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30 days into school year, superintendents talk biggest challenges of COVID-19 pandemic

Published: Sep. 14, 2021 at 10:06 AM EDT
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Inspiring. Dynamic. Determination. Unpredictable. Resiliency.

That's how five of the most influential education leaders from across our area described the first 30 days of the 2021/22 academic year, which has quickly proven to be the most challenging and unprecedented in modern times because of the unrelenting COVID-19 pandemic.

WFLX journalist Stephanie Susskind hosted a candid virtual discussion with Superintendent Michael Burke of the School District of Palm Beach County, Superintendent Dr. John Millay of the Martin County School District, Superintendent Wayne Gent of St. Lucie Public Schools, Superintendent Dr. David Moore of the School District of Indian River County, and Superintendent Ken Kenworthy of the Okeechobee County School District.

With more than 8,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 between all five school districts, a troubling number of students under quarantine, a lack of online distance learning because of strict rules from the Florida Department of Education, and learning losses that could take years to overcome, the state of education appears daunting and problematic from the outside.

But inside our local schools -- places of endless opportunities for student growth and exploration -- our area superintendents said there are feelings of hope and optimism.

"It was really nice to see our kids back on campus. Many of them hadn't been there for 17 months," Burke said. "The excitement and the energy in our classrooms between our teachers and kids, you could really tell people were appreciative to be there."

"The kids are excited to be there. They want to be there. In fact, they get disappointed if they get that call to be quarantined," Gent added. "Our students are engaged. Our teachers are engaged. Our teachers are going above and beyond, as all staff members are."

"The energy is high. We've clearly demonstrated that in order to navigate such a difficult time, you have to do it together," Moore echoed.

"When you go into our schools, they are positive places. And sometimes, you don't always get that vibe out there," Millay said.

"I see teachers teaching their heart out," Kenworthy said of his school district. "Sometimes you walk into a class and there may be five or six students out of 18 sitting in there. But I can tell you that those five or six students are getting all that teacher has."

BIGGEST CHALLENGES

Last school ended with many students experiencing "significant learning losses," according to Gent, after spending part of the year remotely learning from home and outside of brick-and-mortar classrooms.

Test results from the 2021 Florida Standards Assessments and End-Of-Course Exams dropped significantly in math, science, and social studies from two years ago -- before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic -- according to data from the Florida Department of Education.

Gent and his fellow superintendents universally told WPTV that student quarantines this academic year have only compounded those setbacks.

"With the quarantine and the high number of students that are being quarantined without an online option, I think that learning losses are one of our biggest challenges," Gent said.

"If a student is missing a day of classroom instruction, a teacher is not delivering a day of classroom instruction, we fall behind in that scope and sequence," Kenworthy said. "Any time you have a student that is absent or quarantined, or that staff member is out, we take a step backward."

During the 2020/21 academic year, students were afforded the opportunity to continue taking classes virtually at home if they were forced to stay out of class because of the coronavirus. However, the Florida Department of Education took away those "innovative learning options" for school districts this year, meaning children now have to find other ways to access their make-up work.

"For these children that are out for five or 10 days, we have the capacity to put a teacher in front of them on a screen temporarily. But we're unable to do that because we can't based upon the guidelines that were given," Gent said.

"This pandemic has hit us very, very hard under this new variant," Moore said. "When students are not inside of a classroom with a teacher, there's gonna be an impact."

Burke said the School District of Palm Beach County -- which had 2,725 students on stay-at-home orders as of Sept. 10 -- put a three-year plan in place to address learning losses brought on by the pandemic. But the emergence of the highly contagious delta variant has dealt another blow to our local education system by leading to more student infections.

"This challenge with the delta variant where we're sending kids home to quarantine because there may have been a risk of exposure, that's the big struggle now," Burke said. "How do you avoid compounding the learning loss? We want to keep kids on our campuses as much as possible."

Kenworthy added that school districts are taking a "surgical approach" to contact tracing to ensure as many students as possible are able to remain inside classrooms. In some cases, he said principals are actually using tape measures to trace an infected student's contact with other children.

"If this kid comes back positive, you have to find out how did he get to school? Who did he sit by every single period that he moved? Who did he have lunch with? Was he or she in any sort of afterschool activity?" Kenworthy said. "Drawing a six-foot circle, all day long and everywhere that he went, is difficult. And it's taxing on our staff."

Those quarantines are partly to blame for the closure of two Indian River County schools this year.

Beachland Elementary School in Vero Beach and Treasure Coast Elementary School near Sebastian were both forced to shut down for weeks because of COVID-19 cases among students and staff members, along with a shortage of employees.

"We did not have teachers to cover the classes," Moore said.

SCHOOLS ARE 'NOT INCUBATORS' FOR COVID-19

While the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in our local school districts is often growing by the hundreds every day, local superintendents said a vast majority of those infections are coming from outside school campuses.

Gent said that in St. Lucie County, less than 2% of the total student population has tested positive for COVID-19, yet 20% to 30% of students at some schools have been forced to quarantine.

"The schools really are safe. They're really not incubators. We have the kids six or seven hours a day. The rest of that time and on the weekends, we don't have them. I can't control what's going on there," Gent said. "Our schools are doing everything we can."

"The virus, more often than not, is coming in from the community into our schools. We feel like schools are the best place to be," Burke said, adding that in Palm Beach County, less than 2% of the thousands of students who have been sent home have ended up testing positive for COVID-19 themselves.

Millay wants parents to understand that the ultimate decision to quarantine students comes from the Florida Department of Health and not local school districts.

"While our staff assists and works collaborative with the health department, we do not make that decision to [quarantine students]," Millay said. "It's not a decision, a choice we have."

The Martin County superintendent added that current state guidelines for quarantining students may need to eventually be adjusted to allow more students to remain in schools and not be unnecessarily sent home.

"I do think it's a serious statewide issue to get a good handle on quarantining," Millay said. "I think the more surgical we can be and careful to keep kids in school in the coming weeks, months, this year is gonna be huge."

Gent is urging parents to keep their children home even if they have the slightest symptoms of COVID-19, saying that will help school districts get through the pandemic quicker.

"That's our biggest challenge, when they come to school sick and they do test positive. And then that puts others at risk," Gent said. "It's tough for parents as well because they work and they need to be doing what they need to do to keep their families stable."

THE DEBATE OVER MASKS

Our five area school districts run the gamut when it comes to facial coverings for students and staff members.

The School District of Palm Beach County is requiring all K-12 students to wear face masks inside school buildings and on school district transportation without the ability to opt out. Indian River County is the same, however, that school district's mandate is only for K-8 students.

The only exceptions in both districts are for children with certain medical conditions.

"It was a tough decision," Burke said. "We looked at the local medical conditions. We looked at the positivity rates. We consulted with our pediatricians. We continue to have children going to the hospital. And we wanted to err on the side of safety and abundance of caution."

"For me, it's following the numbers," Moore said. "We made a pivot about 15 days into the school year to temporarily require masks with a medical opt-out. Not a long-term solution for us, but responding to where we were seeing significant spikes."

RELATED: Florida appellate court reinstates ban on school mask mandates

St. Lucie Public Schools is mandating masks with a parental opt-out provision. Gent said he recommended the school board follow directives from both Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Florida Department of Health to give parents and guardians the final say over whether their children are masked in school.

"We monitor the data daily. We monitor the data by school, we monitor it by classroom to see what the trend is and where that is going," Gent said, adding that St. Lucie County's mask policy seems to be working to slow the spread of COVID-19. "Hopefully, maybe the worst is behind us. We've seen a little bit of a decrease here within the last week. But it's all about data."

Both Martin and Okeechobee counties have made facial coverings optional for students and staff members.

"Martin County schools provides masks for everyone at the front door who would like to wear one," Millay said. "We certainly encourage parents to help their children make the best choice for them."

"It is not likely that we would move to any sort of required masking of our students at any age," Kenworthy said, emphasizing that Okeechobee County schools are much smaller than other area districts and thus don't need such restrictive rules. "It's working for us right now, and I don't see us moving in the direction of requiring masks."

THE FUTURE OF EDUCATION

"Who would've thought we would've been facing what we are right now?" Kenworthy said. "We just keep getting those curveballs that we never knew we were going to experience this year."

It's those curveballs that these five superintendents said will require the utmost vigilance and flexibility in order to overcome the constant challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Moore said one of his biggest concerns is preparing for the possibility of yet another variant beyond the delta.

"We have to be vigilant in really evaluating what worked, what didn't work. Really make the decisions now or in the coming weeks when things are calm. So there isn't a question about when to mask or when not to mask or what the appropriate process is for quarantines," Moore said. "We just can't take our eye off the ball and we just can't assume that we're done with this."

Burke said the key to getting past the pandemic lies in the COVID-19 vaccine, which is currently only available for students 12 and older.

"To me, that's the light at the end of the tunnel," Burke said. "We have to vaccinate our way out of this nightmare."

"The resiliency that we have in our school centers and how we're able to manage this can't go unnoticed from the general public," Gent said. "The schools are safe. We're doing the best that we can."

To learn more about the COVID-19 mitigation strategies in each of our five local school districts, click the following links:

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