Why a later start date could present challenges for Duval teachers, students

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – It’s back to the drawing board for Duval County Public School leaders after the school board voted Thursday to reconsider some aspects of the superintendent’s reopening plan.

The main consideration is a postponement of the school year by two weeks or more.

Duval County Superintendent Dr. Diana Greene said Thursday she understands that families are eager to know what the concrete plan for the fall is going to be.

With the recent swell of COVID-19 in Northeast Florida — and a record number of reported deaths in Florida on Thursday — families, employees and board members are calling for DCPS to go against the state’s emergency order to open buildings five days a week.

Greene expected to have her reopening plan approved for submission during a special meeting on Thursday but the public and members of the school board called for an overhaul.

“Starting school in a face-to-face setting is a dangerous outset,” said Whitney Reddick, a DCPS special education teacher.

“We just don’t have the community control that we need to invite people back into our buildings,” said board member Ashley Smith-Juarez.

“I don’t know that this particular time for our community is ... safe,” said school board vice-chair Elizabeth Andersen.

Some teachers and other district staff got emotional as they pleaded with the board to reconsider the reopening plan.

Most who spoke out agreed that starting the school year with face-to-face learning puts lives at risk.

“I do not want to attend a funeral for my student who dies from COVID-19,” said teacher Sherri Johnson.

Sandalwood High School teacher Shannon Russell-Hinds cited the teachers union’s bargaining language.

““Each employee shall be furnished a safe place of employment as defined in the laws of Florida and the United States,” she said.

Under the current reopening plan laid out earlier this week, students would have limited face-to-face options for the start of the year and all of them would have an option to use Duval Homeroom or enroll in the district’s virtual school.

But stakeholders called for the district to start the semester completely online, or delay the start of school by at least two weeks.

Greene said each of those plans comes with a list of challenges.

“This will require us to be out-of-the-box thinkers to ensure that we can maintain our payroll,” said Greene, referring to how pushing back the schedule could impact pay for teachers, bus drivers and support staff.

Starting with 100% virtual attendance also means distributing a lot of equipment and supplies and training for students and staff, Greene said.

“That would create a tremendous amount of pressure on the district to try to meet that and, quite frankly, I’m not sure we could if we were going to start on August 10,” Greene said.

But delaying the school year also means readjusting the planned options to account for new dates and the possibility of pushing the end of the school year further into the summer. Greene said she will be taking the plan back to the calendar committee to see how a two-week delay would affect the reopening plan.

The board agreed Thursday to wait on finalizing the district’s plan until the option for postponement is explored.

“Anything that we can do to try to meet those goals, what’s best for our community, what’s best for our teachers, I’m all for exploring,” Greene said.

The final version of the reopening plan will be presented to the school board July 23.

Parents with children who plan to use virtual learning through Duval Homeroom or the virtual academy need to register on the district website. The deadline is July 24 for Duval Homeroom and July 31 for the virtual academy, but there are some late enrollment possibilities.

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