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Pinellas teachers want social distancing rules as virus conditions worsen

With coronavirus cases rising and more students returning, the issue takes on greater importance, they say

Second semester has many Pinellas County teachers worried.

Coronavirus cases have steadily increased, with a more contagious strain emerging. Meanwhile, hundreds if not thousands more students are expected to fill classrooms as the state pushes schools to bring back children who have struggled with online lessons — a change that kicks in when the spring semester starts Jan. 20.

The prospect of maintaining social distancing to hold the virus at bay — already difficult for many schools — appears more endangered than ever, said Nancy Velardi, president of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association. And that’s causing high levels of anxiety among many educators, particularly the most at-risk ones who are being asked to return to classrooms to handle the growing numbers of in-person students, she and others told district officials during negotiations Wednesday evening.

Medical experts stress that masks and social distancing are key to mitigating the illness, noted Joanne McCall, the union’s executive director.

“We are creating a safe place for our employees and our students,” McCall said. “So we want to keep the social distance and the masks.”

Related: Pinellas teachers worry about sick leave for coronavirus cases

As part of their proposal to keep safe spaces, the union leaders called for maintaining an 8-foot barrier between teachers and students. They also proposed setting up classrooms to keep students seated at least 4 feet apart, measured from shoulder to shoulder.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends staying at least 6 feet away from people you don’t live with.

District negotiators said they empathized. But they suggested that, from a practical standpoint, keeping children a set distance apart from one another could be problematic.

“How do we govern the space when kids are in class and school is taking place?” asked Gibbs High principal Barry Brown, a member of the district team. “How do I ensure this truly takes place?”

Ginger Brengle, media specialist at Pinellas Park High, mentioned that some schools have set seating charts, and that administrators regularly measure the space between seats. That’s just one possibility, she said.

Others on the teachers bargaining team suggested the idea of using a space requirement per student, much as the district does to meet fire code rules.

Deputy superintendent Bill Corbett expressed concerns about the situations where a chosen model might not fit.

“As soon as we put a number down, there will be case after case where we can’t meet it,” Corbett said.

He said he wanted to insert the term “to the maximum extent possible” because it allows for wiggle room. Union leaders removed that phrase and others like it from throughout the nine-page document on working conditions they were discussing. They argued that such vague terms give the district too many opportunities to not do something that they had agreed upon.

While district officials talked about why they might not be able to accomplish something, the union team continued to press for action.

“Is there a number we can work with?” Velardi asked.

Corbett said the administration would take some time to measure out classrooms to see how many students, along with a teacher, could fit into different sized spaces. He encouraged the teachers to think of the scenario as a person trying to create a master schedule for hundreds of students.

It poses a complicated calculus of determining each classroom size, numbers of students and teachers available, all through the lens of course requests each period of the day, Corbett explained.

The teachers insisted.

“That’s a math problem we can solve, that can potentially save a teacher’s life or a student’s life,” said Nick Amheiser, a history teacher at Meadowlawn Middle School.

The sides agreed to meet again in a week to further review the issues.

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