ST. JOHNS COUNTY, Fla. – The St. Johns County School Board voted Tuesday to delay the school start date for three weeks.
The 2020-2021 school year will now begin on Aug. 31. It was scheduled to begin on Aug. 10. The change means that the last day of school will move to June 16, shortening the summer for students and teachers next year.
“I do believe in my heart that it’s not the politicians we should listen to, it’s the scientists, and that we should decide, hopefully, what’s best for us and I’m hoping that we get that opportunity from Tallahassee,” said school board member Patrick Canan. “I am in agreement that we should extend this. I realize some will be disappointed, but I think for the district as a whole and all the 44,000 students, this is the best thing we could do at this time.”
Forson said Tuesday the district has slightly over 11,000 students that have asked to move to the school-based distance learning model, which means about 33,000 students are planning to come back into school buildings on Aug. 31.
About 1,000 students have also signed up for St. Johns Virtual School, Forson said, a school that had less than 200 students last year. Between 500-600 students chose the home education option, he added.
Forson said he wanted to push back the start date to make sure school staff are prepared. He also hopes the currently high rates of new COVID-19 infections will slow down.
Some parents and teachers who spoke during the public comment portion of the meeting urged leaders to look at starting the school year completely online due to the high number of COVID-19 cases in the area. Neither Forson nor the board seemed interested in the idea on Tuesday.
Forson said if the district does move online to start the year like is being considered in Duval County, it could jeopardize state funding due to the emergency order issued by the Florida Department of Education calling for schools to open five days a week this fall.
“What I would be very hesitant to do is bring a recommendation to you that would potentially jeopardize a significant amount of funding,” Forson said.
Other parents who spoke out said they were happy the option for brick-and-mortar classes is available because they have to go back to work and have no one to watch their students.
The board also approved buying desk shields for those students in grades 6-12 whose families choose to return to the physical classroom.
The district said it needs more than 32,000 shields that will cost nearly $700,000.
Last week, the district revealed its plans for how personal protective equipment will be used during the upcoming school year to help keep people safe. That includes requiring masks on buses prior to instruction, hallways and classrooms where students can’t social distance.
All students and staff will have their temperatures checked before the start of the school day. Classrooms and buses will be sanitized, and signs will be posted and teachers will discuss hygiene and PPE use.
High school sports
During closing comments, Forson also spoke about the future of high school athletics in the county after the FHSAA settled on a framework for the fall sports season Monday night.
Forson said he hasn’t had time to talk about the future of sports with Paul Abbatinozzi, Senior Director for School Services.
“I think there are going to be two variations that are going to occur across the state, and I think people are going to make some different decisions so we have to decide what we want to do,” Forson said. “I believe wholeheartedly how important athletics and extracurricular and performing arts and all those things outside of the 8 to 3 school day are, however, they are not more important than the academic world, and that is our mission. And so, how we do that has to be cautious and careful and calculated...So we have to talk about what’s right for us, and we’ll work through that.”
Forson said a decision on sports will be discussed and released down the road but did not give a timetable.
The FHSAA board voted down three proposals to push practice back until Aug. 10 and also went against the advice of its own Sports Medicine Advisory Committee to clear the path for fall sports practice to begin next week. Individual school districts will ultimately make the choice on when it is safe for their students to return.
Teams will have the ability to begin seasons at a date they see fit. Testing for COVID-19, crowd size at games and protocol on what happens when an athlete tests positive will all be decisions made at the district level.
The board asked for another meeting on Friday morning to explore in greater detail information from its Sports Medicine Advisory Committee. The FHSAA will also take comments from the public.
Before the special board meeting began at 10 a.m., the school board got its first look at the proposed budget for the 2020-2021 school year.
During the budget presentation, the St. Johns County Chief Financial Officer said the district will get $7.9 million for teacher raises.
“That’s the amount of money that we have set aside to increase the minimum teacher salary to $47,500, or to some maximum achievable amount that you can do within those dollars,” said CFO Michael Degutis.
Forson said the budget could be affected by the number of students who have opted to enroll in homeschooling.
The school board will publicly discuss the budget two more times before it is approved.