School board makes vaccine plea to governor

Kristen Givens, a teacher, works with students in her classroom as Andrew Massengill, 7, tries to adjust his face shield during the last week of a three-week summer enrichment program for students at South Ocala Elementary School in Ocala, Fla. on Wednesday, July 29, 2020. Classes are scheduled to begin on August 24 for students in the Marion County Public School System amid the COVID-19 pandemic. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette] 2020.

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Posted February 5, 2021 | By Brendan Farrell, Ocala Gazette

Kristen Givens, a teacher, works with students in her classroom as Andrew Massengill, 7, tries to adjust his face shield at South Ocala Elementary School in Ocala in this file photo. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette]

This week the Marion County School Board sent a letter to Gov. Ron DeSantis asking him to consider all district employees as essential workers for COVID-19 vaccination distribution.  

The letter was part of a spate of COVID-19 related business taken up by the board.

“We understand the need to vaccinate Florida’s most vulnerable health care workers and the elderly,” the letter reads. “However, we would appreciate your consideration for future distribution plans, and ask that you continue your support and prioritization for the Marion County School District to serve its students and families.”

The letter, dated Feb. 2, notes that 87% of the district’s students are back on campus,  compared to 66% at the start of the school year.

The increase in on-campus attendance has made social distancing more difficult. Vaccinating school workers would help ensure schools stay open, according to the letter.

The board also approved a 79.3% increase in pay for bus drivers, among other raises. This comes after a bus driver shortage across the county due to school COVID-19 quarantine guidelines. 

Students and school workers who have close contact with anyone testing positive for the virus cannot return to school facilities for 14-days.

During Thursday’s administrative briefing and work session, area director Ann Hembrook updated the board on recommendations from the health and safety committee regarding volunteers, playground equipment and field trips.  

The recommendation for volunteers on campus is split between secondary and elementary schools. 

For secondary schools, the only volunteers allowed are those who are involved in educational activities or those who can help students in making choices involving career and post-secondary school decisions, such as military recruiters and career-and-technical education (CTE) personnel. 

All volunteers would have to follow existing visitor policies, such as having a scheduled appointment and temperature checks. Parent permission would also be required for a student to interact with a volunteer.

As for playgrounds, structures like jungle gyms and monkey bars will remain closed. Children are allowed to play outdoors. 

While the committee decided to keep the same recommendation, they will create a sub-committee of principals on the issue. It also recommended to keep the ban on field trips and create a sub-committee to discuss the possibility of having field trips in the future.  

“Let’s not let ourselves get too down over this,” School Board Chairwoman Nancy Thrower said. “We’re going to get some sub-committees going quickly, we’re going to look at what truly makes sense as necessary.”

Area director Ben Whitehouse also gave an update on prom, saying the school system is working on plans for the event. Whitehouse said they are considering various venues, but the event is contingent on how widespread the virus is closer to prom. He said all sites under consideration are local, including the Hilton and the World Equestrian Center.

“Part of that process has been working with attorney Powers to make sure that our agreements with these facilities have an out clause for us in case of COVID that we can get a full refund for all these facilities leading right up to the event,” he said. “So, if we feel at that point, as a team, that this is not going to be an event that we can pull off safely for our students, then we certainly have that option to back out.”

Graduation dates are still tentatively scheduled, but the board decided that it was too early to make decisions regarding attendance capacity. 

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