Parents protest state plan to reopen schools

Special to the Lake Okeechobee News/Danika Forlifer
LABELLE — Hendry County parents decorated their vehicles with protest signs for the demonstration at the Hendry County Health Department on Monday. They plan to protest every day this week from 1 to 2 p.m.

LABELLE — Concerned parents and school staff have gathered to form the group “Hendry Parents and Teachers for Safe and Healthy Schools,” with the purpose of seeking and sharing information regarding the reopening of local public schools, while Florida continues to experience record-breaking numbers of COVID-19 cases. The collaborative effort among these concerned citizens is also focused on postponing the opening of schools, in an attempt to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.

The discussion can be joined on Facebook, in their public group. The group’s description reads: “Superintendent Paul Puletti indicated that the Hendry County Department is Health has the power to sway the School Board’s decision on opening Hendry County Schools on Aug. 10th. Please join us the week of July 13th through 17th for a drive-in demonstration.”

The group’s organizers expressed that they have seen a lot of questions and concerns coming from both parents and teachers. They have suggested that while officials are debating what’s right or what’s wrong at the state level, those who are concerned can take responsibility to look out for each other locally.

“I sent an email to the local office asking a few questions about the current situation in Hendry County in regards to COVID-19 and how the DOH is or will be involved,” organizer Jennifer Wingard explained.

Organizers reminded participants to be respectful of employees and visitors while at the department, as well as not to impede traffic flow while attending the drive-in demonstration. They also asked that participants stay in or at their vehicles and to wear masks during any social interaction.

After Monday’s demonstration ended, Wingard posted in the group, “We met with Dr. Pepe, the director of our local Department of Health, for about 30 minutes this afternoon and the short version of the conversation is as follows: It is not currently safe to open Hendry County schools nor is there any way to know if it will be safe by January. We all need to do a little more to slow the spread and to take care of each other.” She went on to report, “That being said, your local DOH is a state agency, not a local agency. This means their directives come from higher-ups, officials who we were told are currently pressuring the governor and the Department of Education to walk back the executive order requiring public schools to open in August. I think those of us who met with Dr. Pepe got the feeling he is between hopeful-to-expecting that will happen but that it may be at the absolute last minute.”

She continued, “He has offered to meet with groups, even weekly if necessary.”

Wingard made an offer for those who want to be included in the process, but were hesitant: “I do know that many people are concerned about rocking the boat or getting themselves into trouble with their jobs if they speak up. So I’m going to make it easy for you and email on your behalf, no questions asked.” She also offered to create a separate communication for state level offices.

The list of concerns and questions Wingard had gathered read:

  1. It’s been suggested that the order to “open in August” doesn’t give a specific date. We can request the opening be delayed by a number of weeks to allow additional time to prep.
  2. Will there be an intent to return for teachers?
  3. Has the board considered looking into how Palm Beach County came to their decision to move all students to e-learning?
  4. How has the board been coordinating with the DOH?
  5. What are the plans for shortages of faculty and staff?
  6. Is there a plan in place to meet the mental health needs of returning students, faculty and staff?
  7. Do you as a member of this community feel that opening schools while positive cases continue to rise is what’s best for Hendry County?

The group is planning to gather in the Health Department parking lot, located at 1140 Pratt Blvd. in LaBelle, daily through July 17, from 1 to 2 p.m.

Organizers are encouraging all concerned citizens to join and add their thoughts and questions in the group, and to take action. The Hendry Parents and Teachers for Safe and Health Schools page can be found on Facebook.

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