Flagler County Education Association President Katie Hansen said today she was “absolutely” behind the state education association president’s call on Gov. Ron DeSantis to keep schools closed for the remainder of the year, for the safety of students, staff and families.
“It’s better to err on the side of caution,” Hansen said this afternoon. “We only have a handful of weeks remaining in this school year to go.” The education association is one of two employee unions in the district, which has 1,700 employees, all of whom have been retained during the coronavirus emergency, including bus drivers, cafeteria workers and other employees who may not have direct, immediate responsibilities. Superintendent Jim Tager said it was a district push to keep everyone employed.
The statewide teachers’ union called on DeSantis to keep school campuses closed for the rest of this academic year in a letter on Tuesday.
“We know our public schools serve as refuge for many students, that our campuses provide them with meals, education and a safe haven with committed staff,” Florida Education Association President Fedrick Ingram said in a letter to DeSantis. “As much as our students and educators want the opportunity to be back at our schools, returning prematurely will threaten the safety and well-being of all on campus.” State education officials last month called for all school districts to close their campuses through May 1 in an effort to halt the spread of COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the highly contagious novel coronavirus. Classes are being conducted online while campuses are closed.
DeSantis said Thursday he had not decided about whether to reopen campuses and raised the possibility that some students could return to classrooms sooner than others. “We’re going to make the best decision that we can, but it may be that not every county is going to be treated the same in this,” the governor told reporters. “There is nothing wrong with that. If the problem is different in certain parts of the state, we should recognize that.”
But in the letter Tuesday, Ingram said now is “the time to declare the previously unthinkable” and keep campuses closed for the rest of the 2019-2020 academic year. “COVID-19 presents more questions than answers,” Ingram wrote. “It also presents a threat that we cannot control. The potential damage that could be done to families and entire communities from an outbreak of COVID-19 at even one school far outweighs the inconvenience of continuing distance learning for the rest of the school year.”
Hansen had forwarded Ingram ‘s letter to Tager this morning. She echoed its thoughts, noting that teachers are concerned about the instruction and the meals that students are potentially missing, but the unknowns of going back to school could pose a risk. While it’s true that younger people are less susceptible to severe illness or complications from Covid-19, Hansen said many teachers and service employees fall in the older age groups that are more prone to illness and hospitalization, while younger people could be carriers, even if asymptomatic.
Meanwhile, Hansen said, the district’s online education approach has been working well, with Flagler well ahead of many other districts because it had instituted the one-to-one computer initiative years ago. “Most of what I’m hearing is very positive. You almost have to divide it into two categories, he fourth grate to 12th it’s been more seamless,” Hanse said, with more challenges for younger children. But the district has been supportive with technology fixes wherever necessary. “We’re in a situation where we’re building the airplane while it’s flying.” (Hansen was sympathetic with parents who had to contend with the challenge of supervising their children’s education at home: “Even personally for me between my boyfriend and I we have five children,” she said, so she’s supervising their education and that of 150 Indian Trails Middle School students.)
Tager said he shared the same concerns for students, staff and families, and was talking the same approach–to err on the side of caution. He said if the decision on school reopening were left up to districts–the governor may take that approach, as he did with beaches–the decision would be made after discussions with the district’s partners and guidance from the Centers for Disease Control. “There’s a lot of politics with this, there’s also science,” Tager said.
Speaking more personally, Tager said he would like to see students have the chance to come back to school if even for a couple of weeks at th end of the year so they could see their friends and have a sense of “closure” on the year, though that desire was more in the realm of a wish than a anything else at this point. But he was more adamant about graduation, saying some form of graduation ceremony would take place one way or the other, even if it’s not the traditional kind. The district was staying away from cancelling graduation, as has been the case with an increasing number of college and university systems (including in Florida) and now in some school districts: St. Johns, Orange and Palm Beach Counties, for example, have cancelled their planned ceremonies, and are working on virtual versions. In St. Johns’s case, ceremonies were to be held at the University of North Florida’s arena, which is no longer available, with that campus closed.
“Right now our graduation date is the 28th of May at the Ocean Center. We have not changed it at this point. We have kept that date on hold, but we are looking at other solutions,” Tager said. “We want to do something for the students regardless of what the actions will be.”
A team of six students from Flagler Palm Coast High School and Matanzas High School, Lynette Shott, the district’s director of student and community engagement, and School Board member Colleen Conklin have all been involved in what Tager describes as “problem-solving” the dilemma of graduation in the age of coronavirus. The goal is some form of ceremony. Tager wasn’t ready to unveil any of the ideas, but said that may happen by the end of the month. “We’re going to find something positive for our seniors,” Tager said. “We may come up with something pretty wild.”
Hansen is getting the sense from the governor’s statements that the decision to reopen schools would be left up to local districts in some instances. If that happens, and there’s fundamental disagreement between the union and the district administration, then the union has the option to go to “impact-bargaining,” which has happened in some parts of the state. Hansen doesn’t see that happening in Flagler. “To date we have really been able to collaborate, whether it’s Jim and I or Earl Johnson and I or with the curriculum department,” Hansen said. “I’m hopeful that continues as we face the fallout of all these decisions.”