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School board maximizes class sizes during pandemic, upsetting Okeechobee teachers

Okeechobee County School District. (WPEC)
Okeechobee County School District. (WPEC)
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While the nation's largest school district has shut its doors and transitioned all students to virtual learning after a three percent test positivity rate over a seven-day rolling average in New York City, the school board in Okeechobee County makes an eyebrow-raising decision to maximize the number of students in each class in a 4-1 vote.

“As soon as they saw that, they contacted me,” said Okeechobee County Education Association President Jorje Botello who spoke to CBS12 News about the impact of this sudden “temporary” change. “My phone started ringing. My email started going off.”

A lot of teachers are not happy with the school board’s switch-up, he said.

See also: Student tests positive for COVID-19 at Central Elementary School in Okeechobee

“This is where we as a union need to take action,” said Botello. “Members have reached out in frustration.”

Botello believes students will suffer.

“We can’t properly service in the classrooms if they’re going to be overcrowded. And not to mention, 'hello,' we’re in a pandemic.”

According to Superintendent Ken Kenworthy’s recommendation to the Board, the Okeechobee County School District would increase class sizes to “lead to less disruption of the educational process by reducing the need to move students and teachers to meet class size.”

"To accommodate parents, Okeechobee has allowed for more transition between instructional options than most districts. If a student is not being successful in our virtual program, in order to keep the student from failing academically, we allowed them to return to face to face instruction. We believe this to be in the best interest of the student rather than to refuse admission back into school and risk this student not mastering the skills and having to repeat a grade."

Kenworthy said, "This year has been a balancing act to say the least, but I believe having students face to face in front of a certified teacher is the best model. Parents still have the option to enroll in virtual school if they like."

But teachers have taken to Facebook to cry foul.

One wrote, “Yes let's increase the class sizes. Currently, over 133 students and 8 staff members out on quarantine and that's only in the last 4 days. Just curious how many more will be placed on quarantine with these increased class sizes. Way to show "US" you support us.”

Previous to the approved class size change, the maximum class size for kindergarten through third grade was 18; 22 in fourth through eighth; and, 25 in ninth through twelfth. Now those numbers will be increased to 21, 27, and 30 respectively.

Parents and teachers are asking how is this even considered during a pandemic when the risk of exposure could be increased.

Okeechobee County’s Emergency Operations Center remains at partial Level 2 activation, which means they have increased staffing in the EOC to support coronavirus operations.

In a question and answer section of the district’s website, the following was stated:

Is it safe for my child to return to Option 1 (Face to Face)?
Only you can make that decision for your child.

Just last week, the school district sent 21 students from Yearling Middle School home for two weeks because a student tested positive for COVID-19.

That came one day after the district sent six students and four staff members from Osceola Middle School home due to a positive COVID-19 test by a staff member.

According to the Florida Department of Health, there have been 40 confirmed cases of coronavirus at 10 schools in Okeechobee through Nov. 14. Eleven of those cases are at the high school.

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