School Board to vote on ‘optional innovative reopening plan’ to be submitted to the state

Editor’s Note: On the Agenda is a summary of high interest items to be decided on or discussed at upcoming local municipal meetings in Alachua County.  

During a meeting this evening, the School Board of Alachua County will vote on an ‘optional innovative reopening plan’ mandated by the state of Florida for districts that want to offer families an online learning option connected with their child’s school. That requirement was part of an emergency order issued by the state on July 6.

If the Board approves, the district will submit to the Florida Department of Education (FDOE) an application for the new Alachua Digital Academy. Through the Academy, students will receive live lessons provided by teachers from their school of enrollment. The model would allow them to interact with their classmates online, and their daily schedule would mirror the regular school schedule. Students would be provided with devices if they don’t have them, and the district will work with families to obtain Internet access. Digital Academy students would also have access to free meals and other programs and services.

One of the key goals of the Digital Academy is to promote a more seamless transition between brick-and-mortar and online learning if the state orders all schools closed or when more students return to in-person learning later in the school year.

The district’s application must be submitted to the FDOE for approval by July 31. The state is expected to respond within a few days. Alachua County Public Schools has already pushed back the start of school for students to August 24 to allow more time for planning, training, and other preparations.

To be allowed to offer the Digital Academy, the district must also give all students the option to attend school in person, five days a week, beginning in August. This ‘traditional’ model would include significant health and safety protocols, including but not limited to mandatory masks, intensive cleaning/sanitizing, and strategies to promote as much social distancing as possible. The district has also been working closely with the Alachua County Health Department and experts from the University of Florida on COVID-related safety protocols, including the steps the district will take if a student or staff member tests positive. 

Florida districts that do not open schools in person in August face significant funding cuts. It’s estimated that Alachua County Public Schools would lose nearly $30 million for just the first half of the school year, or between 25% to 30% of its operating budget. About 85% of that budget is spent on employee salaries, which means the cuts would certainly affect jobs. 

It’s also questionable whether the district would still receive funding to provide free meals for students in a program like the Digital Academy if it is not officially approved by the state. 

A third instructional option for local families is the Alachua eSchool, which allows students to learn material and complete coursework on their own schedule and pace without live lessons. The eSchool has been in existence for eight years and during the last school year served about 3000 full and part-time students.

For more information about all three options is available on the district’s website

Local families have already been polled about their choice of options. Of those who responded, about 41% selected the traditional in-person model, 41% selected the Digital Academy and 18% chose the eSchool. Schools are now contacting parents, including those who did not respond or did not fill out the option form correctly, to review their options. 

An initial draft of the district’s full reopening plan was published in early July, but it’s now being revised to reflect the state orders that have been issued since then. Assuming the state approves the district’s application for the Digital Academy, an updated plan is expected to be announced next week.

More  information, including an FAQ, is available on  the district’s Return to School  page at :

https://fl02219191.schoolwires.net/Page/30007

Tonight’s school board meeting begins at 5:30 p.m. and will also include a state-mandated budget hearing. The meeting will air live on the district’s YouTube channel at:

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCFbqdGz4v9-8ag-607GvxaQ

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