West Orange community mixed on state's school plans

Stakeholders hold differing views regarding the emergency order to open school buildings.

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  • | 1:30 p.m. July 15, 2020
  • West Orange Times & Observer
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As COVID-19 case numbers statewide continue to rise with students slated to return to school next month, leaders and stakeholders in education are facing some tough decisions.

Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran issued an emergency order Monday, July 6, stating that “all school boards and charter school governing boards must open brick-and-mortar schools in August at least five days per week for all students.”

Under this directive, school boards must prepare to reopen physical buildings full time for all students in August, and the Department of Education will not waive the minimum number of instructional hours for students.

The order has incited mixed opinions from parents, educators and community stakeholders. The School Board met after press time Tuesday, July 14, to finalize its reopening plans and hear from them.

Some, like the Orange County Classroom Teachers Association, have said they believe it would be “irresponsible and dangerous” for Orange County Public Schools to reopen schools for the fall semester.

“While we know that face-to-face learning is optimal, CTA will not support a reopening plan that could expose students, teachers or their families to illness, hospitalization or death,” CTA officials stated. “Lost academic time and lessons can be made up — a life cannot. We ask every leader to take responsibility for the protection and well-being of every student, teacher and community member. Decisions must be made based on science, CDC recommendations, safety, compassion and common sense, and not on leaders’ political or economic agendas.”

West Orange resident Debbie Calderon agrees. A teacher at an OCPS alternative high school, Calderon said she also has underlying health issues like asthma that could make her more susceptible to COVID-19. However, her concern is for her students.

“As a teacher who basically would do anything for their students ... I can’t advocate to put them in that situation, either, because children will die,” she said. “Teachers and staff members will die. … No child should die because of something that has to do with peoples’ political agendas.”

Although face-to-face learning is optimal, she said, it isn’t safe to return to school with cases surging. 

“This is a very unique situation. It’s a public health crisis, and we need to protect everybody as best as we can right now.” — Debbie Calderon

“Teachers are retiring, they’re putting in for a year’s leave of absence, they’re quitting and going into other professions,” Calderon said. “It’s going to be much more devastating for the kids. The kids are the center of all this, and they’re going to be the ones that lose.”

Winter Garden resident Adam Bates said as a parent with a child in each level of school, he sees the situation from different perspectives. He hoped for a hybrid education model, with cutting down class sizes and alternating days of attendance.

“Technology should play a role in the solution in some form or fashion,” he said. “We need to go back in some form or fashion. Mental health is important in this equation. It’s a tough decision and process for all.”

Denise Pellegrino, a Winter Garden resident, has a daughter who will be a senior in high school this year. Although she’s concerned about the virus, Pellegrino said her stance involves getting back to a new normal and returning to face-to-face instruction.

“It seems the longer we delay, the longer and worse it will be in the end for many reasons,” she said. “I also think that across the board, schools do not have to be the same. I am personally disappointed they dismissed the flex plan — especially for high-schoolers — which would be pretty easy to accommodate.”

Phillip Pacheco, who photographs many events at Windermere High, agreed that it’s time to return to the classroom.

“I feel there should be an option for everyone,” he said. “If you or your child are at high risk and you do not feel comfortable sending your kids to school, don’t. You can do homeschool or virtual school. If you want to do a combination of online and traditional class, great. If you want to send your kids to traditional class with safety protocols, great. Everyone has to do what’s right for their family. … I can’t imagine not giving families the option of sending their kids back to school.

“The risk of not going to school and all that it would cause by not doing so far outweighs the tiny risk of going,” Pacheco said. “We also need to come to the realization that COVID isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Whether we like it or not, it is something we have to deal with and find a way to move forward.”


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