LARGO — With Florida reporting tens of thousands of new COVID-19 cases every week, Pinellas County School Board members spent much of Tuesday discussing a reopening plan that they might not even fully implement.
Superintendent Mike Grego made it clear that, if the coronavirus continues to spread unchecked, the district might not be able to open its schools on Aug. 12, as planned.
And four out of seven board members expressed regrets at having to oversee reopening at such a precarious time.
“I know what the governor is saying, and now even he is wearing a mask,” board member Rene Flowers said. “We just can’t guarantee the safety of anyone through this.”
Added board member Lisa Cane: “It’s incomprehensible to expect this of a community.”
As the board spoke in a virtual meeting that the public could hear but not see, a crowd of teachers and parents protested the reopening outside the district’s Largo headquarters.
Chants of “14 days, no new cases” pic.twitter.com/eIM7ElSwvW— Divya Kumar (@divyadivyadivya)
Chants of “14 days, no new cases” pic.twitter.com/eIM7ElSwvW— Divya Kumar (@divyadivyadivya) July 14, 2020
Separately, the state Department of Health released the latest in a string of sobering statistics.
Between Monday and Tuesday across the state, there were 9,194 reported infections of the coronavirus, which causes COVID-19, and a record high of 133 deaths. The case count followed totals of 12,624 on Monday and 15,300 on Sunday.
In Pinellas, to date, there have been 11,754 cases since the pandemic began early in the year, 989 hospitalizations and 264 deaths, including 26 deaths reported on Tuesday.
School officials said in the limited activity that has taken place this summer on campus, there have been COVID-19 cases reported among students and staff. These contagions happened outside school, they said, most likely in the home or in social settings.
It’s impossible to say what will happen when children and adults are in sealed buildings for six to seven hours every day.
The plan discussed Tuesday calls for universal masking, and staff face shields for those cases in which children cannot handle being masked. Desks will be moved apart, but not always a full 6 feet. Extra lunch periods will be added so there are fewer students in the cafeteria at once.
Each school will have two clinics, to separate those with a bump or bruise from those who feel ill. Contact tracing will be performed by the health department, but school officials will assist.
There will be no student temperature checks at the door, as that would create a herding effect that, in itself, could spread illness. But parents will be asked to fill out forms, acknowledging they know they must watch for symptoms of COVID-19 and keep their children home if those symptoms occur.
To that last part, Flowers noted, “We know we don’t have parents return permission slips for field trips. We don’t have parents sign student code of conduct” forms.
Even the question of what to do when a student runs a fever was problematic. Sometimes parents will instruct the school, “just send him home on the bus,” Flowers said. But in a case of the highly contagious coronavirus, the bus is the last place where a sick child should be.
“There are so many variables in this discussion, it’s unbelievable,” Grego said, adding that he is looking into the availability of rapid-results COVID tests.
Dr. Allison Ford Messina, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital, said masking is perhaps the single most important safeguard against transmission of the disease. She said that when employees of the St. Petersburg hospital come down with COVID-19, contact tracing shows that it comes from outside the hospital walls, such as a restaurant or the family home. That tells her the hospital’s strict masking policy works.
But Cane said she has seen masking in a school setting, as she operates a performing arts school that was open this summer. She found it nearly impossible, she said, to enforce masking, especially for older students. And it was even hard on the teachers.
And it made some teachers feel ill. “You need to speak two or three times louder through the mask,” she said. “This causes vocal fatigue that feels like a sore throat.”
The four-hour conversation touched on who will wipe down desks between classes, how the PTA’s will meet and what a family can do if they choose one option of learning, but it doesn’t work out.
They have three options from which to choose by July 27:
Traditional school with the new safety protocols; Pinellas Virtual School, an independent study program that requires a commitment of half the school year; or MyPCS Online, which also has students learning remotely, but requires only a nine-week commitment and has a scheduled tied to the school day. That last option is something the district can use if the virus worsens and the state orders all schools to close as they did in the spring.
And that might very well happen.
“We really don’t know exactly what we will be seeing 20, 28 days moving forward,” Grego said. “We wouldn’t make that call on July 14 for Aug. 12. This plan is fluid. I want to keep hitting on that. Any good plan has to remain fluid.”
The Hillsborough County School District, which is working through the details of a similar set of plans and options, will have its own School Board reopening workshop at 1 p.m. Thursday.