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Pinellas teachers’ union leader: Don’t rush to open schools

A workshop and board meeting are planned Tuesday.

LARGO — Despite the state order to open brick-and-mortar schools five days a week, teachers in Pinellas County are urging the school district to hold back as long as the coronavirus causing COVID-19 continues spread rapidly through the community.

The letter, by Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association president Nancy Velardi, calls for an all-virtual school model, followed by a hybrid model serving smaller numbers of students at a time, as long as the virus is a threat.

In making this request, Velardi focused on one word in Commissioner Richard Corcoran’s order: Flexibility.

“The term ‘flexibility’ is used seven times in the document,” Velardi wrote.

Most importantly, she wrote, Corcoran’s last paragraph leading up to the terms of the order reads: “I find that flexibility provided for in this order is necessary in order to respond to and mitigate the impact of the emergency and to promote the health, safety, and welfare of persons connected with Florida’s educational system.”

Corcoran also made it clear that the decision to order schools to be open, five days a week, is for economic as well as eduational reasons. The order states that schools are needed so parents can be present in the workforce.

Nevertheless, Velardi is asking teachers to sign her letter, which is printed below, and let School Board members know about their health and safety concerns.

Not all districts are interpreting the order as a mandate to open schools on conventional schedules, she said. Districts in Broward and Palm Beach, for example, are either delayed or hybrid models to reduce the risk of contagion.

The School Board plans a virtual workshop Tuesday at 9:30 a.m. to unveil its reopening plan, followed by a board meeting.

Velardi said she did not expect more than 100 teachers to sign her letter to the board and administration after she sent it to teachers Tuesday.

But, “I am well over 600 signatures already, and they are still pouring into my email,” she said Wednesday.

“The teachers want to be back with their kids they were miserable without the kids. But they are frightened.”

In Hillsborough County, where COVID-19 spread is as bad as it is in Pinellas, the school district took its all-virtual and hybrid plans off the table weeks ago, and is offering family these choices: Attend conventional school five days a week, attend conventional school remotely, or sign up for Hillsborough Virtual K-12.

Here is Velardi’s letter:

Dear Ladies and Gentlemen of the School Board of Pinellas County,

As I write this, Florida is fast becoming the new epicenter of the COVID-19 crisis impacting our nation. Each subsequent day of the last two weeks has shown an alarming increase in the number of cases in the state, culminating in 11,458 cases on Saturday, July 4, surpassing the highest daily numbers in NY State during the height of the crisis in April, according to Johns Hopkins University.For the past seven days, there has been an average of 45 deaths per day, the highest since May 12. There are a few counties in Florida where these numbers are not as extreme; unfortunately, Pinellas is not counted among them.

Our numbers are the 7th highest in the state. With these numbers escalating at this current pace, the apprehension regarding the reopening plans for our schools is clearly mounting. Until Florida shows a 14-day consistent decrease in data, PCTA cannot agree to the options for reopening currently being considered by the district, despite the irresponsible and inexplicable announcement made by our Governor and the order issued by Commissioner Corcoran.

The face-to-face option does not guarantee the 6-foot distancing between student desks that is a minimum required by the CDC. The rationale suggested is that students will be masked for the entire day, and thus physical distancing can be lessened. The obvious problem with that rationale is that we are dealing with children, who are going to have a very difficult time remaining masked for the entire day and it is unrealistic to expect them to do so. Adults are struggling with wearing their masks for full days, despite the Pinellas County Commission’s mandate that masks are worn for all indoor activities. Without maintaining the CDC minimum of 6 feet or the provision of physical dividers between all parties in a classroom, the risk to all is highly elevated. There have already been numerous cases reported in our buildings during summer occupancy which is minimal, and the participants have been following safety guidelines.

The results of the survey in June showed that 42% of parents and 54% of teachers were already either uncomfortable or very uncomfortable with a brick and mortar return to the classroom. Those results were tabulated before the dangerous spikes in cases had occurred. Logic dictates that those percentages have risen in accordance with the case numbers. During the focus groups conducted with randomly selected teachers and parents, there were no parents satisfied with the transportation plans as presented. The idea that the numbers of bus riders would not be reduced because all students would be masked did not sit well with any of the parents involved. The parents were also leery of the certitude that children could be masked for full days of schooling. PCTA understands that in-person instruction is the superior method of delivering and receiving content, and many teachers have expressed a longing for normalcy in the classroom, but normalcy does not exist in our state at this time. Many experts, most notably, Dr. Anthony Fauci, have expressed the importance of children returning to school, but they have all recommended that should that be attempted, the numbers of students should be drastically reduced in the buildings.

This necessitates the offer of a hybrid option where only half of the students are in attendance at any time, while the other half be virtually taught, on alternating schedules. This option should be added to or replace the face-to-face option being considered for the parents to choose. PCTA is already scheduled to partner with the district in constructing a hybrid option that allows for full adherence to CDC guidelines.

PCTA is strongly recommending that until we see the required 14-day decrease in case numbers, we consider an all-virtual opening, followed by a phased in approach of returning educators and students to the classroom. Once a two-week decline is a reality, we can proceed with the options under consideration, with the inclusion of the hybrid option. After the first nine weeks of the fall term, re-appraisal of the situation should occur. The gradual increase in the numbers to be safely present inside of our buildings must correspond directly with the decrease in the numbers of cases reported. Emergency Order 2020-EO-06 issued on July 6 seemingly negates the possibility of implementing a plan as outlined above, but the term ‘flexibility’ is used seven times in the document.

Most importantly, the paragraph immediately preceding the clauses reads, “I find that flexibility provided for in this order is necessary in order to respond to and mitigate the impact of the emergency and to promote the health, safety, and welfare of persons connected with Florida’s educational system.” It goes on to name a variety of ways that instruction could be delivered to students, leaving the ultimate decision of crafting and approving an appropriate plan, inclusive of all safety measures, in the hands of the School Board.

Respectfully,

Nancy Velardi PCTA President And the following concerned educators

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