Knox County School Board Passes Mask Mandate and Controversial Contract With Florida Virtual School
In an 8 to 1 vote, the Knox County School Board passed a resolution that requires students, teachers, staff and visitors to wear facial coverings inside schools. An amendment to clarify that the policy applies only when six feet of distance can’t be maintained was added during Wednesday’s meeting.
Superintendent Bob Thomas said Wednesday there are currently 43.5 teacher vacancies for virtual classes, and 49 vacancies for in-person classes. The first day of instruction is August 24.
“In making a district-level decision to reopen schools, if that’s the course we’re taking, we also need to make a district-level decision with enforcing as much as possible to keep people safe within our schools,” said Evetty Satterfield, who brought the resolution to the board.
With the added amendment about distancing, the resolution emphasizes the policy that is already in school's reopening plans and the county’s current mask mandate. This new policy requires schools to give two verbal warnings before taking any further disciplinary action against students.
Superintendent Bob Thomas said students should be comfortable with face coverings before in-person classes start on August 24th.
“I’ve been telling parents: If you’ve got a child that’s going to be in person in school, get a mask and have them get used to wearing that,” Thomas said.
School board member Patti Bounds, who represents the 7th district, was the sole vote against the resolution.
The board also approved a controversial, up to $1.5 million contract with Florida Virtual School for online classes. Critics of the contract say it outsources virtual teaching jobs, rather than re-hiring Knox County teachers who have taken leaves of absence or retired due to COVID-19.
When a school board member asked whether these teachers had been offered the virtual teaching positions, human resources director Scott Bolton said that has not happened. According to Bolton, this is because the virtual teaching positions, through the QuEST distance learning program, are not permanently funded.
“Those are temporary positions. A person that’s currently on leave is in a permanent position,” Bolton said. “In order to transition from leave to that QuEST position, it would require them to forfeit their permanent position as a resignation or something like that and I wouldn’t encourage people to do that.”
Superintendent Bob Thomas said the county has filled more than a third of the teacher vacancies that were cited when the contract was discussed last week. There were 168 vacancies last week. Now there are 92.5 positions still open, about half of those are virtual teaching roles.
Based on these new vacancy numbers, payments to Florida Virtual School could be closer to $300,000, but the newly-approved contract allows the county to spend up to $1.5 million.
School board member Jennifer Owen, who represents the 2nd district, was the sole opposing vote on the contract, citing concerns about unspecified expenditures and potentially invasive biometric data collection on the students in the virtual classrooms.
“Biometric records can be something like keystrokes. It could be camera photos, when you knew or didn’t know the camera was on,” Owen said. “Everything from how long it takes you to type a sentence to whether you are blinking regularly. So those are things that I have great concerns with.”
Within the contract, Florida Virtual School is granted access to student data including voice recordings, web search activity, text messages and broadly defined biometric data.
There are more than 18,000 students enrolled in virtual learning this fall in Knox County Schools. See the full contract with Florida Virtual School below, or by clicking here.