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Pinellas details its school reopening plan: masks, buses, nurses and more

School Board members will discuss it Tuesday. The teachers union says the plan doesn't meet federal guidelines for social distancing during a pandemic.

LARGO — School officials in Pinellas County have released a detailed draft of their reopening plan, with everything from sketches of classroom layouts to procedures they will follow if a student or teacher becomes ill with COVID-19.

The 37-page document was posted Wednesday on the district website, as an agenda document for the School Board’s virtual workshop at 9:30 a.m. on Tuesday. A board meeting will follow, but the board will be taking up other business — approving new school principals. While the reopening plan might undergo some revisions, the administration will retain full control.

The plan gives students a menu of options when school resumes on Aug. 12: Attending in-person, with modifications to prevent the spread of the coronavirus; attending their schools remotely for 9 weeks at a time; or shifting to Pinellas Virtual School for at least half the year.

“I’m very pleased with what they came up with,” said board chairwoman Carol Cook. “It shows a lot of thought. I think the superintendent and staff have taken this whole thing very, very seriously, and they’re trying to meet the best needs of the students.”

Nancy Velardi, president of the Pinellas’s teacher’s union, was not so pleased. Pinellas County has had 10,293 COVID-19 cases so far, and 225 deaths. It’s positive test rate is nearly 20 percent. Velardi has been gathering signatures on a letter imploring the board and superintendent Mike Grego to delay opening school buildings until COVID-19 infection rates subside.

“Their face-to-face option provides none of the physical distancing recommended by the CDC in the classrooms or on the buses,” Velardi said.

For example: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended in May that students be seated 6 feet apart in the classrooms, and Velardi estimated their desks will be 3 to 4 feet apart in Pinellas. “I fear we would be closed down in weeks, with teachers, staff and children sick,” she said.

A sample configuration of desks in an elementary school classroom. [Pinellas County Schools]
A sample configuration of desks in an elementary school classroom. [Pinellas County Schools]

Safety precautions outlined in the plan include:

  • Masks or face coverings must be worn by staff, students and anyone else on campus unless they are eating, whenever social distancing is not possible. Student names are written in permanent ink on their masks to avoid cross contamination. When exceptions are made — for example, when a medial condition — the schools will provide face shields for staff.
  • Masks must be worn on the buses, which will load from back to front and unload from front to back so students are less likely to pass each other.
  • Classroom set-ups will be arranged to maximize space and increase social distancing. But, with desks 3 to 4 feet apart, Velardi said, students will still be close enough to spread the virus. All extraneous furniture will be removed. There will be minimized sharing of materials.
  • Lunch schedules will be altered to allow fewer students in the cafeteria at a time.
  • Students will be kept together in cohorts to reduce movement.
  • When possible, physical education will take place outdoors.

The plan requires parents to fill out paperwork showing they know what is expected of their children and how to screen them for illness. Each school will have a full-time nurse. Clinics will have separate areas for students who do not feel well.

The plan also details limits that will be placed on field trips and school clubs, and changes that will be made to sports programs.

Cook said that although she was getting a lot of inquiries before the plan was posted, her email has quieted down, which she takes as an encouraging sign.

But she said teachers are still apprehensive. And Velardi said, “I am receiving many calls and emails from teachers and parents who are horrified at the thought of continuing with the plan as it is. They are becoming more frantic by the day.”

With the continuing rise in infections, nothing is completely certain.

The timetable, for now, is for the district to launch reopening website on July 16. Families will be asked to state their preferences by July 27.