Lock in school attendance choice by Oct. 14, board decides

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The Palm Beach Post | by Sonja Isger | October 1, 2020

Distancing in classrooms helps when a child contracts coronavirus by limiting who gets quarantined.

A plan to ask Palm Beach County parents to lock into remote or in-person learning for their children next quarter gained school board approval Wednesday night.

That nod, however, came with the insistence that staff use the resulting enrollment stability to find more opportunities to match teachers who want to work remotely with students attending remotely.

The task, which gives parents an Oct. 14 deadline, is just one of several board members and district leaders prioritized as the county works through its second week of open campuses. 

This year, the standard head count to align teachers and resources with changes to enrollment won’t be enough. Board members want to know where those students are sitting. 

“Do we have kids closer than 6 feet apart? Teachers tell us we do,” board member Barbara McQuinn said. 

District leaders repeatedly promised schools would aim for 6 feet, but would fall back to 3 feet in some cases to avoid sending students out of a class, flexibility found in some guidance from the American Academy of Pediatrics. 

But those 6 feet proved vital just last week, when a high school student in south county was diagnosed with COVID-19, Barbieri said. 

“The fact that the student was 6 feet away from anyone else meant no one had to quarantine,” Barbieri said. He said he spoke with Dr. Alina Alonso, the county’s health director, who told him if students had sat any closer, they’d all have to be quarantined. 

“We’re getting all these emails saying the desks are only 3 feet apart — a lot are elementary. At a high school there’s no reason we should give any teacher or principal to move them closer than 6 feet. We need to stress it has to be 6 feet.” 

Palm Beach County School Board Chairman Frank Barbieri listens Sept. 16 at a board meeting in West Palm Beach. [ALLEN EYESTONE/palmbeachpost.com]
Palm Beach County School Board Chairman Frank Barbieri listens Sept. 16 at Board meeting in West Palm Beach. ALLEN EYESTONE / The Palm Beach Post

Deputy Superintendent Keith Oswald said a majority of the schools have maintained that space. The few that haven’t are typically elementary schools where a large portion of the enrollment returned to campus, including certain schools in McQuinn’s north county district. 

He told the board that the staff could compile a list including school capacity under 6-foot distancing rules and enrollment to reveal a better picture of the situation. 

Distancing is only one enrollment challenge. Next week, the district will take its official head count for the state, and it appears the district may be down by 7,500 students, a deficit that could cost Palm Beach County public schools roughly $60 million, Chief Financial Officer Mike Burke told the board. 

The pandemic has created problems of shrinking enrollment across the country. Parents have turned to private schools and virtual schools. They’ve also delayed sending their youngest ones to kindergarten. 

On the flip side, thousands of students are remaining at home giving schools room they need to meet that 6-foot spacing. That won’t always be the case. 

“At some point, people are going to come back,” Superintendent Donald Fennoy cautioned. “Do we do a lottery? How are we going to tell certain families you can’t come back? We’re not there yet, but at some point that’s going to be a challenging conversation.”  

For now, parents have until Oct. 14 to decide how their children will attend school. They will be committed to that choice for the second nine weeks, which begins Nov. 4 and runs through mid-January. They will then be given the choice again for the remaining semester. 

Featured image: Allen Eyestone | The Palm Beach Post