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A teacher wearing protective face mask as she teaches close to pupils at a primary school in Morges, Switzerland, Monday, May 11, 2020. Swiss primary and secondary schools reopened with half of the students during the ongoing coronavirus Covid-19 pandemic. (Laurent Gillieron/Keystone via AP)

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Mandatory masks, social distancing on the table for Pinellas County Schools’ reopening

Despite protests from teachers, Pinellas County Schools move forward with reopening plans.

During a workshop Tuesday, Pinellas County School Board members discussed plans to reopen schools next month.

As they met, teachers gathered outside calling for the district to halt reopening plans until the raging COVID-19 pandemic wanes, calling for online classes only until the county has 14 consecutive days with no new cases.

Nothing was finalized in Tuesday’s meeting, but board members did address protocols to reopen despite concerns.

That’s because their hands may be tied.

Last week, Richard Corcoran, Florida’s Education Commissioner, issued an emergency order requiring school districts to offer in-person schooling five days a week with access to a full-range of academic services.

Following the order, the Pinellas County School Board released a reopening plan for the 2020-2021 school year. The plan received backlash from teachers for not adhering to federal guidelines and for not prioritizing the health of students and faculty. Some School Board members shared those concerns. 

Members Rene Flowers and Lisa Cane expressed disappointment and concern over the district’s inability to choose whether or not to reopen schools in their district. 

“If we don’t feel it’s safe to let parents come in and do PTA meetings, how can we expect them to feel safe sending their children into that building,” Cane said. “I feel it’s incomprehensible as a society to have that expectation.”

Many teachers might not have much of a choice in whether to return to the classroom, but parents and students will.

Pinellas students have three options on how to start the school year: traditional in-person school, MyPCS Online and Pinellas Virtual School. Parents have until 5 p.m. on July 27 to choose how they want to proceed.

At the meeting, the board discussed what each of these options mean, focusing on new protocols for safety in a traditional school setting and addressing potential technology issues for MyPCS Online. 

Students will have more accessibility to digital options.

The county will now provide any student who needs a device with one, said Kevin Hendrick, associate superintendent for teaching and learning services. That’s a change from what happened when schools closed in the spring when families with more than one school-aged children were provided just one or two devices per family.

The county purchased 41,000 laptops with cameras and speaker capability to address uncertainty facing the upcoming school year, said Superintendent Michael Grego. Right now, the devices aren’t scheduled to arrive until mid-September, a month after the school year starts, but the board is working to receive the devices sooner. 

For brick and mortar schools, the board discussed the importance of masks, social distancing in the classroom and during lunch, cleaning protocols and athletics.

Doctors on the board’s advisory team addressed health protocols. 

Dr. Allison Messina, chairman of the Division of Infectious Disease at John Hopkins All Children’s Hospital, emphasized the need for masks. She said school meal periods and activities like chorus and band present challenges for mask-wearing, but suggested holding lunch outside and social distancing to address those concerns. 

Cane expressed concern about enforcing mask wearing and worried about vocal fatigue caused by wearing a mask for long periods of time. 

While Messina suggested microphones may help with vocal fatigue, the board agreed enforcing masks may pose a challenge for teachers, which may have to wait until classes start to be addressed.

Messina also discussed the need for flexibility to transition students from in-person to online instruction in the event a student needs to be quarantined. 

“We know that this is going to happen, and we don’t want kids to lose instructional time,” she said. 

The board went over what athletics may look like for fall. High schools are currently only allowed to practice voluntary, outdoor activities in small groups. Even with those precautions, a handful of students and coaches have already tested positive fo COVID-19, which the board discussed. Protocols for middle school athletics are still being worked out. 

The board introduced new cleaning protocols, specified to best fit each space. The district also plans to install hand sanitizer stations throughout schools. Those stations will be routinely checked and refilled. 

Resources for teachers and staff were briefly discussed, including offering training for online teaching. 

“We’re positioning ourselves for any of these pathways,” Grego said. “Changes are going to likely happen, this is a very fluid document.”

The final plan is due by July 31.

Written By

Kelly Hayes studied journalism and political science at the University of Florida. Kelly was born and raised in Tampa Bay. A recent graduate, she enjoys government and legal reporting. She has experience covering the Florida Legislature as well as local government, and is a proud Alligator alum. You can reach Kelly at khayes15966@gmail.com.

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