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FCS changes start date, won’t mandate masks

David Adlerstein
The Apalach Times
The Apalach Times

The Franklin County School District plans to modify the start of school, with students returning Friday, Aug. 14.

The switch from Monday, Aug. 10 is being done to provide teachers with four days of additional training for the safety measures and protocols that will take place on campus.

In a news release issued Thursday afternoon, Superintendent Traci Yoder said the change to the school reopening schedule will mean a modification in the school calendar to shift all four teacher professional development days to the beginning of the school year.

In addition, the quarterly student holidays on the calendar will be changed to normal school attendance days. Chimene Johnson, principal at the Apalachicola Bay Charter School, said the school will adhere to the same schedule for its opening week.

“While our campuses and buses have been cleaned and sanitized and plans for both on campus and virtual instruction are in place, I believe that spending our professional development days in August will provide our faculty and staff with the support and training through our local health department, to be better prepared to welcome our students back to school safely,” Yoder said.

She said administration and staff have worked with the health department and other local public health agencies since the COVID-19 pandemic began to keep students, staff, families, and community safe.

“While returning to school is always an exciting time for our students, staff, and families we understand that we are not returning to school under normal circumstances,” Yoder said.

The superintendent appealed to parents to sign into the FOCUS parent portal to make enrollment selections for each child in their family. If no selection is made by Friday, July 31 as to whether they prefer online or on-campus education, the default enrollment selection will be on-campus.

Board stops short of a mask mandate

There’s going to be a lot of encouragement going on when Franklin County students return to their on-campus classrooms Aug. 14.

They’re going to be encouraged to do all that goes along with the exciting start of a new school year, to study, to listen to their teachers, to make new friends.

And they’re going to be strongly encouraged to wear masks.

At a meeting Monday, the Franklin County school board declined to mandate the wearing of masks by students, teachers and staff, but instead to strongly encourage their use whenever social distancing is not possible.

In addition, the Apalachicola Bay Charter School has adopted a policy that does not mandate masks, but makes it clear such a requirement could be put in place.

“The wearing of a mask and/or face shields may be declared mandatory for all staff and students if COVID-19 infections remain high,” reads the charter school policy. “The school at this time encourages all students to wear a mask to and from their classroom, at arrival and dismissal, and transitioning through campus.

“Middle students and staff will be strongly encouraged to wear masks/shields at all times, unless social distancing is possible,” it reads.

In sharing the district’s 46-page outline for school reopening, Superintendent Traci Yoder said that “we’re having to rethink and restructure our entire school day.”

The report outlined the procedures used to open the Eastpoint campus on a limited basis for summer school, and plans to open it to full capacity next month. Several slides detailed steps being taken to reduce the risk from the coronavirus, and on the intention to educate students on necessary steps for reducing the spread of COVID-19, such as cutting down on congestion and controlling foot traffic in hallways.”

Chairman Stacy Kirvin directed the discussion towards specifics, particularly on the matter of face coverings.

“It (the report) doesn’t actually get into what we need to do,” he said.

Yoder said the administration has created a crisis response team, with representation from administrators, faculty, the county health department and stakeholders in the community, which will provide input on steps the district needs to take.

“We need to get to what we need to do,” said Kirvin.

“I want to present the why behind this,” said Yoder, further detailing various aspects of the district’s strategic plan, in getting students on and off campus, and maintaining whenever possible six feet between desks.

She said the Florida Department of Education has been firm that there is no flexibility when it comes to the rules surrounding the state-mandated class size amendments.

Yoder said neither the state nor the county has mandated facial coverings. At a special meeting last week, the school board voted to communicate with County Attorney Michael Shuler that it would prefer not to be governed by any possible county masking rules, but would prefer to operate under its own policies for its facilities.

“My recommendation is that anytime social distancing is not possible, we can require a mask,” she said. “We do have some available.”

Kirvin sought support for a firmer policy, advocating for either face shield or masks to be a requirement.

“To me that’s like a big thing,” he said. “The face covering can mitigate al lot of things that aren’t (otherwise) possible.

“How does the teachers union feel about this? The support staff? They’re the ones that are going to be exposed,” he asked.

“I’ve asked for feedback but I haven’t heard back yet,” said Yoder. “We should ask our parents about it too.”

’We’re going to be fighting all day long’

Yoder said that teachers found it hard to enforce requirements for school uniforms, and so the same could be true with a face covering mandate.

“They’re going to have to be enforcing this on a daily basis,” she said.

“We’re going to be fighting that all day long,” said School Board Member Pam Marshall, a former teacher.

Kirvin said the Apalachicola Bay Charter School had recently purchased 500 face shields, for a little more than $4 each, as part of its strategy to combat the spread of the coronavirus when it reopens Aug. 10.

“One student in a class tests positive and everyone’s going home for 14 days,” he said. “Anything we can do to stop that from happening” should be considered.

Kirvin encouraged his colleagues to consider the use of face shields. “Having face shields for teacher is important,” he said, especially for the younger children learning to read. “Kids need to see their mouth

“Let’s take the political aspect out of it,” he said. “The best way to stop the spread is face mask and social distancing. Airborne transmission is the primary way it’s transmitted.”

A survey of how his fellow school board members felt revealed little if any support for a mandate, but a backing of encouragement and education.

“I wouldn’t use the word mandatory,” said George Thompson. “The parents should be worried about this and ask your kids to wear this. They’re not wearing anything.”

Fonda Davis agreed. “A face shield will be better. Walking around with a mask all day is aggravating,” he said.

Yoder sought adopting a policy that would allow for a variety of optional face coverings.

“I think we can accomplish what you’re wanting to accomplish, (where masks are required) if social distancing is not possible,” she said. “I don’t want to limit it to a facemask or faceshield.”

Yoder said that especially with young children, there can be resistance to compliance. “Being a teacher it’s very difficult to (enforce). It’s not that they’re being defiant. You may have a student who feels more comfortable (with a different option). Let’s have the options available and make it mandatory when social distancing is not possible.”

She said she plans to go over the policy with faculty and staff this week. “I’d like to talk to them before I make anything mandatory,” she said.

“If I was a teacher I’d want everyone wearing a mask,” said Kirvin.

“I’m sure people are going to feel both ways,” said Yoder.

More outdoor, and classroom, meals

She said the school is ordering additional picnic tables to create additional eating spaces outside.. “The majority of meals will be prepackaged,” she said. “We will have meals in classrooms, and we’ll be limiting the size of students in cafeteria.”

At a special meeting July 16, the school board weighed questions of how compensation will be handled in the event staffers have to quarantine due to a member of their class or a colleague they work with has tested positive for the coronavirus.

“Does the board want to pay for those people to come home?” asked Karen Peddie, the district’s head of human resources. “Leave without pay? That’s a decision you guys have to make.

“If they have no leave, this was the only avenue. We can’t pay them without an avenue to do it,” she said.

Peddie said it could be a challenge establishing how an employee contracted the virus. “Even though there is a high probability they were exposed at work, we don’t know that they didn’t get it at the grocery story.”

The board is working on a policy similar to ones in place for measles or chicken pox.

“We need a discussion, do you want to pay this out of the general fund?” Peddie said. “I don’t want to mislead you; this could get very expensive by the end of the year, if there’s eight or 10 people out at a time.”

Kirvin said he believed staffers out due to exposure to the coronavirus need to be paid. “We’ve got to figure how to make it work,” he said.

Yoder said not every employee will be able to work remotely, and there would be additional costs in the event substitutes need to be brought in to the campus.

“If an employee is able to work remotely, we want policy to require they work remotely if they are able, before we would pay them and not work,” said Peddie.

“I just want them to have the flexibility, to have them work remotely if they can,” said Yoder.

The board plans to review a policy at its July 30 regular meeting.