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Polk County, Fla., Parents Choose In-Person or E-Learning

The Polk County Public Schools district office’s individual schools are now sending out letters asking parents of their students to make a choice between eLearning or in-person school as the pandemic continues.

by Kimberly C. Moore, The Ledger / January 7, 2020

(TNS) — Despite assurances from the Polk County Public Schools district office for the past month that there was no deadline for parents to choose a different learning option for their child, individual schools are sending out letters asking them to make a choice between eLearning or in-person school — some as soon as Friday — and urging failing eLearners and teachers back into the classroom.

A demand to return to in-person lessons saw one veteran teacher put down his dry-erase marker for the final time; he submitted his resignation Tuesday evening.

"As you already know from our faculty meeting before the break, I have requested that all staff return to campus on January 19th," Winter Haven High School Principal  Gina Williams  wrote in an email to teachers. "All students are expected to return to campus 'Face to Face' unless they have a form signed by their parent, which is currently being mailed to our eLearners. Due to the high failure rate of the majority of our eLearners, many are expected to return for second semester. Even those who are (Americans with Disabilities Act) approved are expected to return to campus as our master schedule drives this decision. We need places for our students to go. Thank you for understanding."

That demand was too much for  Devin Siebold , 36, who has taught U.S. history, psychology and sociology as a social studies teacher for 13 years.

"When I got that email yesterday and I've been seeing how everything's been going, I just felt it was time to go. It's just forcing teachers and students back into unsafe conditions," Siebold said, noting that numbers on the state's COVID-19 dashboard do not match what he and others know to be true at his school and others. The Ledger has noted these discrepancies. "There is inaccurate reporting of numbers — there are immense numbers of quarantined kids and numbers that don't line up with the state numbers."

Siebold's son has chronic asthma, and he has spent numerous nights with him in the emergency room. He said that while students are wearing masks, safeguards put in place to protect students and teachers are, in fact, doing the opposite. For instance, he said one-way stairwells mean that students are jammed together in areas that become backed up. He also said that his classroom hasn't been swept or cleaned in more than a month. In addition, he said temperature checks designed to be swiped across foreheads are, instead, being used on wrists.

"It's not a wrist scanner. It's 88 degrees for me. I think I'm dead," Siebold joked.

Lake Gibson High School administration sent an email to parents. Asking them to make a choice by Friday.

"If this form is not completed by the deadline, your transition back to face-to-face learning may be delayed," the email reads. "Please be aware that students will be scheduled into the same academic courses that they are presently scheduled into, however, due to class size and teacher assignments your student may not have the same teachers. Additionally, electives may not be available in the same class period for the same reasons. We look forward to seeing your student 3rd quarter."

Polk Education Association President  Stephanie Yocum  said teachers are not being given a choice to teach from home.

"They are being given the options of come back, go on a leave of absence or quit," Yocum said, noting that a number of teachers are opting to take a leave of absence, although she did not have an exact figure. She said the Florida Department of Education's " November 30th Emergency Order provides parents the option to also move their children from brick and mortar to eSchool. That option, not just in Polk but statewide, is being ignored as a viable option despite record high COVID positivity rates among children and adults across the state.

According to the Department of Health, 137,476 children 18 and younger have contracted the virus, with 1,103 hospitalized and nine deaths. As of Jan. 5Polk County has seen 4,427 cases, with a 13.5% positivity rate among children. The county has seen a dramatic surge in the past few weeks in COVID cases.

Yocum said students who are struggling or even failing are being told to come back to school, although parents have the option of signing a letter acknowledging the potential "academic risks" to their child.

"The possible influx of students returning to brick-and-mortar school is driving school administrators to call eSchool and other remote work staff back into buildings to accommodate the anticipated growing number of students reporting to campuses," Yocum said. "This whole situation is a direct result of failed leadership at the state and federal levels who seem to care more for their inhumane test-and-punish accountability systems than protecting our students and the public school employees who educate them on a daily basis."

On Dec. 10th, more than 70,500 students were attending in-person classes at traditional and charter schools, with 33,200 attending eSchool or Polk Virtual School. School district officials did not have numbers for this week by deadline on Tuesday.

As for Siebold, he said he is going to dedicate himself to his YouTube comedy channel, in which he jokes about teaching.

"I'm a comedian and podcaster for teachers, so I've kind of transitioned into that. There's a lot of money to be made video streaming," Siebold said. "I've made more money at that than teaching. The sad part is I didn't have to teach, but I kept doing it because it was my passion."

Siebold said he expects to earn a six-figure income from this endeavor in 2021 on a page that saw more than 100 million hits last year.

(c)2021 The Ledger (Lakeland, Fla.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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