The Flagler County School Board, like 66 other school boards around the state, has been directed to cancel all school board meetings until July and possibly extend the school year to June 30 in further measures resulting from the coronavirus public health emergency. The directives are raising questions among local officials about whether in-person school will resume at all this school year, even after April 15, and about the wisdom of not holding board meetings for long stretches of time.
The directives were issued Wednesday through Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran’s executive authority. They were outlined in “guidance” from the state and a two-page memo from Flagler Superintendent Jim Tager. The documents leave many questions unanswered, even for the school officials promulgating them, as details are being filled in on an as-you-go basis.
“We were all told to be prepared to extend our educational calendars through June 30, 2020,” Tager wrote. “Does this mean the school year is now automatically moved? No. The Commissioner of Education has the authority to reduce required instructional hours and he has not ruled that out.”
District Spokesman Jason Wheeler said the potential extension of the school year may have more to do with completion of special education requirements for students’ individualized education programs known as IEPs.
“School districts are given flexibility for the remainder of the school year to provide alternative services or delay services until later in the summer months, in coordination with a student’s parents and IEP team,” the state directive states.
“The extension of the school year, I don’t know what the likelihood of that happening is for us,” Wheeler said. “We have no intention of extending our school year through the 30th, and I think most superintendents are of like mind.” But the district has yet to work out how the coming extra week off will be made up. The district has already used up most of the extra time it had built into the calendar during the hurricane emergency last fall. The state appears to be willing to waive strict instructional-time requirements, but how those requirements will be calculated with distance education, and how make-up days figure into that formula, has yet to be calculated.
The directives from the state and the absence of details is leaving local elected and administrative officials reeling with a sense of improvisation as they attempt to adapt to unprecedented conditions while still following the law.
When asked about the potential elimination of school board meetings, with the exception of emergency meetings, School Board members Trevor Tucker and Andy Dance were both skeptical. Tucker said the directive raises the possibility that “the school board is no longer governing the district” by not approving contracts, not hearing grievances and the like. But he said that leaves unanswered who would be doing that, and who would be liable for it. “There’s lots of questions that comes along with it,” he said.
“I don’t understand why they shut down school boards to June 30. You’re going to have schools reopen on April 15?” Tucker asked, imagining the unlikely scenario of having students attend class while school boards aren’t meeting. “That doesn’t make sense to me.” More likely, the state is preparing districts to be physically out of school until the end of the school year.
“It’s unrealistic to think we can go that long without a business meeting occurring,” Dance said today. He said the district “will have to come up with a distance meeting arrangement so that we can keep the business of the district moving forward.”
One such arrangement is in the works for an essential meeting due in a few days for the school board to approve the contract of newly minted Superintendent Cathy Mittelstadt, who takes over for Tager July 1, and to deal with bids that must be accepted and capital improvements executed. That meeting will likely take place virtually, with no audience, Wheeler said, with the board itself conceivably either in a room at the Government Services Building or piped in through a virtual app, and with the public enabled to watch or listen electronically, with comments emailed in and read into the record. Like so much else, the mechanics have yet to be worked out.
“We all have the same questions as everybody out there, and we’re asking them daily,” Wheeler said, “and as soon as we get that information back, we will share it with everybody.”
Of more immediate impact on 13,000 students is the ramping up of the district’s distance-education infrastructure, which kicks in on Monday, March 30. The district is developing that plan. According to Katie Hansen, president of the teachers union, teachers are expected to work on March 26 and 27 whether from home or from their classrooms on the plan, with support from the district’s technology department.
“Once virtual instruction begins, we need to be cognizant of instructional seat time for students,” Hansen wrote teachers on Wednesday. “For example, if you typically teach reading for 90 minutes daily, there should be an equivalent of 90 minutes worth of instruction/student work provided virtually. I have asked the District to create some type of tutorial for parents to support our students in primary grades in using Schoology.” Hansen told teachers that she expects the school year to stay within its current calendar. The school year is scheduled to end the last week of May.
“This is not ideal for everybody,” Wheeler said. “The message is, come March 30 and everybody turns on their computers, is it going to be a seamless transition? No, it’s not. We’re realistic, there are going to be some bugs. Your plan is great until you have to put it in action, and you have to account for everything. We are learning from day one, and there’s got to be a learning curve both for our staff and our families.” He said the district is confident in the system it’ll have in place–the capabilities of its decorated technology department are well documented–but he cautioned: “I don’t think that what we’ll be doing on the 30th is going to be the same as say, April 10, because we’ll all get better.”
Students in the International Baccalaureate program (IB), in Advanced Placement classes (AP) and in the Ace program also need not worry: the state department of education is working with all three organizations to extend deadlines, while the IB organization has already issued reassuring directives to students around the world from its Geneva headquarters.
“We have deep empathy for the impact this is having on over 200,000 IB students across the globe and are currently reviewing all available options,” the organization announced at its website. “We are gathering feedback from schools, students, universities and official bodies to determine the most judicious way forward. It is critical for us to ensure that the options we provide our world of schools are done with compassion for our students and teachers and fairness for the difficult circumstances our students and educators are experiencing.”
The organization expects to issue more details on March 27, but has already extended a series of deadlines regarding work of immediate concern to seniors, many of whom will be quite happy, such as CAS projects (completion deadline extended from June 1 originally to July 3) and internal assessments deadlines (extended to May 20), among others. Exam dates have yet to be re-set. But that’s also expected.
As for employees’ pay: many employees’ services are not going to be required, at least not according to their current job description–bus drivers, cafeteria workers, teacher aides, and so on. But the district is working to keep all staffs employed to the largest extent possible. “We are looking at job descriptions right now,” Wheeler said. “It is Superintendent Tager’s intent to have employee still working, doing something, because we understand, we are the largest employer in the county. He does not take that lightly. They’re all good, next week as well, but he’s working with his executive team, with his directors, identifying other duties as assigned. He’s been in contact with the leaders of both unions, we’re all working as a team to find the best solutions with this.”
On the other hand, the eventual economic effects of the disruptions and the nation’s overall work stoppage will be devastating, and will be affecting budgets in the state and in every district. Florida’s revenue is heavily dependent on tourism, which is being impacted severely by the virus. “This is not just a two week, four week, six week issue, this is probably going to be playing on us for years to come,” Wheeler said. “We’re in unprecedented territory right now.”
Tucker was taking the long view as well. “It could be a dramatic shift in education, period,” he said. “This could be the future.”