Duval schools left scrambling to adjust after state mandate

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Florida school districts are scrambling to re-work safe back-to-school plans with about a month to go until the first day of school.

The move comes a day after Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran signed an executive order mandating school buildings open back up five days a week in August.

Schools have been distance learning for months to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Daily positive coronavirus cases have soared since April in Duval County, where school district officials have already released a tentative plan to re-open schools with a mix of online and in-person options based on students’ grade levels.

The Duval County plan, however, did not include every school re-opening its doors five days a week.

“We already offer all of these services that were mentioned in the order, whether we were doing it through virtual meetings or in-person means, so that is not our issue,” Superintendent Diana Greene told the School Board on Tuesday night. “The issue is that our schools now have to open five days a week. As you remember, we had a plan that offered a hybrid model, where students would come to school for high school two days a week, it was sixth grade, four days a week and seventh and eighth grade three days a week. Elementary actually meets the order based on the information I am sharing tonight.”

Duval County was planning to release its final plans Tuesday, but the mandate is forcing them to adjust.

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“We ask our parents, students, to be very patient with us as we try to work through this very unusual situation. Never before have we had to open schools during a pandemic,” said Duval County School Board Chairman Warren Jones.

The president of the Duval Teachers Union, Terrie Brady, said members had already submitted thousands of concerns and responses to help shape the district’s first plan.

“What it boils down to, they are concerned about safety,” Brady said. “Safety for themselves and safety for the students. It’s a shame that [the Department of Education] waited so late to give out these guidelines because we as a school district and a union have been working to some degree for two, to three months to get ready under the CDC guidelines.”

Monday’s bombshell announcement became Tuesday’s big topic during the Duval County School Board’s weekly meeting. Dr. Diana Greene, the school superintendent, said the district is trying to adapt on the fly after composing its hybrid plan.

“We have to have the capability to have class five days a week. I believe the majority of our students will come to school five days a week, if the doors are open,” Greene said.

Board Chair Warren Jones said there were about 200 public comment emails submitted for the board’s consideration. Some people suggested mandatory mask wearing everywhere on campus. Others argued it will be impossible to enforce and potentially not enough to stop students or staff from spreading the illness.

The Florida Department of Education said in a statement, in part: “The state has a moral imperative to do our absolute best to return our schools to full operation by August.”

The department said feedback from superintendents has been positive, pointing to a tweet where the Miami-Dade school superintendent called the order “fair and balanced.”

In St. Johns County, the superintendent was set to discuss its re-opening plan Tuesday, but that discussion was put on hold because of the mandate.

The St. Johns County School Board was expected to vote to finalize the plan next week.

“Disappointed in the timing. I mean, we’ve been working for months on our plan and really rolling it out right now. And at the last minute to be told no, you’re going to do it this way, you know just disappointed. I don’t know any other way to put it,” said Patrick Canan, St. Johns County School Board Member.

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