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Pinellas teachers, district reach deal on pandemic rules

The protocols affecting class size, social distancing, masks and other items will stay in place through the end of the school year.
A St. Petersburg High student holds her mask as she walks to class on the first day of the 2020-21 school year in Pinellas County, Aug. 24, 2020.
A St. Petersburg High student holds her mask as she walks to class on the first day of the 2020-21 school year in Pinellas County, Aug. 24, 2020. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]
Published Mar. 5
Updated Mar. 5

Pinellas County public school students who repeatedly refuse to wear masks in class no longer will be allowed to remain in their classrooms while waiting for school officials to contact their parents.

Instead, they’ll be sent to the principal’s office, where an administrator will deal with the situation rather than leaving the teacher to handle it and lead class at the same time.

That’s one of the new rules outlined in an agreement reached late Wednesday between the Pinellas teachers union and school district. The memorandum of understanding, which took weeks to negotiate, covers a variety of pandemic-related protocols inside the schools.

The sides had a similar arrangement in the first semester, but it expired and had to be renegotiated. With rising numbers of children returning to in-person instruction for the second semester, the teachers sought added protections aimed at preventing virus spread if possible.

Related: Pinellas teachers want protections as more students return to school

They were only partially successful.

For instance, the union asked to establish a 6-foot distance between students, and also to cap the number of children in a classroom, to maintain social distancing. In the first semester, the district allowed for spacing “to the maximum extent possible.”

This time around, district officials agreed to a “target” of 3 to 6 feet between students, “measured from the center of the student’s seat to the center of the next student’s seat.” It further set class size limits that reflect pre-pandemic numbers, using school averages as the law permits.

That means some in-person high school non-core courses can reach 40 students, while those with a mix of face-to-face and online students can rise to 45.

The agreement does provide for teachers to establish an 8-foot barrier from their students, leaving it to their discretion whether to leave that buffer zone.

Union president Nancy Velardi expressed disappointment with the district’s stance on distancing, suggesting it creates a potentially unsafe environment for students, whose parents might expect greater space between them. But she added that the district wouldn’t budge, and the agreement needed to be settled so teachers have rules in writing they can rely upon.

Deputy superintendent Bill Corbett said the administration understood the teachers’ underlying point. However, he said, reality intervened.

“We’re three-quarters of the way through the school year, and we have the schedule that we have,” Corbett explained. “Short of having a slew of new teachers, which are impossible to find right now ... we have to keep the class sizes that we have.”

The district bent on the mask issue because, like so many other items, it reflects what often already happens, he said. He stressed that the district is not deeming refusal to wear a mask a disciplinary issue, but rather one of safety.

The union won further concessions in protections for teachers with the greatest health risks who have returned to classrooms, and on getting earlier notification on possible virus exposures. It was not as successful in trying to limit the number of visitors entering classrooms for evaluations.

Velardi acknowledged the deal wasn’t all that the teachers wanted. But she said it had to be formally in place to give them recourse if their rights in it are violated.

Corbett said it was nice to have an agreement in place. At the same time, he suggested it wasn’t entirely needed.

“It’s not different from what we’re doing,” he said. “It captured and memorialized changes we’ve made over the past six months.”

The rules will be in effect through the end of the school year. The full contract comes up for renegotiation next year.