Polk School Board members today delayed the start of classes by two weeks to Aug. 24 as they gave unanimous support to a reopening plan that lets parents and teachers choose between brick-and-mortar classes and two distance-learning options.

The School Board tonight approved an updated school calendar that has teachers returning to work Aug. 17 and students returning to learning a week later.

The start of school could be pushed back farther if the rate of COVID-19 infections in Polk County remains high, Superintendent Jacqueline Byrd said.

She had recommended the delayed start at the beginning of a work session this morning on a plan to reopen schools with coronavirus precautions.

“If numbers look like they do today, then I can guarantee you that Dr. Jackson (Polk County Health Department Director Joy Jackson) and I will be back here again talking to you about having great concerns about bringing students back and our staff back,” Byrd told board members.

The plan, drafted by a task force involving 95 individuals, would divert brick-and-mortar learning to distance learning “if conditions are not safe for campus learning.”

Parents and teachers are being asked starting today which of three options they prefer when the school year starts:

  • Campus learning for preK-12 at brick-and-mortar schools. Masks would be required and social distancing would be practiced when feasible. Health screening would be put in place for students, faculty and staff; only essential visitors would be allowed on campus.
  • Campus eSchool for K-12 that would enable online learning tied to the student’s zoned, choice or magnet school. Students would expect to engage with classes on the same schedule as students at their brick-and-mortar school. Parents would serve as learning coaches. Parents choosing this option are asked to stick with it for an entire academic quarter.
  • Polk Virtual School for K-12 follows curricula from Florida Virtual School “and other vendors.” Unlike Campus eSchool, which was referred to as the “tethered” option, virtual school would allow students to work at their own pace. It might be more suitable for families where parents need more flexibility to work with their students outside of normal school hours, according to Michelle Townley, the school district's interim chief academic officer.

* Learn more about the three options
* Parents, register your intent on this form by July 27.

School administrators today stressed the importance of hearing back from parents about their preferred choice by July 27 so that they can compete plans for each of the three options knowing how many students to expect.

The school district has until July 31 to submit its reopening plan to the Florida Department of Education.

The head of the Polk Education Association, the local teachers union, told board members at tonight's meeting that she appreciates the delay in opening schools, but she pleaded with them not to reopen brick-and-mortar schools until coronavirus numbers decline.

“We need to be in a distance-learning format,” Stephanie Yocum said. “We can't put the community and staff and students at jeopardy.”

School Board members listened as emails were read from a sampling of 500 messages received, most of them from teachers, retired teachers and parents. Many suggested pivoting to distance learning or waiting until after Labor Day to re-start. Some thanked them for the two-week delay in reopening schools.

This version of the reopening overview is updated from the one Jazbablog published with Monday's article; it includes target dates on the “Next Steps” slide:

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The tentative 2020-2021 school calendar that will be considered by School Board members tonight:

The calendar keeps the same dates for major breaks in November, December and in the spring. However, the end of school is pushed back two weeks to June 9 for students and June 10 for staff, according to Assistant Superintendent Teddra Porteous. (The final dates are in error in the tentative schedule above.)

The schools reopening task force is still wrestling with some details, such as the temperature needed for staff and students to be admitted to school and specifics on the mask policy, including whether they will be mandatory for students in kindergarten and first grade, Townley said.

Buses will be a significant challenge, she said. Students will be asked to enter from the rear of the bus so that students are not facing each other when walking to their seats.

One particular challenge is recruiting enough bus drivers, said Rob Davis, assistant superintendent for transportation. Fewer-than-typical people have shown up for recruitment sessions, and 168 current drivers are in high-risk groups, so some of them might not return, he said. People interested in bus-driving jobs are asked to call 863-534-7298.

Video from this morning's School Board work session:

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Barry Friedman founded Lkldnow.com in 2015 as the culmination of a career in print and digital journalism. Since 1982, he has used the tools of reporting, editing and content curation to help people in Lakeland understand their community better.

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