."
Persis said schools should not reopen until the positivity rate is less than 5% for 14 consecutive days, or in accordance to the guidelines set by the Centers for Disease Control at the time. Cuthbert agreed with Persis, saying she doesn't want any students or teachers to die, which is a possibility if they open schools with the current positivity rate of 12.2%. Parents, teachers, district staff and the board have been put in a difficult position, Cuthbert said.
"And who has put us there?" Cuthbert said. "People who tend to ignore what is going on. We cannot afford to ignore what is going on."
Colon cited the federal guidelines to reopen, that states schools may reopen in phase two only if cases are trending down for two weeks after reopening restaurants, gyms and resuming elective surgeries in phase one; a move Florida made in stages in late April and throughout the month of May. Cases began to spike in late June.
He stressed exercising their constitutional authority over their district.
"My guess if we get back to school, it'll be three weeks before we're going to be facing the music," Colon said.