Absent any clear threshold from the state, the local DOH tells the Sarasota County School Board to move forward with the planned Aug. 31 opening date.
The Florida Department of Health in Sarasota advised the Sarasota County School Board move forward with a plan to reopen schools at the end of August.
During a workshop Tuesday afternoon, board members asked if there were any firm metrics to indicate whether it is safe to reopen schools in the midst of COVID-19, whether it be the percentage of positive virus test results, pediatric numbers, deaths or any other metric.
However, the local health agency has not received any firm guidance from the state on virus metrics that could justify a closure or greenlight an opening, said Michael Drennon, Program Manager, Disease Intervention Services, for the DOH in Sarasota.
“To set a specific threshold is not something that we are looking to do at this time,” Drennon said.
The School Board plans to open schools on Aug. 31, with options for in-person or remote learning, but after COVID-19’s numbers rose through July, board members are hearing increased calls for an all-remote opening.
A state directive earlier this summer said school boards should open schools full-time in August, but also follow the advice of their local health departments. Monroe County Schools got approval for an all-remote opening last week, based on the guidance of the county’s health department. The move sparked questions, particularly among concerned teachers, about why Sarasota couldn’t do the same.
Drennon said the state was likely to release clearer guidance on target metrics for reopening in the coming week, but for now the board should stick to the current proposal.
“Continue on with the existing plan,” Drennon said. “That would be our recommendation at this time.”
The Florida Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, citing the World Health Organization, recommended not reopening schools until a county’s 14-day new positive virus test rate fell below 5%.
Sarasota’s seven-day positive COVID-19 test rate has slightly trended down in recent weeks, from a high of 11.1% of positive test results in early July to 7.1% at the end of the month.
Board members want firm data for their decision, but Drennon said the state hadn’t offered clear metrics yet.
“We are looking upon you as the subject matter expert, so I am asking you what data, numbers or criteria would you use to say it is irresponsible to open up brick and mortar?” board member Eric Robinson asked.
Board chairwoman Caroline Zucker said the lack of clarity left the board in an unfair position.
“We are really left out here alone to make this decision whether to go back or not,” Zucker said.
The board is continuing with the Aug. 31 reopening plan at this point, but with new Superintendent Brennan Asplen starting his job next week, and further guidance expected from the state, the issue could be revisited.
Face covering policy
The School Board adopted a 90-day face covering policy on Tuesday. The new policy applies to students, teachers and anyone present on a school campus or in a school district vehicle.
The policy requires “face coverings,” which include cloth face masks or translucent face shields. Students who refuse could be sent home and required to participate in remote learning.
The board debated whether to allow face shields, ultimately deciding to include shields to get as much compliance as possible.
The policy provides exceptions for people who have a doctor’s note indicating that they have a medical, physical or psychological condition that prevents them from wearing a face covering.
The face coverings will not be mandatory when students or staff are outdoors with social distance from others or indoors when alone.
The face coverings are also not required while eating, exercising, performing or receiving medical treatment, and district administrators said young students in particular would have plenty of breaks in safe settings from wearing the coverings.
Fewer students have enrolled in Sarasota County Schools this year, according to preliminary figures. The decrease in enrollment is 1,830 full-time enrolled students, but staff know from prior years that families who don’t register for school still show up on day one.
Interest in virtual school is spiking, from 34 in 2019-20 to 516 this year, and the number of families opting for home school increased from 1,142 students last year to 1,622 this year.
Virtual school is a self-paced all online learning program, offered either through the state or Sarasota Virtual, and it is different from the district’s “remote learning” option, in which students will participate in classes from home through web cameras.
The greatest decrease in enrollment is in the number of children in kindergarten, with the number falling from 2,535 kindergarten students last year at this time to 1,468 this year.
Based on the historical data, and the district’s inability to hold kindergarten registration events this summer, the staff is anticipating an actual overall dip in enrollment of roughly 900 students, which would equate to a decrease in funding of $7.1 million.
As for teachers, despite mounting anger from a vocal segment of teachers over being called to return to the classroom during the pandemic, the district has fewer teachers resigning or taking leave this year than last.
At this point last year, 143 teachers had either resigned or applied to take a leave of absence. As of Tuesday, 141 teachers had decided the same. However, those numbers are likely impacted by uncertainty over what the school year will look like.
The number of retirements has increased, from 70 in 2019 to 100 in 2020, with teachers representing the majority of the increase, from 26 last year to 63 this year.
The board encouraged the district to extend the window for teachers to take a leave of absence, based on the possibility that many are waiting to see how the pandemic evolves before making the decision on whether to return.
One major question for teachers is if they will be eligible for worker’s compensation payments if they catch COVID-19 when the school year resumes.
District staff said they can’t offer a blanket waiver because every claim must be investigated individually. With a wide-spread pandemic, it may be extremely difficult for a teacher to prove they contracted the virus while at work.