Board approves opening delay, mask rules

by Jeremy Morrison, Inweekly

The Escambia County School District is delaying the start of school for two weeks due to the coronavirus, with the semester now beginning August 24. In addition to concerns about what effect opening up campuses will have on the spread of COVID, the delay is designed to afford the district additional time to better prepare to offer remote learning.

Superintendent Malcolm Thomas announced the delayed start date hours before a Tuesday evening Escambia County School Board meeting, where the district’s reopening plan was on the table. Escambia is following other districts, such as neighboring Santa Rosa County School District, in delaying the semester as Florida experiences a summer spike in COVID cases.

“In the last two or three weeks things have really intensified in our community, so we have stepped up and done everything we can to prepare,” Thomas said during Tuesday’s board meeting.

To accommodate the late start to the school year, Escamiba plans to extend the spring semester by two weeks. Students were slated to wrap up the school year in late May, but will now attend classes until early June.

In addition to the delay, the school board also approved revised language in the district’s reopening plan that clarifies that students, teachers and staff are expected to wear masks while in district facilities. While the board stopped short of mandating the wearing of masks — a move they feared would entail a punitive component — the language does stipulate that masks are to be worn “as instructed.”

During Tuesday’ board meeting, numerous teachers and other district employees addressed the board and superintendent on the particulars of the district’s reopening plan. Most were concerned with both the start date of the school year and the issue of masks, and several commented that they were having to revise planned comments in light of the district’s late-in-the-day decisions to delay and step up its stance on masks.

Carol Cleaver, vice president of the Escambia Education Association, thanked district officials for the decision regarding the start date and said “the risk is too high” to return to campus considering Florida’s dismal COVID landscape.

“It will give us some much needed time to mitigate this crisis,” Cleaver said.

The union vice president continued, imploring officials to “ignore the rhetoric” and focus on the “data” when assessing the best way forward, addressing specifically an order issued this month by Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran stating that schools must return to campuses in August.

“The commissioner of education wants me to sit inside of my classroom with 20 kids for 90 minutes with poor ventilation?” she asked. “That’s insulting.”

Other teachers also addressed the board, thanking it in advance for considering the delay and revising their pleas while still stressing concerns over the school year. Several almost began to cry as they spoke about how risking an early return during the pandemic was “immoral” and “utterly avoidable,” and about how it wasn’t appropriate “to use our kids as guinea pigs.”

Dr. Jason Straub, with Pensacola Pediatrics, also spoke to the board, clarifying that new studies indicated kids 10-years-old and older spread the coronavirus at the same rate as an adult. He cautioned that a return to campus prior to a decrease in the area’s COVID cases was a risky proposition that could lead to community spread and capacity issues at hospitals.

“We are very concerned about this,” the doctor said. “This virus will spread, not only to students, but to teachers, their caregivers and support staff as well.”

Prior to approving the Escambia’s reopening plan, with the delayed start date and masks revisions, Superintend Thomas explained that one reason for the revisions was the number of students who were choosing to hold off on returning to campus and instead selecting one of the two remote-learning options the district is offering. About 40 percent of district students have selected the remote options.

“That’s twice as much as I expected,” Thomas said, explaining that the district would use the two weeks to better prepare staff for remote teaching.

The superintendent also noted that the reduction in students selecting the on-campus, or traditional option was beneficial as it would allow the district to more effectively institute social distancing measures.

“That means places that seemed small before get a little bit bigger,” Thomas said.

District officials also addressed a concern about the impact of state assessment tests during a year wracked by the coronavirus. Both the local Parent Teacher Association, as well as teachers had expressed concern over this issue, calling for the standardized tests to be scrapped this year.

School board Vice Chairman Bill Slayton said that the district would also like to see the tests scuttled — “your board agrees” — but noted that such a decision would need to be made at the state level.

“We are right there, 100 percent with you,” Slayton reassured.

Superintendent Thomas noted that Florida had recently adopted new testing standards, and that he felt the district should advocate that this year be used as a required field-test year for the new standards, thereby effectively alleviating the stress of standardized test for the year.

“It’s very plausible, logical and makes perfect sense for next year,” Thomas said.

Just prior to approving the district’s reopening plan, school board Chairman Patty Hightower thanked the public for their input and noted that officials are being forced to work within constantly shifting dynamics presented by the coronavirus.

“I know this is a very fluid situation,” she said. “And things change.”