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Palm Beach County School Board Approves Virtual Learning, Postpones School Start Date

Palm Beach County school board meeting on July 15

The Palm Beach County School Board unanimously approved Superintendent Donald Fennoy’s reopening plan, which called for the district’s 174,000 students to start the academic year with distance learning.

Fennoy’s plan called for a staggered return to in-person instruction when COVID-19 cases drop significantly and when the county is ready to move into phase two of the state’s reopening plan.

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“Everything we’re doing right now is speculation because we cannot control COVID,” Fennoy said.

After a 10-hour meeting that lasted well beyond midnight, the board members decided to postpone the upcoming academic year and resume classes sometime in late August. But the members couldn’t decide on a start date — a majority of the board settled for Aug. 31, but made no formal decision.

Finnoy said district leaders may make a formal decision on a late start to school sometime next week — that’s after his team researched the “consequences” it could have on teachers and thousands of employees.

The school board plans to meet again July 22.

Chief Financial Officer Mike Burke says a late start to school could create gaps in pay — district leaders need more time to assess the calendar and may need to negotiate with unions.

The county’s academic year was slated to begin Aug. 10, but was delayed after board member Barbara McQuinn proposed an amendment to delay reopening school to "to give teachers more time to prepare for virtual teaching" and parents and students more time to make arrangements.

She proposed an early September start date before the board settled on Aug. 31. Board member Marcia Andrews and Chairman Frank Barbieri agreed, saying the extra three weeks gives the community more time to set up better access to computers and the internet. There are no comprehensive solutions for how to accommodate parents who can’t work from home.

Board members perused Fennoy's 52-page presentation for school reopening, working through logistical challenges and expectations. Members focused on the impact on students through an equity lens, addressing issues surrounding children with disabilities, internet and equipment, teacher training and onboarding, school attendance, transportation, sanitation, funding, and how to move forward with moving back into brick and mortar.

Nearly 70,000 people live streamed the virtual meeting, according to YouTube data. And the polarizing in-person and pre-recorded public comments from more than 180 residents lasted nearly 5 hours.

Fennoy's recommendation to start the year with distance learning brought out strong opinions on both sides.

In the first public comment, a woman was in support of keeping schools online. She cited evidence from Dr. Alina Alonso — the county's health director — saying the "county is heading in the wrong direction and is failing all of the benchmarks" that would allow for a safe reopening.

Randy Maale, a retired law enforcement executive, is a father of two boys with autism. He says he's advocating for families with children "that cannot learn from an online system." There are "needs that can't be met virtually."

Victoria Burgess, who has a 5-year-old, called the board's propsal a "one size does not fit all” approach. She added that an "option should be available for those that think otherwise.”

"What about jobs that can't be done remotely?" Burgess asked. 

Silma Mora says many kids "only eat the meal the schools offer them."

"Not all of us have the privilege of working at home," Mora said.

Kassandra Suarez said “safety really needs to be a priority.”

And Jake Rose said the board should consider population density, impoverished, and migrant areas, and specifically mentioned the Glades area. He said they're often forgotten in decision-making.

Under Fennoy’s distance-learning plan, students will follow a daily distance-learning schedule that would mirror their in-person bell schedules. He said the plan also allows for teachers to have live sessions from their classrooms and for students to have a minimum of 24 hours to complete assignments.

Also during Wednesday's meeting, Chairman Frank Barbieri suggested that Dr. Alonso was silenced by state health officials in Tallahassee.

Dr. Alonso — who is part of the district’s health advisory committee — was, according to Barbieri, in the process of writing a recommendation letter to the county saying school campuses should remain closed amid the spike in cases of COVID-19.

“She was in the process of negotiating that and then she got a call from the surgeon general from the state of Florida telling her to keep her mouth shut and not speak about it,” Barbieri said. “And I know that’s a fact because it’s been confirmed by several people.”

Board member Chuck Shaw raised concerns about how a late start date fits with their plans, fearing the increased politicization on the county and state level. He called public discourse a “a political fight.”

“We’ve got to divorce ourselves from the fight to make a decision,” Shaw said.

When the school board decides on a start date next week, the plan will be sent to the Florida Department of Education for approval.

Wilkine Brutus is a reporter and producer for WLRN and a guest faculty member at the Poynter Institute. The South Florida native produces stories on topics surrounding local news, culture, art, politics and current affairs.