HENDRY COUNTY — During an emergency meeting Tuesday, Aug. 11, the Hendry County School Board voted on an amendment to the previously submitted plan for opening schools for the 2020-21 school year following a suggestion from the chancellor of the Department of Education. The amendment was made in order to comply with an executive order handed down by Gov. Ron DeSantis regarding school buildings being required to open five days a week, beginning in August.
The opening plan, which had originally stated schools would be 100% distance and virtual learning until COVID-19 cases had flattened to 10% or below for 10 consecutive days, was amended to a distance learning start date for all students on Aug. 24, including those who had chosen Option 1, in-person learning. After the first five days of distance learning, brick and mortar schools would then open for in-person attendance on Aug. 31.
“We cannot eliminate risk, but we can mitigate risk,” Superintendent Paul Puletti said during the emergency meeting that convened at 10 a.m.
Both Puletti and School Board Chairwoman Stephan Busin agreed there were no perfect choices during this difficult situation, but noted the extra week of distance learning had at least two positive points. The first, where an extra week would allow all students to familiarize themselves with the new distance learning program, would help for a smoother transition in case schools or classrooms had to be shut down later, or for any students who might be sent home after contracting the virus or quarantined due to exposure. The second reflects a hope that an extra week might show the numbers of positive coronavirus cases flattening before the schools opened.
Puletti also explained, by starting distance education for all students on Aug. 24, it would help to prevent having to extend the school year those extra days, which could cost thousands for staff and teacher salaries, when the school budget already has been hit hard by the pandemic.
Board member Jon Basquin opposed the amendment to the plan, questioning Puletti regarding whether there were enough Chromebooks for all of the students and how those would be distributed, especially for those who could not access the internet.
Puletti explained that all students had obtained the needed equipment earlier, during the spring emergency shutdown, and the same process for distribution would be used. Those who are unable to access internet would be provided with the paper packets. He reminded the board of the need for grace and compassion during this unprecedented situation, also adding “a great deal of rigor” would also be needed.
There was some discussion regarding the validity of requiring body temperature checks, and the variables surrounding them. Several suggestions and observations had pointed to possible elevated body temperatures while students were wearing masks. The overall consensus was that temperature checks were rife with consistency and accuracy problems. Puletti revealed that the recent recommendation not to check student body temperatures was made after thermometers and equipment had been purchased.
After a lengthy discussion regarding the amendment, board members voted, passing the amendment 4-1. Basquin voted against the change.
Parents were later discussing the confusion surrounding the plans for opening Hendry County schools on social media. Many asking each other what their plans were. Some stated that regardless whether the schools were open for in-person learning, there were two options for digital learning offered that parents should utilize wherever possible. Some parents began the rush to purchase masks and back-to-school clothing that they had previously postponed. Others were left trying to understand the changes and what that meant for their children and families.