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Florida Matters: To Reopen Or Not To Reopen Is The Question For Florida Schools

Jennifer Kious and Michael Grego photos
Zoom; Pinellas School Board
Hillsborough teacher Jennifer Kious, left, and Pinellas School Superintendent Michael Grego

To open or not to open? That’s the big question as the new school year comes around –right in the midst of a spike in the number of coronavirus cases in Florida.

On one hand, school officials say students learn a lot more when they’re physically in class and have to pay attention. The effectiveness of all those Zoom lessons from home since classes went online after spring break has come under a lot of scrutiny.

On the other hand, a lot of parents and teachers say they don’t feel safe going into a roomful of students. Already, several states – including the nation’s biggest, California – have said only online sessions will be held for the time being, once schools reopen.

And on Sunday, Florida's largest teachers union, The Florida Education Association, filed a lawsuit against the state over the school reopening order.

You can hear the plan for Pinellas County schools from Superintendent Michael Grego.

Recently, a group of teachers protested outside Strawberry Crest High School in Hillsborough County. Inside, state Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran of Pasco County doubled down on his plans to open schools across the state in August. One of those protesters was Jennifer Kious, a hockey coach and teacher at Durant High School.

Here's an excerpt of the discussion that Florida Matters host Steve Newborn had with Jennifer Kious:

I definitely want to be back to school. But the issue that we are taking with this is-- that right now by going back to school in a brick and mortar capacity, what that means is that we're just delaying the time for us to actually be back to school as normal. So my school district has suggested that anytime someone gets sick, that we'll have to quarantine and there's a lot of uncertainty on that. Does that mean that if I have a child in my classroom that I have to quarantine, and then am I remote teaching for two weeks?

I teach an average of 120 to 130 students each day. So if I'm exposed to any of those students, or if any of those students have family members that have been exposed, does that mean I'm exposed? So am I going to be starting and then stopping, starting and stopping all year long, and if that's the case, it would make far more sense economically. And from a learning perspective, it would make so much more sense if we could delay the start or start with e-learning as an option. And I just don't think that teachers’ voices and students’ voices - and honestly, even parents’ voices - are being heard and making these policy decisions that really affect us all.

Have you been privy to the process where school administrators have come to this decision? I know school teachers and parents have been surveyed. But you don't think that's being taken to heart?

We definitely had the survey. And I thought that was a great start. But I don't think that our concerns are being heard. And, I want to stress that I don't think that's at the school site, either. I absolutely love my school. You know, I have a great relationship with my school administrators, with my coworkers. I would hope that most people in the Tampa Bay area can say that they have a similar experience. I think we have great schools and great school leadership, but it's at the state level, and then at our district level, where we really need our voices to be heard.

Jennifer Kious
Credit Zoom
Jennifer Kious

I've read that part of the plan is for some students to go around in pods from class to class. So what happens if one of these kids ends up getting sick? Does everybody go into quarantine? Does the teacher go into quarantine?

I don't know. And that's one of the issues. You know, I think I usually spend my summers planning for the next year. And this has been an issue for many teachers. We don't have any clear guidelines here. Does that mean that I'll be teaching remotely and I need to teach sections of my curriculum remotely? I teach classes for (English as a Second Language) students, and all the way up to (Advanced Placement) literature. So that means that I'll be varying my curriculum intensity. You know, I'd like to have some heads-up on that. I think a lot of teachers feel that way. And there's just a lot of uncertainties here.

So let's say that your child is playing a hockey game against another child and someone on the other team has tested positive. Does that mean now that the other team has to quarantine and anyone in contact with them? Now what about teachers that have their own children that go to different schools, or if they are infected, does that jeopardize the teachers, the students at my school?

And then on top of that, of course the goal is we would love to reopen the economy. I know Gov. DeSantis is pushing for that. Teachers want that, too. We want to go back to work in brick-and-mortar buildings, we want our kids at school during the day, and we want parents to be able to go back to work as normal. That's not the concern. The concern is that by starting in this manner, without much clarity and without a whole lot of guidelines for these ifs and these situations that will happen, what are we going to do? And that uncertainty is just not a great way to start the school year.

The following is an excerpt of the interview with Pinellas School Superintendent Michael Grego:

So let's talk about going back to school - whenever that is - tell me about the health preparations that are being done, the precautions that are being done in the schools. A lot of teachers are very worried about going back to school and being in an enclosed area with a lot of students. Tell me what you're all doing to address health concerns.

Yes, I couldn't agree with you more. And we all are concerned. And that's why I want to want to lead with the medical doctors and medical advice on this. And so they're saying to us we can keep students like in an elementary school in a specific cohort. So if I have 16 students in a class, if parents screen their own students, parents know when a student's not feeling well. The days of sending a student to school - at least through this pandemic - where they're not feeling well is absolutely over. And so they need to keep their student home when they're not.

Michael Grego
Credit Pinellas School Board
Dr. Michael Grego is Superintendent of Schools for Pinellas County.

We did need to do informal screening when they get to the school and we're setting up a clinic in every single school for students who may not or have symptoms. We're also going have a nurse in every single school. So there's a medical professional in all schools. So we're following all of the guidelines, we're placing masks on students and on teachers. So we're protecting each other. And every medical professional that we have on our committee says if you want to do one thing, and just one thing to really curb the spread of this disease is for everyone to wear a mask.

It is the science that's kind of leading this way. We're building plexiglass shields in the cafeterias and in the classrooms where social distancing is not viable. We're putting hand sanitizing stations throughout our schools, we're requiring students as they come in off the bus to go right into the classroom. Then if something happens, we have a self-contained classroom and we can certainly have the Department of Health contact trace.

Let’s take a look at the hypothetical, but totally possible situation that somebody in the cohort gets sick. Does that mean that everybody in the cohort has to get quarantined?  Does the teacher gets quarantined, the teacher can't go to any of the other cohorts,  can't mix with the other students? What's the protocol with that right now?

That to me is the most pressing issue, too. To sustain education, it's one thing to start school. It's another thing to operate school on a consistent basis. And for that we're having regular conversations with the Department of Health. Is that is really their call, what would be their strategy? If it is a teacher? If it's not? Sometimes the precautionary measures of whether it's a teacher or student will absolutely close down classrooms and perhaps schools. So I'm as concerned about the day-to-day operations of having consistent level of education services.

So what you're saying is that schooling if outbreak happens, everybody's going to go back to doing the Canvas, Edsby, Zoom, whatever you want to call it, like we did after spring break, right?

Right. In fact, it’ll be a far greater, robust scheduled time. Let's take your example one step further. We're quarantined - we have to take a class, we have to take a wing we have to take a school - and say we have to quarantine for 10 days so students will go home and register and go online to continue instruction. Once that happens, we're trying to set up a system where students are not losing instructional time.

Steve Newborn is WUSF's assistant news director as well as a reporter and producer at WUSF covering environmental issues and politics in the Tampa Bay area.