School superintendent decides on virtual-only summer school while debating blended models for fall session

PORT ST. LUCIE – St. Lucie County School District staff decided May 15 to only offer summer school virtually this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic but told the School Board three days earlier that it may offer a blended model of both virtual and in-person instruction on its school campuses for the 2020-21 School Year.

Superintendent E. Wayne Gent had originally touted the idea of doing a blended summer school model during the May 13 Board meeting but decided not to wait upon Florida Department of Education approval for the Title 1 program, according to Chief Communications Officer Lydia Martin.

“A weekly staff meeting was held later in the week to discuss the various options in detail,” she said via email May 19. “The superintendent made the decision during that meeting to move forward with the virtual summer school and not wait upon the DOE decision.”

Mr. Gent described that same blended instruction option May 12 as a potential way for schools to provide the six feet of social distancing suggested by the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta in order to curb transmission of the coronavirus. He admitted fall plans were still a work in progress and would be implemented in tandem with both CDC and Florida Department of Health guidelines.

“Nothing is etched in stone, but we have to look at every contingency and every plan and every option that’s available to the School District,” he said. “Access for our kids, the quality of instruction, flexibility… and make sure we’ve got buy-in. We don’t know what the fall’s going to look like yet, so we’re kind of working on a plan similar to [blended] summer school that if we have intermittent closures, we’d be able to adjust to that.”

While affirming that staff and student safety was paramount, Superintendent Gent admitted the logistics would not be easy, particularly with students accustomed to sitting two and three to a row on school buses and classrooms traditionally seating between 20 and 30 students.

“We have to look at transportation and how many kids you can put on a school bus and practice social distancing,” he said. “It’s almost impossible unless you reduce the number of students that are on the bus. We’ll have to look at lunch schedules: Do we have to eat in classrooms, do we in in wide open areas on school campuses? we have to look at the class configurations themselves and how many students can fit into a classroom with social distancing. Do the teachers move, and the students remain in the classrooms? These are all things that we’re working on.”

In order to keep student numbers down and facilitate proper social distancing, Mr. Gent emphasized a couple of different scenarios that would look radically different than what St. Lucie County students have traditionally seen and experienced in the past.

“We’ll be looking at different blended schedule options,” he explained. “One of the schedules could be alternating days, where half the student body comes to school one day and half comes the next day. And the day they’re at home, they would have specific assignments. We could look at alternating weeks, so that you’re teaching half of the students one week. We’re looking at different academic calendars for the fall. We just don’t know right now.”

The superintendent also emphasized that District teachers and staff would most likely switch completely to the Canvas virtual platform this fall instead of the Edgenuity program used at the high-school level. Chief Academic Officer Helen Wild then informed the Board that the Canvas system already being utilized for distance learning offered more flexibility if Florida were to see intermittent school closures due to a second wave of COVID-19.

“If we’re in and out of school, you can easily go in and out of the program, and it would align with the curriculum that the teachers do in the classroom,” she said. “Canvas brings us additional benefits as well. It does sync grading with Skyward, we could use it for hospital/homebound students, we could use it for long-term substitutes and for individual students that have absences. Edgenuity is a great program, but it is supplemental [and] doesn’t lend itself for in and out of the curriculum. This [Canvas] would allow us to use Skyward for progress reports, and that paired with Microsoft Teams, we would be able to virtually instruct and go back and forth if needed.”

In addition to potentially offering a blended-education model to address campus safety, Superintendent Gent said District staff was currently debating the logistics of taking the temperature of every student and staff member entering District schools, among other precautions.

“We would be looking at the guidelines for children entering the building,” he said. “Do we have the capacity to do temperature checks for students? Will all children be wearing masks, [and] would staff be wearing masks? We’ve ordered two thermal thermometers for everyone, of our schools, and we’ll probably have to order some more of those in the future as well.”

Even though staff presented a lot of new information during the Board meeting, Ms. Martin emphasized the District’s need for flexibility at present.

“All options are still on the table, and it’s too early to make a decision for the fall,” she said. “However, staff is presently working on multiple contingency plans and of course we’re going to be following the guidance of the Florida Dept. of Health, the CDC and the governor’s office.”

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