Pinellas sticks with school reopening plan, despite court ruling

Board members ask for closing guidelines, in case of an outbreak. A teachers' union leader calls for a move to online-only classes.
The Pinellas County School Board held a socially distanced meeting Tuesday morning, only briefly discussing Monday's court ruling in favor of Florida teachers unions.
The Pinellas County School Board held a socially distanced meeting Tuesday morning, only briefly discussing Monday's court ruling in favor of Florida teachers unions. [ Pinellas County Schools ]
Published Aug. 25, 2020|Updated Aug. 25, 2020

Pinellas County school district officials had no plans Tuesday to reconsider holding in-person classes, despite a judge’s ruling that the state had no authority to force schools to open their doors before the end of August.

The closest they came to discussing the case was when board member Nicole Carr suggested the district seek more specific guidelines for when a classroom or school might have to shut down because of health concerns.

“We haven’t as a board defined how and when enough community spread would determine us not to open,” Carr said, amid a conversation in which the board and administration generally celebrated Monday’s first day of school.

To Nancy Velardi, president of the district’s Classroom Teachers Association, the board didn’t pay nearly enough attention to the judge’s order, delivered Monday in Tallahassee, which the state quickly appealed.

Related: School reopening lawsuit: Judge rules in favor of Florida teachers

“The opening yesterday was not a success,” Velardi told board members.

She spoke of children who did not practice social distancing, teachers who lacked adequate cleaning supplies, and classrooms that had not received new air filters. When teachers tried to leave their classroom doors open to allow for greater air circulation, she said, they were told not to do so because of security protocols put in place after the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland.

In a later interview, Velardi said she had been inundated with emails from union members detailing troubles with teaching students both in-person and online, and further noted that two schools quarantined classes after one day back.

The district reported six total cases Monday, at Northeast High, Carwise Middle, Pinellas Park and Shore Acres elementary schools, and Walter Pownall Service Center. Families at Northeast received a text message from the principal saying some students and staff were told to quarantine there.

Superintendent Mike Grego told the board his plan is to act conservatively. The union head sought more.

“We should not be the cause of the community seeing a rise in cases when we can stay virtual for at least a month,” Velardi told the board.

Referring to Monday’s court ruling, which could allow districts to go all-online if they choose, she added: “We have the opportunity to take our time and get this right.”

For most of the 90-minute meeting, the topic of closing schools didn’t come up.

Grego spoke of a “special” return to school, in which attendance reached 94 percent, and a growing number of parents had begun calling to inquire about sending their children rather than remaining at home online.

“We are going to see where we can and where we can’t,” Grego said. “We’re not going to sacrifice the safety of the classroom.”

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He didn’t sugarcoat the lingering issues, though. He acknowledged the struggles teachers faced with simultaneous teaching, recognized access problems with virtual classes and agreed that the district’s approach to handling the health issues tied to a pandemic remained a work in progress.

Neither he nor board attorney David Koperski commented about the lawsuit, though. Rather, Grego stressed the importance of students continuing to wear masks and agreeing not to come to school when feeling ill or having come in contact with a person who demonstrates symptoms or tests positive for COVID-19.

“This takes all of us to think beyond our immediate environment,” Grego said. “We can make this work if everyone contributes.”

Board members mostly stayed away from the topic of the lawsuit, too. They focused on issues such as how the new Canvas learning management system worked, and how well students complied with the district’s mask requirement.

The board agreed to extend its waiver of attendance requirements to qualify for semester exam exemptions, and encouraged the community to donate to newly created accounts supporting high school students who receive free- and reduced-price meals and cannot afford snacks between their early breakfast and late lunch.

Only at the end of the meeting did Carr approach the topic. She mentioned the lawsuit, and said the latest available data indicate that Pinellas had moved toward levels where full closure no longer seemed necessary.

“I don’t want that to blindside us,” she said, calling on the administration to bring its medical experts back together to offer more specifics on how to approach future closings, if needed.

After all, she noted, the majority of Pinellas County residents have not been tested for COVID-19, leaving large numbers open as “potential prey for the virus.”

Board chairwoman Carol Cook suggested that the experts also should offer insights on when the district can fully reopen and bring everyone together again.

That message was not lost in the room.

One parent came forward to thank the board for reopening schools and letting the community get back to education.

Grego said he intended to do whatever possible to work through the kinks.

“Our kids are depending on us to make 2021 not an excuse year, but a great year,” he said.