Nearly 165,000 students were expected to attend classes across 180 Palm Beach County district-run schools Wednesday morning on the first day of school. With them, they brought expectations for the new year and challenges to overcome after two school years marred by the coronavirus pandemic.
Masks and COVID vaccinations are optional for students and staff this year, but on Wednesday morning, around one quarter of the students in class at the campuses the superintendent visited were masked up.
Superintendent Mike Burke began his tour of schools at 7 am Wednesday at SD Spady Elementary in Delray Beach. Teachers and staff lined a red carpet to welcome students to the campus as it celebrated its 100th year on the site just north of Atlantic Avenue.
“I get to go to a lot of schools today, and I don’t think anyone can outdo this with the red carpet and the party,” Burke said of the school, named after the third Black principal assigned to Delray Beach who served for 35 years, Solomon David Spady. “This is pretty awesome to be celebrating 100 years. What an impact.”
Five-year-old Taylor Howard arrived on campus with perfectly clean light-up unicorn sneakers and her hair freshly done. Her parents, Terrence Howard and Lashae Sherrell, snapped photos of her in Spady’s courtyard before they dropped her off at her kindergarten classroom.
Taylor said she was excited to go to school for the first time. She’s been in child care before, but Wednesday was her first time on a at school. Her favorite class is science, but she’s not sure what she wants to be when she grows up.
Terrence Howard and Lashae Sherrell were beaming with excitement for their daughter, but they acknowledged all the unknowns of the school year ahead.
“I’m thinking about the pandemic, whether it be COVID rmonkeypox. I’m kind of nervous about health and safety and kids getting sick,” Howard said. “Those are the things you can’t control.”
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As of 8:15 am Wednesday and despite a driver shortage, most buses were arriving on time, Burke said.
Prior to 7 am, a sedan rear ended a bus heading to Roosevelt Elementary School in central West Palm Beach.
One student aboard and the driver were not injured in the crash, although the glass at the back of the bus was shattered. The student’s parent picked them up from the scene, according to the school district.
District starts school year with no COVID reporting policies
Looming over the first day of classes is uncertainty about how the coronavirus pandemic, a staffing shortage and the Parental Rights in Education law will change school life this year.
The district has scrapped nearly all reporting mechanisms when a student or teacher tests positive for COVID-19: Schools won’t report positive tests to the district, and parents won’t be notified if someone in their child’s class tests positive.
The district is also retiring its online COVID-19 dashboard, leaving parents, staff and community members in the dark regarding the number of cases in schools.
“You’re not going to know until your kid tells you people are out,” Kitonga Kiminyo, an infectious disease specialist in Boynton Beach, said of his concerns as his teenagers head back to school. “My kids still mask up when they go to school, and I would encourage as many children to do that as possible.”
Teacher, bus driver shortage looms large over 2022-23 school year
Just about a week before the start of classes, Burke had announced that the district still needed to hire 400 teachers. That blew past historical levels of understaffing at the start of the school year — the district usually needs to hire about 200 teachers.
To address the shortage of teachers, Burke said the district has tried to boost its number of substitute teachers by increasing pay and recruiting more former teachers.
Burke also said the district was short 80 bus drivers and 100 maintenance workers.
“We’re struggling with some staffing shortages,” he said Wednesday. “We know we’re going to have to double up some routes, and that’s going to be challenging.”
The struggle to recruit drivers has school board members concerned about the sustainability of operating with so many opening.
“It’s a constant lack of people we need to provide for our system,” Erica Whitfield said. “Bus drivers are saying, ‘You have to get us more people, because we can’t keep this up.’ They can’t have this many routes.”
How will the district support LGBTQ+ students, stay in line with law?
The school year also marks the first that will be shaped by the newly minted Parental Rights in Education law, which went into effect July 1. The law bans instruction on gender identity or sexual orientation in grades K-3 and any instruction “not age- appropriate or developmentally appropriate” in the older grades.
In Palm Beach County, the law has led to few concrete changes to campuses.
On Aug. 3, school board members approved the district’s annual strategic plan, promising to “enhance a sense of belonging, safety and acceptance for all students.” The plan also makes promises directly to LGBTQ+ students and other diverse populations.
By Friday, the district issued an updated version of its 111-page LGBTQ+ Critical Support Guide after briefly taking the guide offline for a legal review. Most of the guide appeared to have survived.
According to the district’s updated guide, the following are not considered “instruction” and are still allowed:
- Putting family photos on a teacher’s desk.
- Referring to a spouse’s gender.
- Extracurricular activities such as gay-straight alliances and book fairs.
- Responding to a student’s description of their family.
Palm Beach Post education reporter Giuseppe Sabella contributed to this report.
Katherine Kokal is a journalist covering education at The Palm Beach Post. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Help support our work, subscribe today!