Palm Beach Post |By Andrew Marra | June 27, 2020
The spike in new COVID-19 cases means virtual learning would be safer when classes resume in August, the union’s president argues.
Palm Beach County’s teachers union is calling on the school district to keep campuses closed to students when classes resume in August, saying that a return to in-person schooling is “a dangerous gamble” with the coronavirus pandemic worsening.
In a letter to district leaders, teachers union President Justin Katz said Friday that the recent spike in new COVID-19 infections makes it impossible to guarantee a safe return for students and teachers, even with the social distancing measures being planned.
“The dangerous trajectory of COVID-19 cases in Florida has led us to believe that (in-person schooling) should still be offered, but not until a point in time when the on-campus option can be executed in a safe and responsible manner,” Katz wrote. “We no longer believe that is possible at this time.”
Katz calls on the school board to “limit instruction to virtual means with no on-campus activity with students until such time that the medical and scientific community are able to convey that it is safe to do so.”
The Classroom Teachers Association’s opposition to reopening campuses puts new pressure on the school board to reconsider its plans for the Aug. 10 start of school. The union represents 12,500 teachers, counselors and other educators, many of whom are 60 or older, putting them at greater risk from COVID-19.
District officials said Saturday that the union’s concerns will “receive serious consideration” but said it is also surveying parents and its own employees and will factor all their feedback into its decisions.
“It’s important to remember that final decisions that the District will make will be based on a variety of factors including financial, legal, health and other requirements that the District must meet in the best interests of all students, staff and community members,” the district said in a statement.
District leaders are still crafting school-reopening plans, but they have said they intend for students to have an option to learn completely from home or take in-person classes in some form.
Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration called this month for schools to fully reopen, saying online schooling is ineffective and will stunt the education of hundreds of thousands of students.
But the prospect of reopening classrooms is facing new doubts as the pandemic worsens.
This past week, the school board’s longest serving member, Debra Robinson, called for delaying the start of the school year, and a majority of board members said they were open to the proposal.
A district survey of 66,000 parents this month found that they are deeply divided about sending their children back to campus, and that unease about resuming in-person classes was far more prevalent in Black and Hispanic households.
In his letter, Katz acknowledged the academic harm to limiting students to online classes but said the risks of allowing students to reconvene by the hundreds were too great.
“All evidence indicates that for the foreseeable future, returning to on-campus instructional activity in any capacity is a dangerous gamble at best and dramatically heightens the risks to the lives of both employees and students,” he wrote.
In his letter, Katz did not suggest any benchmarks for when classrooms could be opened to students. He said in an interview Saturday that the decision should be made based on federal guidelines for lifting shutdowns, such as a sustained period of declining COVID-19 diagnoses.
While saying it is theoretically possible that new cases could decline significantly in the six weeks before classes resume, he expressed doubt that would happen with enough time to prepare teachers and students for in-person classes on the first day.
“We seem to be back on the wrong side of the curve,” he said, referring to recent jumps in the number of coronavirus infections in Palm Beach County and statewide, “and worse off than before.”
If the district does decide to delay reopening classrooms, it is sure to set off an outcry from many parents who worry about their children’s welfare without school routines and depend on schools to care for children while they work.
School board member Erica Whitfield, the board’s most vocal advocate for reopening campuses in August, has argued keeping students at home is harming the educations and physical and emotional well-being of untold thousands of students.
But as the numbers of cases spike, she said even she has become ambivalent about summoning children back to school on Aug. 10.
“I’m super nervous,” she said Saturday. “I haven’t come to a final decision on it yet. I still remain concerned about our kids, the ones who are not in school, so I’m still wrestling. But the uptick of cases has me really worried.”