Palm Beach County students can return to campus Sept. 21; have option to continue distance learning from home

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The School District of Palm Beach County announced on Friday, Sept. 4, that schools will reopen on Monday, Sept. 21, welcoming back students whose parents want them to return to live instruction. Parents who think it is still too risky to send their children back to school for fear they may contract the Coronavirus can have their children continue the distance learning that all students began the school year with on Aug. 31.

In order to gauge how many students schools should anticipate returning, the district made an all-call to parents on Wednesday, Sept. 2, with instructions on how to indicate if they intend on sending their children back to school on Sept. 21. To make that indication, parents will need to access their children’s Student Portal  at the district’s website. There are only “yes” or “no” options to the question, but the choice is not binding. The district is asking that all parents respond by Wednesday, Sept. 9.

Many students and parents are wondering what they should expect upon returning to school. The district’s COVID-19 Guiding Document and Student Protocols (which can be found at the district’s website) state that anyone on campus must wear a face covering meeting CDC guidelines, meaning the covering must have three or more layers of material and have some form of attachment to the face. 

Social distancing will be in place, as well, which may well be the most problematic aspect for schools, depending on how many students return. Olympic Heights principal Ms. Kelly Burke told The Palm Beach Post that she has already had to calm students’ concerns regarding the use of “overflow rooms” in the event more students show up for a class than the classroom can safely accommodate when set up for social distancing. 

Burke told The Post that she had to shoot down rumors that admittance to those classrooms will be based on a first come-first serve basis. She explained that if it is a matter of just a few extra students than the room is set up to accommodate, the school will work to fit those students in while still maintaining the three to six feet space the district’s protocols call for at the high school level.

If more students show up for a class than can safely be allowed, students will be assigned to an “overflow room” (where they will learn remotely by computer) based not on arrival time but on a basis such as rotating alphabetical order.

“Overflow is really the last resort,” Burke told The Post, adding that OH is busy preparing for the Sept. 21 optional student return date. “Right now, we’re still in the middle of it,’ Burke told The Post. Those preparations include creating one-way traffic patterns in the indoor hallways and laying down directional arrows for the wider outside hallways to maintain a safer and smoother traffic flow during class changes. Additionally, the issue of maintaining social distance in the cafeteria and courtyard eating areas during lunch periods is being addressed.

Returning students who think they can skirt the district’s and school’s established protocols may be in for a rude awakening. Burke told The Torch that OH will be strictly following district protocols which call for a student’s removal from the classroom if he or she is not adhering to guidelines. Those students could also be returned to distance learning if the administration deems it necessary.

Despite the safety protocols that have been established, the majority of students and teachers The Torch spoke with have concerns regarding the return to campus as early as Sept. 21. 

“In my opinion, I feel it is too soon to open up schools,” OH junior Lance Kaufman said. “Online learning is sometimes problematic, and I miss seeing my classmates in person, but it’s a price I’m willing to pay in order to keep my friends and family safe. I feel with all of the safety measures we will have to take, it will not be worth it to go back to school. It is good they are putting regulations in place, but it is still not enough for me to go back.”

OH foreign languages teacher Ms. Margaret Sclafani tends to agree with Kaufman on the return to school. “I feel the risks outweigh the benefits. Waiting just a few more months and continuing virtually is not going to have a significant effect on a student’s academic performance,” Sclafani explained, “I was very apprehensive starting off the school year virtually, but I think this first week it was a success. The students were receptive and ready to learn and did a great job under the circumstances.”

OH English teacher Ms. Vanessa Koher commented, “I truly do miss being in the classroom and can’t wait to see my students, but I also want to return when it’s safe. I’m uneasy about returning too soon just to be in school for a few weeks and then have to go back to virtual learning for all, which has happened in Orlando already.”  Koher is referring to Olympia High School in Orlando which just after two weeks of being open for in-person instruction had to shut down and return to remote learning because of at least six positive COVID-19 test results among students and staff. It is estimated that those six came into contact with at least 20 percent of the school’s population.

According to district guidelines, because teachers will be teaching those students who are continuing with remote learning and those students who have returned to campus simultaneously, they will be required to continue teaching via computer in order to reduce the spread of germs that may arise by the exchange of papers between students and teachers. 

“If students were issued Chromebooks, they should be bringing them to class,” Burke told The Torch. “We will continue to use Google Classroom to submit assignments.The district is receiving thousands of Chromebooks each week. Those that did not pick up a Chromebook will end up checking one out soon.”

Teacher movement in the classroom will be limited in order to stay in view of those students still utilizing remote learning, but they won’t be stuck behind their desks the entire period, as all classrooms will be outfitted with a Smart Board, Burke told The Torch. “{The Smart Boards] are scheduled to arrive this week or next week. Worst case scenario, [teachers] will be provided webcams to use in the classrooms while doing in-person and distance learning,” Burke explained.

Plexiglass barriers are being installed in various common areas across the campus, such as the main office and student services. The district’s air conditioning systems will have higher MERV rated filters installed wherever possible, and others will be replaced more frequently to make sure all areas of the school are as safe as possible.

In order to make this process successful, the district is urging students to not attend school if they are feeling sick and to follow all instructions from administration. Students should also take their temperatures at home every day to make sure they are healthy. If one receives a positive COVID-19 test, they must report it to the school before the next school day.