School in Alachua County will begin two weeks later than planned under a plan approved Wednesday night.
The Alachua County School Board held a public Zoom meeting to discuss and vote on policies that would be enforced in the 2020-2021 school year. They included pushing the start date from Aug. 10 to 24 to give teachers, parents and students time to prepare for in-person education during the coronavirus era.
The school board produced an outline of the information that would be discussed in the meeting and also provided the public with an outline of the actual policy that would be enforced in schools. The school board made sure to include in the outlined policy that the State of Florida is under a declared state of emergency and that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends everyone cover their nose and face with a face covering.
Before the school board members made a vote on the policy, they opened their telephone line to citizens wanting to give their input on enforcing masks in public schools. Many of the callers were parents and some were teachers — all of whom were in favor of the mask policy.
Still, some had concerns about the mechanics of the policy.
Leann Campbell was concerned with a section in the policy outline that initially said students, faculty and staff are allowed to remove their face covering when the covering impedes instruction.
“I really think we need to decide which way we’re going to go with this,” Campbell said, “because unfortunately masks are going to impede instruction all day.”
This concern ultimately led to the board clarifying that people who have a documented underlying condition that prevents them from using a mask can be excused from wearing a face covering. The board felt that it would only be acceptable for a person to not wear a face covering as long as they had medical documentation that their condition that prevents them from doing so.
Another concern brought up by citizens is how students will be dealt with if they decide to stop wearing their face covering.
District administrators said such incidents would not be handled as if they were behavioral issues but instead as a health and safety problem. Donna Kidwell is the executive director for Alachua County’s Student Support Services, and she addressed this concern: “We are going to at all cost try to avoid a disciplinary record…initially speaking we’re going to give everyone grace and compassion in adjusting to this.”
Later in the meeting, Superintendent Karen Clarke said teachers and staff will be given days or weeks of training in new class procedures before school starts again. Clarke also said the county ordered over 100,000 disposable and cloth masks to keep school buses and classrooms stocked for students who don’t have a mask.
Alex Rella, assistant superintendent in business services, said Alachua County schools have 4,600 face shields in stock, and 5,000 more are on the way.
School Board Chairwoman Eileen Roy motioned for enforcement of the mask policy, and members voted 5-0 in favor of enforcing the policy in public schools.
The second main item for discussion on the board’s agenda was whether the start date for the 2020-2021 school year should remain the same or be delayed.
Board members agreed teachers should be given extra time to prepare and train for reopening of schools, but their worry was how much those extra days would cost Alachua County in time and money.
A typical school year is at least 180 days long. The initial thought was that teachers would be given three days for training in digital content and COVID-19 protocols, but board members Gunnar Paulson and Leanetta McNealy did not agree with the length of time teachers were given to prepare. Both board members believed that the length of time to prepare should be longer.
Paulson moved for the district to push the start date to Aug. 24 and to give two extra days to teachers for their training for a total of five days. Those two extra days will come from the district’s hurricane day pool, meaning no extra district expense. The School Board voted 5-0 in favor of this change.
The board meeting ended after eight hours. Members will again convene to discuss the 2020-21 budget on Tuesday at 6 p.m.