The St. Johns County School Board voted unanimously Tuesday to push back the start of the school year until August 31, citing concerns related to the coronavirus and the upcoming Republican National Convention in Jacksonville.
The delayed start date means the school year will now end on June 16, 2021.
“It’s not compressing the year,” Superintendent Tim Forson explained during Tuesday’s special school board meeting. “It’s fully meeting the instructional minutes that students need to have with their teacher.”
Forson said the spread of the coronavirus was the main reason the school district wanted to push the start date back.
“It gives a significant amount of time to hopefully see an improvement in the virus,” he said. “To be honest, you get to the end of August, it may look just the way it looks now.”
But, he said, he has no intention of making any additional changes to the school calendar.
If conditions are similar or worse, rather than delay the start date again, Forson said the district would likely consider a virtual start in place of in-person classes, or some combination of the two.
But District 5 member and vice chair Patrick Canan worries that a virtual start is out of the question at the moment, due to a recent directive from Florida Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran, which requires schools to reopen buildings for in-person classes in August.
“I do believe in my heart that it's not the politicians we should listen to, it's the scientists, and that we should decide, hopefully as a community, what's best for us. And I'm hoping that we get that opportunity from Tallahassee,” Canan said.
Another factor in this decision was the Republican National Convention, scheduled to be held in Jacksonville on August 24 through 27.
“Even the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office now has concerns about carrying out the RNC in a safe and manageable manner. We already had some concern about the RNC - not to have the Republican National Convention, that’s an honorable thing to have - but given the present environment it puts the community at risk,” Forson said.
Forson told the school board the St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office has also expressed concerns about the school district’s start date, citing the RNC.
“So I would recommend we move past the RNC so that we have the full resources of our own sheriff's office, the full resources of our own employees, and there's no distraction that exists,” he said.
The vast majority of residents who spoke during the public comment portion of Tuesday’s board meeting voiced support for the decision to push back the start date. Many of those who disagreed cited concerns related to teacher pay and training.
However, a significant number of callers said they thought going all virtual would be the best course of action for the time being.
“I'm concerned that we're asking our schools to be fully prepared on the first day with safe distancing practices at full volume with no proven model to base it on and counting on the compliance of children to experimental guidelines,” said Tracy Green, one of several residents who spoke during Tuesday’s meeting.
The school board also approved the purchase of desk shields designed to help stop the spread of the coronavirus in schools.
“We know in classrooms, the six feet is going to be an impossibility in some situations. So we have to have physical barriers,” Forson explained.
The school board expects to have the majority of this $1.6 million purchase reimbursed by the federal government sometime down the road.