Polk public schools are still on track to resume classes Aug. 24, Superintendent Jacqueline Byrd said today after the county’s chief public health officer reported that coronavirus metrics are declining locally.
“Covid conditions in Polk County, fortunately, have been improving over the past four weeks,” Dr. Joy Jackson, chief of the Florida Department of Health office in Polk County, told School Board members this morning during a work session on reopening.
“We are seeing a steady decrease in the weekly number of new cases per day. We are also seeing a decrease in the number of people going to the emergency departments with Covid-like illness and a decrease in the percentage of people being tested who are testing positive,” she said.
Check our info graphics tracking Polk County COVID-19 metrics
“We had a one-day high of 17% of tests positive about a month ago. In the past week, an average of 10% of people have tested positive. This is not ideal; it is definitely showing a downward trend.”
Hospitalizations in Polk have remained stable, but deaths have increased, she said. The “vast majority” of those who have died are older than 65, and there have been no pediatric deaths, she said.
School Board member Billy Townsend charged that presentations by Jackson and other health officials at today’s meeting were prompted more by politics than safely returning children to schools.
He pointed to news reports that Florida health directors have been forbidden to recommend whether schools should reopen, and said: “This is purely about political agendas being imposed. If it wasn’t, we wouldn’t be planning to dump 50,000 kids (in classrooms) in one day.”
Townsend proposed that Polk County follow the lead of other countries that he said have successfully used phased plans to reopen schools safely. The “big bang” of opening all schools at once have caused coronavirus outbreaks in other parts of the U.S. and forced school districts to retrench to distance learning, he said.
The Polk school district plans to start both face-to-face classes and distance-learning instruction on Aug. 24.
Parents and teachers filled out online forms to indicate their preference. Calls are being made to the roughly 8,600 families who have yet to respond, Acting Chief Academic Officer Michelle Townley said.
As of Monday, 38,648 students (48 percent of the total) are expected back on campus and 34,220 (42 percent) have signed up for campus-based distance learning, she said. Roughly 2 percent have signed up for Polk Virtual School, a distance learning option not tied to any home school. Students whose parents don’t express a preference by the start of classes will be assigned to their brick-and-mortar school.
Among teachers, 39% said they prefer an on-campus assignment, 28.6% prefer a campus-tied e-learning assignment, 28% said are comfortable with either option, and the small remainder prefer Polk Virtual.
Principals and their assistants have been working to match teacher preferences with student needs at their school.
Under questioning from School Board member Sarah Fortney, Townley conceded that some teachers who prefer distance teaching may be assigned in-person instruction if they are the only person at their school who teaches a specialized topic.
In those cases, the teacher may lead a “hybrid” class with some students participating in the classroom and others watching live from home, she said.
Fortney responded: “The governor said that teachers would have a choice, and I just want to make it clear that they really don’t.”
A School Reopening page on the Polk Public Schools website details plans for safety. The plan for brick-and-mortar schools includes a requirement that all staff and K-12 students wear masks. Classrooms are being reconfigured to maximize social distancing, many halls are being converted to one-way traffic and lunch arrangements are being changed to increase distancing.
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Dr. Jackson was joined at this morning’s meeting by other health professionals who spoke about health, social and safety benefits to re-starting in-person instruction.
The psychological aspects of staying at home have been more trying than expected, resulting in increased depression and anxiety, according to Dr. Timothy Regan, president and chief medical officer of Lakeland Regional Health Medical Center.
In addition, there are concerns about social and academic regression, he said. And there have been reports of increases in child abuse and malnutrition with students sequestered at home, he said.
Dr. Adriana Cadilla, an infectious diseases expert at Nemours Children’s Hospital in Orlando, said virtual schooling is more difficult for children and parents than it sounds. She knows because she has been doing it with her kindergarten and 2nd-grade children, who attend public schools in Orange County, where virtual school started Monday in advance of in-class learning.
“It’s been very difficult,” she said. “Not every family will be able to do this.”
Watch today’s work session: