Reopening Schools is Florida’s Biggest Challenge, The New Addison Mizner Elementary, and More

reopening schools
Photo by tom chamberlain on Unsplash

Nothing matters more to Florida’s economic recovery than reopening schools. Nothing also seems more daunting.

“Some issues seem insurmountable,” Frank Barbieri told me this week. Barbieri chairs the Palm Beach County School Board. His district included Boca Raton and West Boca.

Which issues? Start with buses.

Current recommendations call for social distancing on school buses. Even if that’s possible with children, the rule could reduce the capacity on each bus by more than half. Large districts would need more buses or more trips or both.

“And we’re already short of bus drivers,” Barbieri said.

District officials face countless specific issues like that. But Barbieri believes that the biggest challenge is less tangible.

“We need cooperation from the community,” Barbieri said. “I’ve had parents tell me that they’re not sending their kids back to school until there’s a vaccine. But we have no idea when that will be.”

So just like businesses, school districts must gain the public’s trust when it comes to public safety. Though children have been less susceptible to COVID-19, they are not immune. Palm Beach County Health Director Alina Alonso said Tuesday that 12 children under 14 have been hospitalized in the county.

On Tuesday, the state teachers union released its recommendations for reopening safely. Among them:

  • The number of COVID-19 cases must have declined for 14 days
  • Widespread testing and contact tracing must be in place, to quickly contain a new outbreak
  • No-touch hand sanitizing dispensers should be outside every classroom and bathroom, and students should get lessons on how to properly wash their hands

Hygiene measures are relatively easy and inexpensive to implement. Testing and tracing, though, will have to come from the county or state governments. More testing is available in Florida than in the early days of the pandemic, but there’s no statewide network. There also is no contact tracing plan.

boca schools

The union suggests that, as often as possible, students stay in one classroom and teachers move. That would leave halls much less crowded, but students could get antsy and — as a result — less attentive.

In a nationwide survery, roughly 20 percent of teachers said they might not return this fall. A high percentage are older and thus at higher risk from the virus. Distance learning almost certainly will remain for some students until there’s a vaccine. “Teachers may be really stretched,” Barbieri said, which also could influence their decision on whether to retire.

Barbieri underscores the fact that safety precautions apply to more than students and teachers. They apply to kitchen and custodial staffs. Large districts might not offer cafeteria-style meals and opt for prepared food. Campuses, though, will need much more cleaning, raising potential for those employees.

Then there’s money, which Barbieri calls “the elephant in the room.” The Legislature adjourned in March, just before the economic shutdown, after approving a budget that added money for education. Though the state budget year begins July 1, legislative leaders have not scheduled a special session to redo the budget in light of dramatically reduced sales tax revenue, the largest source of money for schools.

Mike Burke, the school district’s chief financial officer, recently outlined several scenarios. The Legislature could stick with the approved budget and fill the shortfall from reserves. Burke calls that “highly unlikely.”  Tallahassee also could revert to the previous year’s budget, which would mean less money. Or the Legislature could cut even deeper.

School districts, whose financial year begins Oct. 1, can’t plan their reopenings with even minimal certainty until they know what the state does. Palm Beach County already has imposed a hiring freeze for this year. The district could face an unprecedented challenge with fewer resources, not more.

To give just one example, the district will get between $8 million and $10 million less in food service this year because students aren’t on campus paying for meals. Meanwhile, the district has been distributing free meals to students who normally would be receiving them at school.

The school board will hold its first major reopening discussion next Wednesday. Each district likely will devise its own plan, subject to approval by the Board of Education. The year might start later in some areas, and classes might end for 2020 after Thanksgiving.

It’s a challenge Barbieri never could have expeted when he ran for the board in 2008. The crisis then was the financial collapse. That now looks easy.

The new Addison Mizner

addison mizner
Addison Mizner Elementary rendering

While the school district decides what education will look like in the fall, planning continues for the new Addison Mizner Elementary/Middle School in Boca Raton.

The district is financing the project with money from the sales-tax surcharge that voters approved in 2016. Though collections have dropped significantly since mid-March, money for Addison Mizner has been allocated.

It was tight to fit just an elementary school into the roughly 11-acre site in Boca Square. The new campus will have three additional grades, with sixth grade scheduled to start when students return in August 2021. They will spend next year on a temporary campus next to Don Estridge Middle School. Seventh and eighth grades will follow in 2022 and 2023.

Though the district bought four lots along Southwest 12th Avenue, more cars will be dropping off and picking up. The city won’t reconfigure the street, which is south of Palmetto Park Road, but there will be wider sidewalks and swales. In about six months, the city will start public works improvements in the area, to avoid tearing things up again after the school is done. The city and district also will work on traffic patterns.

And perhaps when the new campus opens, life at schools everywhere will be closer to normal.

FAU update

Florida Alantic University’s plan for reopening in August will go before the Board of Governors on June 23. I’ll have details when the plan is finished.

Reopening phases

desantis
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. Photo: TNS via ZUMA Wire

Gov. DeSantis on Wednesday moved all of the state except South Florida into Phase 2 reopening.

Bars and movie theaters outside of Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties can reopen at no more than 50 percent of capacity. Restaurants can expand to 75 perent of indoor capacity. There was no mention of when South Florida might be ready for Phase 2. New cases in Palm Beach County have risen this week.

Planning and Zoning Board to meet

The Boca Raton Planning and Zoning Board resumes meetings tonight at 6 p.m. It’s a fairly packed agenda. The board did not meet between March 5 and May 21 because of virus restrictions.

Board members issue recommendations on development projects to the city council. Delray Beach’s planning and zoning board has scheduled its first post-virus meeting for June 15.

PBC restrictions

For those wondering when Palm Beach County might further ease COVID-19 restrictions, some news could be coming this week.

The county has allowed limited use of parks, but has not reopened playgrounds. County Commissioner Robert Weinroth told me Wednesday that County Administrator Verdenia Baker “by Friday” likely will update her executive order covering playgrounds, vacation rentals and summer camps. I’ll have an update when there are developments.

Wick reopens

wick theater

The Wick Theatre in Boca Raton reopens tonight after being dark for almost three months.

With social distancing in place the theater will offer a cabaret show and dinner at 6 p.m. For now, shows will take place Thursday, Friday and Saturday. The Wick is one of the first arts groups to start staging performances since governments imposed COVID-19 restrictions.

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Randy Schultz, a native of Hartford, Connecticut, has been a South Florida journalist since 1974. He worked for The Miami Herald until 1976 and for The Palm Beach Post from 1976 until 2014, where he served as managing editor and editorial page editor. Since 2014, he has written a politics blog, commentaries and other articles for Boca magazine. His writing has earned first-place awards from the Florida Magazine Association and the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors. Randy has lived in Boca Raton with his wife, Shelley Huff-Schultz, since 1985. His son, daughter-in-law and their three children also live in Boca Raton.