Escambia County educators supportive of school district's reopening plan
While local education organizations are still working to ensure students and teachers will have adequate protection from COVID-19 this school year, they have shown cautious optimism about returning to campus in August.
On Wednesday, Escambia County School District Superintendent Malcolm Thomas said students will have their choice of one of three instructional models for the 2020-2021 school year: they can return to campus for traditional face-to-face instruction, opt for "remote" instruction conducted via teleconferencing or follow a largely self-guided "virtual" curriculum.
Teachers are generally expected to return to campuses in the fall, and Thomas cautioned that space limitations meant social distancing would not always be possible. He also said that face masks would be encouraged, but not mandatory.
With COVID-19 cases still hitting historic highs in Florida, there are understandably concerns about the risks of in-person education. Still, representatives of the local teacher's union, the Escambia Education Association, and the Escambia County Council of PTAs have shown general support for a return to campus.
"ECCPTA believes that the school district is doing everything in their power to protect both our students and teachers," a statement from the organization said. "However, this year it is more important than ever to stay engaged and be a part of your school’s PTA. Helping our children and teachers from afar will be challenging, but parental involvement will be crucial in supporting children and educators to successfully navigate this new school year."
At the Escambia Education Association, President Darzell Warren said educators were partnering with the school district to create the best possible outcomes.
Warren said that the EEA issued a survey to members asking them how they feel about returning to school with and without masks, their comfort level with online instruction and what things they would need to provide the best quality of education. Warren said once the EEA receives the results, it would take the feedback to the school district and work to incorporate it into the reopening plan.
"One thing for sure is teachers want to get back into the schools," Warren said. "They are concerned about whether or not they will be entering into a building that's safe for themselves, for the students and for family members that they might be taking care of. We're going to continue to work with the school district to make sure that those safety measures are in place so that our teachers feel comfortable (and) safe coming back into our classrooms ... and that our children are coming into a safe environment."
In a press conference Wednesday, the superintendent spent about an hour detailing the school district's reopening plan and fielding questions from the media. He noted the district was taking steps such as temperature checks for staff, retrofitting water fountains to limit hands-on contact and "encouraging" mask use.
Addressing why face masks would be encouraged rather than required, Thomas said, "we're not going to require it simply because it's an unmanageable mandate. When you think about a 6- or 7-year-old, forced to wear math for six, seven hours a day, it's (a question of), 'What do you do when they don't?'"
He said rather than punishing students for noncompliance, the district wants to encourage and educate. He said in some settings, there would be enough distance between students to facilitate six feet of social distancing, but in others — such as school buses and classrooms — there won't be.
Thomas said the district is aware of the fact that some teachers — because of their age, underlying medical conditions or vulnerable family members at home — may not feel comfortable teaching in person.
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"We would try to prioritize those individuals (for remote classrooms) if they're certified and qualified, so that they would not have to be in a social classroom with a number of students," Thomas said. "They could be in an isolated area of the school corner and the media center, for example."
He noted, however, that without knowing how many families would choose remote instruction versus traditional on-campus instruction, it was impossible to guarantee every instructor would get that choice.
Thomas said the district fully expects there will be students and teachers who test positive for COVID-19 over the course of the year, and that there are contingency plans to ensure instruction continues smoothly. He said students and teachers with signs of illness would be asked to stay at home, but that the remote education model gave them flexibility for receiving and providing lessons.
He also said the district had no plans to downsize staff under the new model, and if anything, had hired up to ensure there was some redundancy in case staff was ill or quarantined.
"We've had a great hiring season," Thomas said. "We've done very well in replacing our vacancies. We're actually far ahead of where we were a year ago. So I think we actually have more flexibility with staff under these plans than we would have had if we were just going straight traditional."
Both the district and local educational organizations urged families to go to the district's reopening website at ecsd-fl.schoolloop.com/reopening, read up on their three options and submit their choice by the July 20 deadline. The information is available in multiple languages, and students who do not make a choice will default to traditional, in-person instruction.
Kevin Robinson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 850-435-8527.