On July 20, Lake County School Board unanimously adopted its reopening plan with safety protocols for the District’s schools that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) identify as high risk settings for a school environment. The CDC and Florida Department of Health only recommend school settings that have protocols in place that create low or moderate risk environments, according to Aaron Kissler, Florida Department of Health’s Lake County Director. On a few occasions early into the almost eight-hour meeting, Kissler reiterated to School Board members that if the schools didn’t provide six feet of social distancing and face coverings indoors, the schools wouldn’t be following current CDC guidelines, and the schools would be assessed as “high risk” environments for spreading COVID-19. LCS safety protocols do require face coverings when 6 feet of social distancing isn’t possible, which Dr. Kristi Burns, Chairperson of Lake County School Board, told Mount Dora Buzz applies to the vast majority of spaces in Lake County Schools. The lack of space for social distancing, even with masks, keeps the schools in the CDC’s category of higher risk environments.
LCS Board Members Sandy Gamble, whose district includes Astatula, Mount Dora, Tavares and Sorrento schools; and Marc Dodd, whose district includes Clermont schools, did not respond to an email request for input on this issue. Most health experts recommend students be kept out of brick-and-mortar schools until the positivity testing rates for the novel coronavirus falls between 3 and 5 percent for two weeks, according to Dr. D. Paul Robinson, president of the Florida Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics (FCAAP) executive board. To date, the CDC has not set a benchmark infection rate to reopen schools. Lake County's testing positivity rate was 8.7% at the time LCS Board unanimously approved the higher risk plan. Recently, corporations like Lowes, Walmart, Home Depot, Publix, Aldi and others implemented face covering requirements to protect their employees and customers. The protocols approved by the LCS Board represent a stark difference. There was no discussion at the July 20 LCS Board Meeting to adopt the same precautions indoors to protect children, teachers, employees and the community. The reopening plan has been months in the making and the District is in an unenviable position requiring it to juggle limited resources like funding, teachers and space, along with safety. Lake County Schools’ reopening plan also included a new instructional option for students, so on July 22 the District notified parents that a new online form was available for them to select which type of instruction they would like for their children. Each option has a brief description on LCS’ website. However, the Traditional Option which returns students to brick-and-mortar schools, didn’t mention the high-risk designation of its schools. That information could have provided families, as well as school employees, with additional criteria to make more informed decisions for their families' particular circumstances. At the request of Burns, board members agreed to send a letter to Florida’s Governor, Ron DeSantis, asking that local school boards have the authority to determine when and how it is safe to open all schools for daily face-to-face instruction. In doing so, the District would be asking for a waiver of the emergency order issued by Florida's education commissioner earlier this month requiring schools to open in August with a full-time, five-day-a-week traditional option available to families who want it. After being shuttered since March in response to the COVID-19 coronavirus, public schools in Lake County will reopen on Aug. 24, two weeks later than the original date of August 10. The extra weeks provide additional time for teachers and staff to plan, train and prepare. It also gives district leaders more time to monitor local COVID cases in collaboration with the local health department. Brick-and-mortar school buildings will open five days a week, as required by a State of Florida order, and offer traditional face-to-face instruction to students who choose that option. Middle and high schools will operate on a modified block schedule which lowers class sizes and requires fewer class transitions for students during the day. This is an effort to minimize their risk of potential exposure to the virus. In addition to traditional instruction at brick-and-mortar school, Lake County students and their families can also choose from three other instructional options: full-time online instruction through Lake County Virtual School (LCVS), and the Modified Day option, which allows students to take English Language Arts and math classes at their school and their other classes at home via LCVS. Students that select LCVS will not lose their School Choice waiver. On July 20, ,the School Board made a fourth option available, Lake Live, which is a full-time online option with daily instruction from teachersat the students' home school or a school in their geographic region, when possible. Students are not required to withdraw from their brick-and-mortar school to pursue this option. Previously, parents were asked to complete an online Parent Intent Form to let the district know which of the three options they prefer, but a new online form was created to include the fourth option. Parents will have until July 29 to complete the form again. Arriving at school will also be different for school bus riders when school resumes. Drivers and students will be required to wear face coverings. High touch areas will be cleaned between routes and each bus will be thoroughly disinfected daily. Bus windows will be cracked to allow for greater ventilation. Students with intellectual and developmental disabilities, and other sensory sensitivities, may have challenges wearing a face covering. The face-covering requirement for such students will be evaluated on an individual basis. At school, temperature checks will be conducted on any student who exhibits any COVID-19 symptoms. Students exhibiting any symptoms, unless determined by the school nurse to pose no threat to other students, will be isolated from other students until the parent arrives to pick up the student from the school. Hand sanitizer, disinfecting wipes, soap and water will be readily available to employees, students and visitors. Cleaning protocols will be increased, including replacing air filters as required by manufacture or sooner. This also includes cleaning cooling coils with disinfectant as per manufacturer recommendations. The full list of safety protocols is available here.
Editor’s note: Due to the ambiguity of the CDC’s guidance for schools pertaining to whether some or all of the criteria had to be met in a given risk classification, the language in this article was revised to conservatively reflect the high risk assessment at the time of the July 20 meeting. The link to the guidelines was provided in the article for readers, so they can make their own determination about what is best for their circumstances.
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