LABELLE -- During the July 28 Hendry School Board meeting, the original reopening plan for Hendry County Schools was approved by the board. The plan was approved with haste, due to the State’s deadline looming over the board, as they worked hard to make the best, safest decisions for children and staff. However, changes were made to the plan that was submitted almost immediately, during the school board meeting held on Tuesday, August 4.
During the prior school board meetings, many parents and teachers expressed their concerns. Some worried about how long it might be before the schools would be forced to close due to staff, students, and/or teachers contracting COVID-19, or even showing symptoms.
Teachers who have pre-existing health concerns and immunodeficiencies had requested the plan for remote learning. While other teachers who have pre-existing conditions have been and will continue to report to school, with the worry whether social distancing and masks are enough to avoid a devastating outbreak. There were teachers who are in support of opening schools, because they have decided their own, personal risk is low.
Dr. Joseph D. Pepe Administrator/Health Officer for the Florida Department of Health, Hendry and Glades Counties and Dr. Wilhelmina Lewis, CEO of Florida Community Health Centers both seemed to agree that the spread of the virus could happen very quickly, possibly only taking a few weeks to be detrimental enough to force closures.
One hard and fast rule was made during that July 28 meeting, that would require face masks on campus at all times, a mandate that was put into place effective immediately. The emergency policy for facial coverings encompasses all students, staff, contractors, vendors, and visitors.
At the start of the Aug. 4 meeting, Superintendent Paul Puletti read an email from Matt Yeomans, that had been submitted for citizen comment. In the email Yeomans wrote, “Please don’t give into the fear mongering of a few concerned parents in making mandatory masks on the premises for all children.” Yeomans email stated “minuscule odds” regarding the COVID-19 death rate, and asked the board consider removing the mandate that is currently in place. There was no further citizen comment submitted.
The members of the Hendry County School Board discussed their concern for everyone’s health and safety, and the students’ need for stability, consistency and routine. District 5 School Board member, Jon Basquin, spoke openly opposing the plan for total remote learning.
Superintendent Paul Pulett stated his concern regarding the possible loss of staff that would hinder their ability to keep everyone safe. He expressed the importance of students being in schools, but that due to the pandemic the situation was not safe. “There is no road that you can go down in making this decision, that doesn’t have a potential train wreck at the end of it," he said.
He went on to say, having schools open then quickly closed due to viral outbreak, would likely wreak more havoc on students and parents. He went on to state that the county’s COVID-19 positive test results were at 26+% for all citizens and over 20% for those 18 and under. He mentioned July averages were higher than any previous month in Hendry County. He restated the need to operate under the need for an abundance of caution.
The starting date for the 2020-21 school year has been pushed from August 17 to August 24, with the decision that Hendry County schools will resume fully virtual, until the positive COVID-19 case rate for Hendry County declines to 10% or below for 10 consecutive days.
When asked about the one week delay, despite schools being opened virtually, Puletti explained the plan was in order for teachers to have more time to prepare their programs, especially now that all learning would be virtual.
The recorded Hendry County School Board meetings can be watched here :https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCiJ7IQBHE2_tdQ0-ssCSiNA/live