Hendry County School Board faces many challenges in planning for reopening

Virtual forum on school plan is TODAY at 1:30 p.m.

Lake Okeechobee News/ Danika J. Fornear
The July 7, 2020 regular Hendry County School Board Meeting was held virtually.

LABELLE – Hendry County School Board members discussed the many challenges they face with the August re-opening of schools for the 2020-2021 school year, during the regular meeting held virtually on July 7. Some of these have plans in the works and solutions on the horizon, some challenges have yet to even be identified.

An email from a concerned parent was read aloud by Superintendent Paul Puletti, ”Hello. To whom it may concern, this email is regarding the opening of schools in the fall. I have two kids attending public schools in LaBelle, and I really think it would be irresponsible to open schools for kids and ignore the increase in COVID-19 cases in Florida. If the governor does not care for our kids’ health, we must step up and care for our children and protect them. In order to protect them school should stay closed. We saw what happened when the governor opened beaches, the cases were up. I don’t want to see that happen with children who go back to school. I hope you will consider my opinion as well as other parents who really care about our kids’ health. Sincerely, Irma Delgado from LaBelle.”

The superintendent said he will contact Dr. Pepe at the health department to discuss the safety concerns if they open schools.
“I truly feel for this parent for her concerns, and for all of our parents and children who are concerned and worried about returning to school, and we just need to ensure that we do it as safely as possible,” said Puletti.

During a discussion about bus routes and schedules, Board Chair Stephanie Busin brought up a concern about children arriving early to campus, when no teachers would be present. She said that according to the proposed schedule, 18 bus loads of children would arrive before a teacher would normally be scheduled to be on campus. This didn’t include any early drop-offs by personal vehicles, which was another concern. She was also concerned about having staff work too many hours to solve this issue.

Puletti said that they were well aware of this problem, and were in the process of coming up with a plan. He explained that he wasn’t sure exactly what that plan looked like yet, but that they would come up with a method to alleviate any concerns about children being on campus early and having adults there, either parents or staff, to supervise them.

“Not only do we have teachers who will go the extended day but we have principles that will go the extra mile, Puletti said. “Mrs. Busin, we don’t even know the questions and problems we’re going to encounter when we reopen. We haven’t even anticipated them. We don’t know what we don’t know,” he added.

“I agree,” Busin responded, “They always dig deep, and they always do what they need to do. But you don’t want to burn them out.”

The action item regarding the bus routes and schedules was passed by a unanimous vote.

Cautioning everyone that the pandemic was, “Forever going to change the delivery of education, not just in Hendry County but throughout Florida,” Puletti went on, “and we need to be aware of that. We need to be as cautious and prudent and judicial as possible.”

He announced there will be a Q&A session held virtually, for anyone who had concerns, on Thursday, July 9 at 1:30 p.m. His hopes were to allow parents a week to make decisions and announce their intent, before the plan would be finalized and reviewed by the board. He wanted to ensure the school board would be able to provide input, before the plan is submitted to the State.

To view the Q&A session, go online to the Hendry County School Board page on Facebook, or their YouTube channel at https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCiJ7IQBHE2_tdQ0-ssCSiNA/live?fbclid=IwAR3_HqvLQF6jp50LgH-E2SRb6mFaKIfeiHSD_lrsLI6B1frU29wLGex8jA4.

“We don’t have all the answers. Folks this plan is not perfect,” Puletti said, also recognizing the spectrum of reactions parents. He acknowledged that many are “hesitant and nervous about sending their kids back”, and there were also those who demanded schools reopen, out of necessity for childcare as they return to work. One of the biggest challenges with the plan was that they were unsure of how many children would be returning to which schools, but that there were a myriad of other concerns. “Like we said in March, it’s not just learning how to fly a plane, it’s learning how to fly a plane while you’re building the plane,” he said.

Puletti explained that the plan would adhere to CDC guidelines as they relate to COVID-19, as closely as possible, but many instances would not make that possible. “For example, if we had to follow CDC guidelines for bus transportation, we would need four times the amount of buses we currently have.”

Students will have to wear masks on buses, and will be screened upon arrival in a separate room, temperatures taken, before being allowed to attend school for the day.

He repeated that unless the Hendry Department of Health issued a statement saying it would not be safe for the children to return, schools in Hendry would reopen.

The concern for a plan regarding hurricane shelters during all of the current turmoil was brought up by School Board Member. Jon Basquin, “We are in hurricane season, any idea what that’s looking like for shelters?”

“Thank you for bringing that nightmare up!” replied Puletti, as the rest of the board collectively gasped. He added, “We need to pray that we don’t get hit by a storm, because we are going to have to open shelters simultaneously.” Explaining the extreme challenges faced with social distancing with numerous people in a shelter situation, people arriving from outside the district, taking temperatures and having to find ways to isolate anyone with a fever, and even the challenges presented when people arrive at the shelter with their pets, Puletti said that he and some members of emergency management would be touring the schools to come up with a plan. He also pointed out that schools would each have an appointed “designated survivor,” a staff member who would avoid any exposure, in order to be able to run the school in the event of a catastrophic exposure to the virus.

Busin suggested there could be a plan for local resident shelters and shelters for non-locals, to which Puletti expressed was an excellent idea.

Busin also recommended that the board hold their next meeting in person, as a show of leadership while asking for students to return to school. The others agreed.

The next regular Hendry County School Board Meeting is scheduled for July 21, 2020 at 5:30 p.m. in Clewiston. The plan for opening will be discussed, and finalized at that time.

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