Brevard Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Mark Mullins is presenting a school reopening plan at a School Board meeting that is in progress on Tuesday, July 14, 2020, that has been revised since the presentation of a preliminary plan during a School Board workshop meeting last week.
The Brevard County School Board — under mounting pressure from parents and teachers to delay the start of the Brevard Public School year amid the COVID-19 pandemic — sat down at an emotionally charged meeting Tuesday to discuss the final version of their fall reopening plan.
By late afternoon, after hours of discussion alreadyand with the meeting looking set to drag on into the night, the plan had mostly minor changes from the one presented to the board last Thursday but included updated language on face masks and a new online option for secondary students.
Brevard County Superintendent Mark Mullins also recommended to the board delaying the student start date from Aug. 11 to Aug. 17, to give teachers and staff more time to prepare and train on remote learning technology. Board members directed Mullins to explore additional timeline options and indicated they could meet as early as next week to make a decision.
As the board and the superintendent prepared to sequester in a mostly empty boardroom — a format they’ve used since school closures were extended in April — a group of about 60 teachers and parents protested outside school board headquarters in Viera, calling on school officials to delay opening classrooms amid a surge in cases of the virus.
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Leah Mallace, who helped organize the rally, said she found the school district’s plan implausible, citing difficulties managing hallway traffic and cleaning rooms between class periods.
“My daughter will not be going to school (in person) in the fall. … There’s too many ‘ifs’ they haven’t taken into consideration.” said Mallace, whose child will be a sophomore at Titusville High School.
Organizer Kelli Mastroianni, a teacher at Madison Middle School in Titusville, said she felt school district officials were “rushing” a plan that didn’t fully address the health and safety of teachers.
“I am at high risk (of the virus). My daughter is high risk. My son is diabetic, and we haven’t left the house in months. … I felt strongly enough that I need to get out here,” Mastroianni said. “I really think (school board members) have been strong-armed into doing something they know is not safe.”
The ability of local school districts to set their own reopening timelines has been constrained by state orders and by federal threats to withhold funding if districts choose not to open their doors.
An emergency order, signed last week by Florida Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran, tied school spending to compliance with an order to open brick-and-mortar schools in August. Meanwhile, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos on “Fox News Sunday” reiterated threats to punish school districts that remain closed by withholding federal funds.
Dozens of speakers echoed similar remarks during a emotionally charged three-hour public comment period, which occurred before Superintendent Mark Mullins presented the updated reopening plan.
Commenters expressed a range of concerns, including the paucity of online options for secondary and accelerated students, shortages of custodians and support staff, and the district’s initial face mask proposal, which “strongly recommended” masks but would have required them only in limited circumstances.
The updated language strengthened the policy to say masks were “expected” when social distancing was not feasible, but fell short of requiring their general use. Both the initial and updated policies were “non-disciplinary,” meaning there would be no official enforcement or punishment if students failed to wear masks in the classroom.
Addressing the concerns of parents, Mullins also announced a new virtual option for middle and high school students that closely mirrored the previously unveiled “eLearning” model for elementary schools, though he did not immediately offer details.
Under the eLearning option, students would take live daily instruction at home with teachers from their designated or choice schools through the Microsoft Zoom video conferencing application. The schedule would closely model the regular school day, with a designated start time and determined lessons and breaks.
Speakers — mostly teachers, with a mix of parents, students and health care professionals — overwhelmingly called for schools to remain closed.
At turns sympathetic and angry, Manatee Elementary teacher Erin Dunne lashed school officials for a reopening plan she said didn’t go far enough to protect teachers and their families.
“You need to know that I am seriously considering taking a job outside of Brevard Public Schools, with a $16,000 pay cut on an already meager salary, so that my family can stay safe,” Dunne said. “I don’t want to leave my students, but if you reopen school buildings in-person next month, you may be leaving me no choice.”
Though comments have been pre-recorded and played back at meetings since April, some speakers seized on the perceived irony of discussing opening schools to students at a meeting closed to the public.
“It’s not OK for you all have traditional board meeting with attendees, but you expect us to go back to the classroom with 20 children for seven hours a day?” said Sue Stocks, a special needs teacher at Surfside Elementary. “It’s time to put the same consideration into the health and safety of employees as you would for your own children.”
The board discussed last week and board member Katye Campbell reiterated Tuesday it was looking into readmitting public access to board meetings “as soon as possible,” Campbell said.
Among other health care workers to chime in, Rockledge-based physician Dr. Howard Drexel Dobson said he cares for COVID-19 patients in his daily practice and offered a dire prediction to the board.
“I’m speaking both as a parent and as a physician and a surgeon: we are on the cusp of precipitating a super-spreader event,” Dobson said. “We just want to make sure we understand we’re not ready to open.”
“There are solutions that will work (but) we need to spend more time working on them,” he added.