District to allow switching from distance to in-person learning during brief upcoming window

PORT ST. LUCIE – St. Lucie Schools recently announced an upcoming window of opportunity for parents to request a switch from distance learning to the brick and mortar option, as well as switching from the latter to the former.

Superintendent E. Wayne Gent provided that information during his Sept. 8 update to the School Board, which also included information on District-wide attendance figures and the COVID-19 impacts on students and staff.

“Currently we have 36,943 students enrolled, and we are down 833 students from last year,” he said. “Our charters have 4,461 students – they’re up 448 students from last year – and 467 students are new for homeschooling. We’re at 55 percent for MySchool Virtual and 45 percent for the traditional schools.”

The superintendent also emphasized that beginning Sept. 18, the District will provide a brief window of opportunity for parents to request switching from MySchool Virtual to traditional in-person classes or vice-versa. Because it takes several days to process a transition and the change must be completed by the launch of the next nine-week period, only students with extenuating circumstances will be considered after the that window closes.

“That would really be the last opportunity until the winter break,” Mr. Gent added. “It is a tremendous amount of work to make those switches. We tried to accommodate as many parents as we could, but normally even opening the regular school year to balance schedules is very challenging, and this year it was a much more challenging role.”

Despite the fact that classrooms are averaging less than 50 percent capacity that makes social distancing even easier, District staff have still been forced to quarantine both staff and students since the start of classes Aug. 24. Nearly 400 students have been since home to quarantine since that date, with some 17 students testing positive for COVID-19 around the District. Treasure Coast High School in Port St. Lucie is the most recent campus to report a coronavirus positive student, forcing the school to send 37 students home for a 14-day quarantine the day of the meeting.

“We have a total of 58 staff positive cases, and that’s from the beginning when the pandemic hit,” the superintendent explained. “Fifteen of those are in departments, and 43 of those involve school staff, [but] it doesn’t necessarily mean teachers. It’s been 146 total quarantines for staff members [and] 375 students quarantined, and 190 of those were from two football programs.”

Since the start of the school year, the District has required all students and staff to wear face masks in an effort to prevent further spread of the coronavirus. During his presentation, Mr. Gent announced the ban of one particular face coverings due to the findings published in a Duke University study on Aug. 8.

“An issue came up regarding the gaiter mask, and we made a decision to not allow those into the schools,” he said. “There was a study that came out from Duke University, and within that they talked about a traditional gaiter, and I know what they are because I wear them on the boat sometimes. What the Duke University study showed is that they’re [made of] thin stretchy polyester, they’re comfortable [and] very breathable. Because of the thin fabric, then this turns large droplets into small aerosol droplets that would come out. The Duke study said it could do more harm then good, and everyone knows that an aerosol doesn’t fall to the ground as quickly as a droplet.”

Researchers at Duke University tested several kinds of popular face coverings and concluded that surgical masks and N-95 face coverings proved to be most effective in inhibiting the transfer of droplets when people speak, cough or sneeze. One of the co-authors of the study, Professor Warren S. Warren, explained why the gaiters worn by sports enthusiasts ultimately proved useless in the effort to prevent COVID-19 transmission.

“These neck gaiters are extremely common in a lot of places because they’re very convenient to wear,” he said. “But the exact reason why they’re so convenient – they don’t restrict air – is the reason why they’re not doing much of a job helping people.”

His analysis was enough to sway Mr. Gent.

“We have to err on the side of caution for our students and our staff that are in the school centers,” he said of the gaiter ban. “The N-95s or the surgical masks are 90 to 95 percent effective as compared with that, so that was the rationale behind that decision.”

While one neck gaiter manufacturer, Buff, issued a statement last April admitting its gaiters had not been proven scientifically effective to prevent the spread of the virus, others such as Chris Bernat of Vapor Apparel, have insisted that quality varies among the manufacturers.

“All gaiters are not created equal,” he said. “There’s a segment of this category that’s of a much higher quality that’s engineered to be layered.”

The Duke study also concluded that wearers donning a N95 mask with an exhalation valve were doing more harm than good. A recent press release from the CDC also confirmed those findings.

“Those relief valves are fantastic if what you want to do is protect yourself from the outside world because air doesn’t come in through them,” Mr. Warren said. “If what you’re trying to do in this pandemic is protect the outside world from you, it completely defeats the purpose.”

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