POLK COUNTY – Coinciding with the announcement by Gov. Ron DeSantis that he intends for public schools to open at full capacity in the fall, a few dozen local leaders have been meeting to discuss the safest ways for Polk County Public Schools to accomplish that goal during a pandemic.
A local draft plan may be published as early as July 8. Public schools are tentatively scheduled to resume in-person instruction in Polk County on Aug. 10.
More than 40 leaders on four task force committees have been meeting to discuss the pandemic since June 11. On June 24, Polk County Public Schools released videos of the four latest meetings.
There are a number of challenges being discussed.
For example, school bus drivers and attendants may have to take the temperature of a student before he or she gets on the bus and there are concerns over what would happen if a child boarding a bus had a fever.
Some have noted the problematic nature if drivers were made to leave a young student on the side of the road and drive on. Conversely, if the driver puts the child on the bus, that decision could put dozens of other students at risk of contracting the coronavirus.
School buses can transport up to 70 students in normal circumstances, but a full school bus would not allow for social distancing. Staff want to limit the buses to no more than around 50 students.
To make that feasible, more students would need to either be driven to school by family, take online classes or students could possibly go to school on alternate days to free up space on school buses and in classrooms.
Currently, members of the task force committees are working on three options for students – go to school like normal while wearing a mask, attend classes from home through Polk Virtual School or a third option that has yet to be fully defined.
Based on recent discussions, the third option could include teachers creating online classes with help from school administrators at the same time as teaching students in person.
To make that work, teacher union representatives would have to determine whether teachers would be willing to do more work for the same pay. The teachers willing to help set this up would then have to be trained on how to set up distance learning. There was some talk of paying teachers a stipend to do the additional work. Another issue facing the third option is that there are currently not enough computers to assign one to every student.
Several members of the task forces said that no plan can be set in stone without knowing first how many students want which option. Once that is determined, staff would know how many teachers may need to be transferred to Polk Virtual School, for example.
Older teachers, or teachers with preexisting health conditions, would likely have a greater chance for a transfer to the virtual platform, it was suggested.
Another related discussion revolved around the matter that there are only a few reliable ways to verify whether a student is active on Polk Virtual School until grades and assignments start coming in.
Also, Polk Virtual School is primarily for the core classes – most elective classes cannot be completed through the platform. There was talk of having students sign up for a trial run of virtual school, as opposed to registering for a full semester, to prevent students who have trouble learning online from falling behind too far academically.
Members of the task force were not just concerned about student health, but also staff health. Reducing the amount of people on campus at any given time, through increased use of distance learning and having students alternate days at school, would also make work safer for staff.
“These are unprecedented times,” said Michelle Townley, the acting Chief Academic Officer for Polk County Public Schools. “Be patient as staff works on this.”
Another option discussed was seeking church leaders or those who operate community centers to allow students with no access to the internet at home to use said facilities for comfortable study space.
School staff said they would especially like to partner with churches or community leaders in Winter Haven, Haines City, Lake Wales and Lakeland.
Townley said there is no pressure for students and parents to make a choice immediately. More information will be released about school options in the coming days.