Children will start the school year with online lessons, not in-person classes, board members concluded.

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The Palm Beach Post|By Andrew Marra Jul. 8, 2020

Students in Palm Beach County public schools will continue learning from home when classes resume next month after school board members concluded Wednesday the risks of reopening classrooms were too great.

Under increasing pressure from teachers and local health experts, the seven board members unanimously agreed to keep classes online-only for the district’s roughly 170,000 students until the coronavirus pandemic improves.

“We’re truly not ready,” board member Marcia Andrews said. “We’re not ready from a health standpoint. And we’re not ready from a planning standpoint.”

The decision, expected to be finalized by a formal vote next week, has far-reaching implications for families across the county, and it comes as the debate over school reopening intensifies nationally.

Keeping classrooms closed delays the return to more normal work and social routines that many families had hoped for.

But it also relieves parents, for now, of the wrenching decision of whether to send their children back to campuses potentially teeming with the coronavirus.

The decision had seemed increasingly inevitable, as some board members and then the county teachers union called in recent weeks for school campuses to stay closed when classes resume Aug. 10.

Then on Wednesday, Schools Superintendent Donald Fennoy announced a key panel of health experts had recommended that campuses not reopen until the rate of new COVID-19 cases improves.

Reluctantly, board members agreed the health risks of reopening had outweighed the emotional and educational risks to students of staying closed.

“I think the reality is we don’t have a lot of options now but to look at virtual,” board member Chuck Shaw said.

The recommendation to keep campuses closed comes amid growing pressure from state and federal leaders to reopen campuses – and increasing calls locally to keep them closed.

Earlier Wednesday, President Donald Trump threatened to cut federal money to school districts that do not reopen for in-person classes.

At the state level, Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran on Monday issued an order calling for Florida’s public schools to offer in-person classes five days a week. State officials say that districts can disregard the order if local health experts deem classroom teaching too dangerous.

But with all of South Florida still in Phase 1 of the state’s reopening plan, school leaders across South Florida so far have resisted pressure to reopen.

In Miami-Dade County, the schools superintendent said this week that teaching will be done virtually until the county emerges from Phase 1. Broward County’s schools superintendent said he “does not see a realistic path” to reopening classes five days a week.

With Palm Beach County now determined to keep classes online for now, board member Karen Brill said that the district should move quickly to figure out how and when reopening would be possible.

“The discussion that we need to begin as soon as possible… is what are the metrics to determine when it will be safe to reopen?” Brill asked.

Fennoy said he was working with the district’s health advisory committee on a set of benchmarks to determine when schools might safely reopen.

Board member Erica Whitfield, the board’s most outspoken advocate for reopening classrooms, said she continued to worry deeply about the long-term effects of keeping children out of school.

But she said the virus’s unrelenting spread in recent weeks had forced her to reconsider.

“I have finally come to the place where I realize that there is just not a good way to go back,” Whitfield said.

“The discussion that we need to begin as soon as possible… is what are the metrics to determine when it will be safe to reopen?” Brill asked.

Fennoy said he was working with the district’s health advisory committee on a set of benchmarks to determine when schools might safely reopen.

Board member Erica Whitfield, the board’s most outspoken advocate for reopening classrooms, said she continued to worry deeply about the long-term effects of keeping children out of school.

But she said the virus’s unrelenting spread in recent weeks had forced her to reconsider.

“I have finally come to the place where I realize that there is just not a good way to go back,” Whitfield said.

Fennoy said he was working with the district’s health advisory committee on a set of benchmarks to determine when schools might safely reopen.

Board member Erica Whitfield, the board’s most outspoken advocate for reopening classrooms, said she continued to worry deeply about the long-term effects of keeping children out of school.

But she said the virus’s unrelenting spread in recent weeks had forced her to reconsider.

“I have finally come to the place where I realize that there is just not a good way to go back,” Whitfield said.

ORIGINAL STORY: 

A key panel of health experts has advised Palm Beach County public schools not to reopen campuses until the coronavirus pandemic improves, raising the likelihood that most students will learn from home when the academic year begins.

Schools Superintendent Donald Fennoy announced the committee’s recommendation at a school board meeting Wednesday as district leaders briefed board members on their ongoing reopening plans.

The health advisory committee, Fennoy said, “stated emphatically on Monday that, based on the current number of COVID cases in Palm Beach County, members could not recommend in-person instruction at this time.”

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Board members are not expected to make a final decision until next week on reopening plans for the district’s roughly 180 campuses. But the committee’s advice puts new pressure on members already skittish about convening in-person classes amid skyrocketing COVID-19 cases.

Indeed, board members seemed to concede Wednesday that keeping schools online-only was all but inevitable come Aug. 10.

“I think the reality is we don’t have a lot of options now but to look at virtual,” board member Chuck Shaw said Wednesday.

“The only thing we can do is a distance model” board member Marcia Andrews added. “There’s no way we could ever go that here in PBC, even with a blended model.”

Board member Karen Brill said she, too, does “not believe we can safely reopen brick and mortar on Aug. 10.”

She said that the district should move quickly to figure out how and when reopening would be possible.

“The discussion that we need to begin as soon as possible… is what are the metrics to determine what will be used to determine when it will be safe to reopen?” Brill asked.

The recommendation to keep campuses closed comes amid growing pressure from state and federal leaders to reopen campuses – and increasing calls locally to keep them closed.

Earlier Wednesday, President Donald Trump threatened to cut federal money to school districts that do not reopen for in-person classes.

At the state level, Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran on Monday issued an order calling for Florida’s public schools to offer in-person classes five days a week. State officials say that districts can disregard the order if local health experts deem classroom teaching too dangerous.

But with all of South Florida still in Phase 1 of the state’s reopening plan, school leaders across South Florida so far have resisted pressure to reopen.

In Miami-Dade County, the schools superintendent said this week that teaching will be done virtually until the county emerges from Phase 1. Broward County’s schools superintendent said he “does not see a realistic path” to reopening classes five days a week.

In Palm Beach, a majority of board members last week said they felt deeply uneasy reopening classrooms when classes are scheduled to resume Aug. 10. But they stopped short of making any definitive decisions.

The county’s teachers union has called for learning to be restricted to virtual classes until the pandemic improves, a proposal endorsed by multiple board members.

One member of the district’s health advisory committee, State Rep. Matt Willhite, D-Wellington, said that all committee members seemed to agree Monday that any plans to reopen were overly risky given the rise in the number of cases.

“How can we make a decision that absolutely in a month we will open up when cases are on the rise?” he said. “I personally am not going to send my two kids back to school in less than a month.”