Palm Beach Schools protest

Fear and anger overshadow return to schools in Palm Beach County

Headlines

South Florida Sun Sentinel | by Scott Travis | September 9, 2020

The return to school campuses in Palm Beach County is being marred by fear, anger, poor communication and an exodus of students.

County schools are scheduled to open Sept. 21, but many teachers and some School Board members say the district is far from ready.

The new year started remotely on Aug. 31 due to continued concerns over COVID-19, but enrollment figures show thousands of kids are gone, particularly in the elementary grades. District officials said it’s unclear how many will return once buildings reopen.

Enrollment numbers from Sept. 4 show 191,000 students, down by 7,000 students from last year. If those students don’t return by the official state enrollment count in early October, the district could face big budget cuts and employee layoffs.

Those missing students include kindergarteners whose parents have decided not to send them to school yet and children who are now being home-schooled or attending private schools, officials said. Broward County has reported a similar decline.

“My fears are really, really strong that we will have to get to a position of layoffs and I’m beyond terrified for that, not just for our employees but the community as a whole,” board member Erica Whitfield said. “The impact could be so great for the whole county. We’re the largest employer.”

Many teachers have voiced health concerns and have asked to work remotely. Some will get that chance, but others will have to work at school or take unpaid leave, Superintendent Donald Fennoy said Wednesday, angering teachers and School Board member Marcia Andrews, a former personnel director for the district.

“It should not be a choice between your life and your livelihood. People are afraid. They have a lot of anxiety,” Andrews said.

Board members say they are being flooded with panicked emails from teachers, other employees and parents.

“Teachers are still uncertain what their classrooms will look like and they’re concerned we won’t process requests for distance learning before the school year starts or won’t have enough {personal protection equipment],” board member Karen Brill said.

“Bus drivers are worried about what happens if children refuse to wear masks,” Brill said. “Parents are concerned a return to brick and mortar simply means they’ll be online all day in a classroom instead of home.”

Classroom Teachers Association President Justin Katz has complained that teachers were misled about whether they got to work at home, initially being told they could if they were uncomfortable returning to school, only to have the district do an about-face. He called for the removal of Gonzalo La Cava, the district’s human resources director.

“I’ve never seen us stumble this greatly before,” Katz said.

School Board members were reviewing a draft Wednesday night of what protocols employees should follow. Some are unusual, including encouraging employees to eat lunch in their cars.

“Employees are encouraged to utilize outdoor spaces, their personal vehicles or off-district property locations for meals, when possible,” the proposal states. “Employees should not be without facial covering for this purpose for more than 15 consecutive minutes. Eating and drinking may not be used as an excuse not to wear a facial covering.”

There are also questions about whether employees will be able to seek workers’ compensation if they get infected with COVID-19.

“Risk management and its adjusters will investigate workers’ compensation eligibility if a notice of injury is filed,” the proposal states. “At this time, only first responders (school police) are presumed to have contracted the virus at work. All others must file health insurance claims.”

Board members, who were still debating the proposal Wednesday night, blasted district staff for not having a plan ready during the summer. La Cava said the district was still waiting on data and that the district had never taken on an effort like this before, an excuse that annoyed School Board member Debra Robinson.

“Let us avoid saying we’ve never done this before,” Robinson said. “Nobody has done any of this before. The students haven’t done this before. The parents haven’t. The teachers haven’t. Don’t tell me that again.”

Superintendent Fennoy said there’s no excuse for the delays but “the charge now is to get it done. Twenty-four hours. Every day this weekend. That’s the charge.”

Photo: Parents and teachers protest the reopening of school buildings outside the Palm Beach School District Building in West Palm Beach on Tuesday. (Mike Stocker / South Florida Sun Sentinel)