When Pinellas County schools reopened in August, just over half the students showed up for face-to-face lessons.
That turnout made it possible for some teachers with the most critical health needs to work remotely. It also provided space for some reasonable social distancing, which along with masks provided a safety comfort level for many who came to campus daily.
As time passed, the numbers in Pinellas online courses began dropping. Now, closer to 70 percent of children are back to school. And that number is about to jump again, this time with schools having less control about when students can return.
The state’s instruction that schools not restrict the move from online to in-person, or establish waiting lists while attempting to create space, has district officials and teacher union leaders concerned about how they will protect students and staff from any coronavirus spike that might find its way to campus.
During negotiations Wednesday, deputy superintendent Bill Corbett spoke of three “pressure points” the district faces as it plans for a possible second semester stream of students. Schools will have to respond to the students’ scheduling needs closer to real time, he said, while also meeting class size requirements.
No one wants to over fill classrooms, he said.
But that could mean some of the vulnerable teachers categorized as levels one and two by the district might have to come back to schools, too, in order to make the system work.
“Those pressure points are going to have to be relieved,” Corbett told the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association bargaining team, which raised concerns that social distancing looked to be headed “pretty much out the door” with the new approach.
Union president Nancy Velardi stressed the state and district statements that staff and student well being remains a priority as the pressure to bring more children into classrooms continues.
“We have to know what kind of protections are going to be put in place,” Velardi said, noting that her group’s first semester agreement on working conditions is about to expire. “A mask (alone) is not going to cut it.”
Several of the teachers on the negotiating team spoke of the district’s arrangement to allow for an eight-foot buffer between themselves and their students. They said some principals have given faculty members a hard time for not interacting more closely with their classes, and wanted to know if the rule would continue.
Corbett said he would instruct principals to respect the buffer, and asked for specific schools where the situation needs immediate attention. He added that any other needs that the district previously attempted to address, such as the need for more computer monitors to help teachers with “simultaneous instruction” of in-person and online students, would be tackled as soon as he received details of problems.
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He sounded a similarly agreeable tone when discussing the needs of the vulnerable teachers. Their needs might differ depending on personal preferences, noted Paula Texel, associate superintendent for human resources.
But the district is willing to work with those individuals to determine whether they need a specialty fitted mask, a plexiglass barrier between them and their students, added air scrubbers in their classrooms or other responses, she and Corbett said.
School psychologist Julianna Stolz told the group that the issue is critical. She spoke of her own bout with chemotherapy and how she struggles to breathe in the best of circumstances.
Coming to work should not become a health burden, Stolz said, yet things such as clean air filters have become an uncertainty. Complicating matters, she moves from classroom to classroom for her observations.
“I want assurances,” she said. “This is my life that ya’ll are playing with.”
The district officials said they planned to discuss such ideas with the district’s medical advisory panel and others to learn more about the most viable and effective actions. They also told the teacher group that their plan for helping students who have fallen behind would not place an additional set of requirements on the faculty, and would instead detail the actions that most already are taking for children who struggle.
“We are very sensitive that teachers are overloaded right now,” Corbett said.
The sides agreed to build upon their previous working conditions agreement, using the ideas they discussed Wednesday, as they move ahead toward second semester. They did not set their next meeting date.