LARGO — As the Pinellas County School Board met virtually Tuesday, a crowd of teachers, parents and students gathered to protest the district’s plan to reopen schools with a mix of in-person and online classes amid a surging number of coronavirus cases in Florida.
On foot and from cars in front of district headquarters, a group of 100 to 150 demonstrators carried signs with dire messages against the in-person option. “Back to school list: Paper, Pencil, Will,” a sign said, one of many predicting adults and children would die if Pinellas begins the school year as planned.
The group called on the board to start school virtually this year and delay re-opening in person until after Pinellas has 14 days of no new coronavirus cases.
“Isn’t it kind of odd they are staying safe for a board meeting yet they’re asking teachers and students to return to brick-and-mortar schools?” asked Brian Coleman, a Pinellas teacher who helped organize the protest.
Coleman, who teaches hospital and homebound students, said he regularly teaches online. He understands parents who need to get back to work, he said, but added that reopening at the current rate of new cases could have disastrous effects for community spread.
As new case numbers stay in the 10,000 range, 14 days with no new cases may seem impossible, he said, but it is a starting point.
Science teacher Jackie Pandey said Gov. Ron DeSantis’ plan to extend a state of emergency while still encouraging schools to reopen does not make sense. “We must trust science,” she yelled into a bullhorn to cheers. “This is life or death.”
Others also expressed frustration with leadership they felt didn’t include teachers and experts in decision-making.
John Hannon teaches science at Discovery Academy of Science and held a sign saying, “Free Biology Tutoring for Political Officials. Clearly They Need It” and a chart with new COVID-19 cases by day.
“The people in charge don’t understand basic science,” Hannon said. “There’s not a faster way to spread this than to put elementary, middle, high school students back in school. They may be asymptomatic, but they will carry it. ... And it’s very preventable.”
Patrick Mugan, who teaches history in middle school, said it’s important to show students how democracy works and the show of people standing outside the building was just that.
“If I die from catching COVID-19 from being forced back into Pinellas County schools, you can drop my dead body right here,” he said into the bullhorn, standing near the flagpole outside. “Leave my body right here.”
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His sign said, “I can’t teach from the grave.”
Gail Fleming, a Clearwater nurse, held a sign saying “Nurses Against Reopening.” With two grandchildren in the school district, she said she doesn’t see how it will be possible to ensure young students keep their masks on all day and stay confined to one room.
Karen Lee, a sixth- and seventh-grade teacher at Carwise Middle School, has been teaching for 33 years.
She looked forward to her 34th, but said she has little confidence in the reopening plans after looking at classroom maps released by the district that don’t seem to allow for 6-foot social distancing. She said that teachers were reminded that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said these guidelines should be followed “when possible.”
“I don’t think there’s a safe way to do this,” she said. “I don’t know how they can ignore the data.”
Travis Lueth, who teaches ninth- and 10th-grade English at Pinellas Secondary School, said he was perplexed when he was informed his classroom had been rearranged with the bookshelves facing the walls for the students’ safety, so they would have minimal interaction with other materials.
“Nobody wants this,” he said. “Nobody wants to be stuck on virtual school for nine more weeks. But if we reopen these schools, people will die … and the community spread will be nothing like we’ve seen.”
Christy Foust, who joined the district last year after working in the Hillsborough County school system, helped organize the rally. She encouraged those who attended to continue writing in and joining a Facebook group, where the event was organized. She hoped, however, that the board would decide to delay re-opening Tuesday.
“If they don’t, the story is not over,” she said.