Addressing an 'impossible task': Volusia is moving forward with Aug. 31 school reopening plan

Personal protective equipment, technology and social distancing: School Board members say the district is working on it.

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  • | 10:00 a.m. August 26, 2020
  • Ormond Beach Observer
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A new school year for Volusia students will begin on Monday, Aug. 31, and as that date approaches, Volusia County School Board members stated district staff continues to work around the clock to distribute personal protective equipment kits for teachers, install plexiglass partitions and address critical technology shortfalls. 

School Board Member Ruben Colon said at the board's meeting on Tuesday, Aug. 25, that despite the recent Leon County circuit judge ruling the state's mandate to reopen schools was unconstitutional, he's shifted his focus from "if schools should open," to "how can schools open safely." The number of new COVID-19 cases in Volusia is trending downward and the 14-day positivity rate is 5.66%. 

With that in mind, Colon said school districts were still given an "impossible task" — implement social distancing in classrooms and school buses, as well as come up with health policies without any additional funding from the state. 

Parents were given three choices for their children's education, and the overwhelming majority — 63% — chose to enroll them in a brick-and-mortar school. That's a voice, Colon said.

“So we hear you," he said. "I hear you. Teachers, I hear you. We’re not ready as far as the logistics of what we are being asked to put together, but we are all in this together.”

PPE and teacher vacancies

A total of 7,852 personal protective equipment kits were delivered to teachers and school staff so far, and Interim Superintendent Dr. Carmen Balgobin said during the workshop earlier in the day that more will be delivered as supply orders are filled. The district also expects a delivery of 50,000 student plexiglass dividers by Thursday, Aug. 27. 

“We’re feeling pretty good so far with where we are at this point in time, but we’ll continue to work very closely with each division to ensure that for each option, we have what’s needed and that our students are 100% scheduled," she said.

Colon said his biggest concern were these personal protective equipment kits, as teachers are depending on these supplies. However, he remarked that the items in the kits, such as the two paper towel rolls, will not last very long. 

“I see that as probably one of our biggest vulnerabilities," he said. 

School Board Chair Ida Wright also asked district staff about emails she's received from teachers who stated they were told to use their classroom supply funds, or pay out-of-pocket, for personal protective equipment for their classrooms. Chief Operating Officer Greg Akin replied that he didn't know where that direction came from.

In addition a human resources update showed that 38 teachers are taking a leave of absence, and 28 of them list "personal reasons" or a "personal leave of absence" as to why. Seventeen teachers are resigning, with eight listing personal reasons. An Aug. 11 district update reported 128 instructional vacancies and 190 new hires. That update also reported that as of June 2, 113 VCS employees had retired and 187 had resigned.

Conversely, 256 teachers have been added to the Volusia Online model to accomodate for the over 8,700 students heading to that platform.

Balgobin said currently, they are aware of only one elementary school that, based on the number of students returning to brick-and-mortar, may need one new teacher. 

Teachers speak out

That evening during the board meeting, teachers voiced their opinions about reopening.

Alycia Severson, of Ormond Beach, said teachers were told by the board certain measures would be implemented for a safe return to schools, including the installation of hand sanitizing stations in classrooms and desks spaced out 6 feet apart. Instead, teachers were given jugs of hand sanitizers and in her classroom, she has 24 desks spaced 28 inches apart.

“I would never go into any space that small with 30 people or even 20, masked or not," she said, adding later in her comments that all students should remain online for now. 

Another teacher, Michelle Maclin of DeLand, said she and other educators have spent the last two weeks worried for their health and safety, and that of students, due to insufficient classroom cleanings, lack of adequate personal protective equipment, "fluctuating" social distancing practice and the impasse between the district bargaining team and Volusia United Educators. 

“I’m baffled by this school board’s complacency in allowing district personnel to provide subpar training and materials to school-based educators and staff with the expectation that teachers will continue to perform with the same level of proficiency as pre-COVID," Maclin said.

'This is not easy'

School Board member Carl Persis repeated that he would be comfortable reopening schools when the positivity rate is below 5% for 14 consecutive days. It might not be quite there at the moment, but it's close. 

“If [the positivity rate] continues to drop, we will have reached it," Persis said.

Despite being one of the last districts to go back, School Board Member Linda Cuthbert said they probably wouldn't be ready to reopen if they pushed the date back to October or December. The board believes what the teachers are telling them, she said. 

“This is not easy," Cuthbert said. "It’s tearing all of us apart."

School Board Member Jamie Haynes said she knows some parents are still wondering if they made the right enrollment decision for their children. She addressed teachers, saying she knows some of them are afraid, but that the goal is to get the children in schools and put their education first.

“Take time next week," Haynes said. "Go through the processes. Go through the procedures. Teachers give yourself grace, give yourself time and be compassionate with each other, because [students are] not going to walk back in on the first day and know what you expect at lunch or what you expect in the classroom.”

Wright said the district is working to address concerns in all teaching modalities, from the partition installations to the internet issues that need to be fixed, all before Monday rolls around. 

“If you think we’re doing nothing, I’m sorry to tell you we’re doing as much as we can," Wright said.

No one has said they wanted to be in the School Board's position, Cuthbert said; half of them don't want to be in their own position. All they can do, she said, is set policies and learn to live with COVID-19. 

“As much as I want to close our schools, we can’t do it," Cuthbert said. "We’ve got to send our kids back.”


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