NCSB discusses pandemic

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  • Josh Bass, the father of a student at Callahan Middle School, told the Nassau County School Board students are sitting three to a seat on buses in violation of guidelines set forth in the school district’s reopening plan. JULIA ROBERTS/NEWS-LEADER
    Josh Bass, the father of a student at Callahan Middle School, told the Nassau County School Board students are sitting three to a seat on buses in violation of guidelines set forth in the school district’s reopening plan. JULIA ROBERTS/NEWS-LEADER
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Once again, the coronavirus pandemic took center stage at the Sept. 24 meeting of the Nassau County School Board, with a parent expressing concerns regarding his daughter’s school bus, the director of the county health department urging masks to be worn, and school officials praising staff on their efforts to contain the spread.

The day before the meeting, the Nassau County Board of County Commissioners reversed its mandate on wearing masks inside county businesses when social distancing is not possible, and is instead “encouraging” the practice via a new executive order. School Board Chair Donna Martin noted the BOCC “still requires masks to be worn in county buildings. I think that says a lot.”

Florida Department of Health-Nassau Director Dr. Eugenia Ngo-Seidel addressed the board, urging them to do everything recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to keep students safe, including wearing masks, hand washing, social distancing, and keeping students in small groups. Ngo-Seidel likened each to the legs on a table, “keep(ing) our community safer because our table is stable.”

“At this point in time, I don’t believe we should remove any of the … mitigation efforts that we are doing to keep our schools safe,” Ngo-Seidel said, and then specifically addressed the controversy over face coverings: “As a public health professional, as a doctor, I believe they work as source control. I believe people need to understand what that is. We don’t wear a mask to protect ourselves; we wear a mask to protect other people. I feel strongly that schools were not part of that executive order. You have the ability to set your own policies, and I encourage you to continue to wear masks. This is a reasonable procedure. I think our children respect us and they model what they see.”

Schools Superintendent Dr. Kathy Burns added that, if students don’t wear masks in a classroom and a student tests positive, the entire class would have to be quarantined.

Social distancing may be part of the efforts to mitigate the spread of coronavirus, but one parent voiced his concern about the lack of distancing on his daughter’s school bus.

Josh Bass’ daughter is a student at Callahan Middle School, and Bass said the bus routes at the Callahan middle and high schools have been reduced, resulting in students being crowded three to a seat on buses. Students are even sometimes relegated to riding in the aisle, Bass said.

Bass said he sent an email to Nassau County School District Transportation Director Brad Underhill but never received a response even after his daughter – and Underhill – were interviewed by the Nassau County Record about the issue.

As an officer with the state fire marshal’s office and adjunct professor at Florida State College at Jacksonville, and with degrees in public safety and emergency management, Bass said the situation is “kind of up my alley.”

He said his daughter has to sit at a lunch table with a divider and far apart in class, “but you can put three adult-size people in one bus seat with a cracked window at the front and back. Even at the bus stop in open air, (the district’s policy) says I will wear a mask and social distance, so I have to stand six feet away from my friend at the bus stop, but as soon as we get on the bus, we can sit in each other’s laps.”

Bass also said the school district’s policy of loading students back to front on buses and then unloading them front to back is not being followed.

Burns told Bass that the district currently has 20 fewer drivers than it needs to be fully staffed and that Underhill “is usually very responsive.” She said Underhill and “every single person in transportation is driving at this point.” In addition, Burns explained, some bus routes have too few students, with all the transportation issues combined leading to the “collapse” of bus routes.

Assistant Superintendent Mark Durham told the News-Leader that everyone driving buses has a commercial driver’s license, as required, and that Underhill spoke to Bass as of Monday. Underhill’s previous lack of response was “simply an oversight,” Durham said.

“I understand staffing,” Bass said. “Necessity and staffing is going to regulate what you can do, but maybe we take away one bus at a time instead of two, and stage it down and see how that works. Even today, almost every seat on the bus is three to a seat.”

The board took no action on the matter as it takes time to read a binder of materials provided by Bass.

Durham gave the School Board a rundown of coronavirus numbers in the district’s schools, telling members that the previous week – Sept. 14-18 – was “our best week so far, as far as numbers of new positive cases and the number of students and staff that had to go into quarantine.”

From Sept. 14 to 24, the district had three students and one staff member test positive and 24 students and two staff members ordered into quarantine, bringing the total for the school year to 25 students and 12 staff members testing positive and 342 students and 16 staff members placed in quarantine.

“I think for being in school five weeks, and having more than 9,000 students in brick-and-mortar (classrooms), and 700 or 800 instructional personnel … I’m pretty happy that we’ve been successful,” Durham said. Durham and Burns praised students and staff, particularly teachers who, they said, have been creative in finding ways to teach while keeping students safe.

Earlier this month, the school district laid-off 36 staff members due to an anticipated loss of revenue from the Florida Department of Education, but many of those employees have found other positions in the district, according to Burns. Of the 26 teachers laid off, 19 found new positions. Some are filling in for teachers who have taken a leave of absence or resigned, while others are filling open positions in the district. Ten paraprofessionals were laid off; three found other positions in the district, three chose not to return, and four are on a list to be called if positions become available.

The district is facing a shortfall of more than 1,000 in its student population, but NCSD Business Services Director Chris Lacambra said a $14 million balance has been carried over for the 2020-21 fiscal year. The figure is based on the 2019-20 fiscal year budget of $114 million, Lacambra explained. The budget for the 2020-21 fiscal year is $117 million. He said the reserves last year were $7.9 million, and this year the reserve balance is $4.7 million. He also addressed the issue of raises.

“We directly impacted our reserves,” Lacambra said. “These (raises) were unanticipated in 2019-20, so they had to come out of the reserves. Essentially, we have a (requirement that) 3% (of the budget be held in reserves) and we are right around $2.5 million. We still have not reached that 3%. It’s possible for raises, but I think we need to have a wait-and-see approach and see how the year goes.”

In other business, the School Board:

• Approved Memorandums of Understanding with Starting Point Behavioral Healthcare and Rising Kindergarten;

• Approved contracts with Gateway Educational Computing and Skyward, Inc;

• Approved schematic designs for additions to Yulee middle and high schools; and

• Approved the K-12 assessment calendar.

jroberts@fbnewsleader.com