School opening going well

Students glad to be back

-Photo: SVT Archive

By Tami Stevenson

School is off to a good start in the North Florida area, according to school superintendents from Hamilton and Suwannee County, which opened their doors last week. Columbia and Madison County Pre-K thru 12 public school districts will not open until next week. North Florida College in Madison welcomed students for the first time today, August 19. 2020, while classes at Lake City’s Florida Gateway College began Monday, August 17, 2020.

“We have really had a very good opening. Some of the staff commented that through all the issues, this has been one of the smoothest openings we’ve had in awhile,” Hamilton Superintendent Rex Mitchell told the Suwannee Valley Times. He said students are happy to see one another again and teachers are happy to see the students back as well.

During this unprecedented time with the coronavirus pandemic, students have four school choices this year. They can return to the physical classroom, which most seem to be doing. They can watch their respective classrooms from home on a furnished laptop from the school at least until the end of the first semester and are calling it the hybrid model – with the intent of returning to the physical classroom by the end of December. Thirdly, they can take all of their classes online and the fourth option is homeschooling.

“We’ve had the normal hiccups with getting the students that are logging in to the classrooms each day – trying to get students logged on and picking up their computers. But they are getting better at it each day and teachers are getting more at ease with using innovative models – with some students in the classroom and some watching from home viewing the actual instruction that is going on,” added Mitchell.

Teacher workloads are really not much different, he added, because they only have to teach the class once. They simply point the laptop, equipped with a camera, to the front of the classroom while they are teaching the physical class and it gives a live feed to the students at home that are logged on.

Hamilton schools does not require masks but it is highly encouraged, Mitchell said. Especially when moving in between classes or in a situation where they cannot social distance. Some of the students are wearing masks full time. The teachers are wearing either face masks or shields. They are promoting hand washing and good hygiene throughout each day.

Mitchell said, “On the buses, however, we cannot social distance the way you really want to. Mask wearing is required of grades 3 thru 12 and highly recommended for grades Pre-K through 2. Knowing that our smallest children have a hard time keeping them on. We try to encourage them, we do our best. But 3 through 12, if they are going to ride the bus, they have to wear a mask, otherwise their parents will have to bring them to school.”

According to Mitchell, the day of our conversation last week, they had 708 students in Pre-K through 6th Grade – of those, 588 were actually present on campus and 120 were at home.

Suwannee Schools Superintendent Ted Roush said they had approximately 70 percent of students in traditional school and 20 percent in the hybrid option, along with 10 percent in various other options.

Roush said teachers have been warriors … true team players who have a passion for returning to their students and beginning the new year.
“We all need a sense of return to some sense of normalcy among all of the noise and madness that has consumed society over the past few months. I must also mention all of the other personnel from all departments that have rolled up their sleeves to return to serve families and students. They have all been tremendous … nothing like you see portrayed around the state and nation in the media with demonstrations to not return to school. Most all of our folks, regardless of their own concerns, fears, and situations have embraced a “can do” attitude to make it the best school year possible. I am the luckiest superintendent in the State of Florida to have such a dedicated team of people.”

Students have been excited to return, he added. Many bringing items to teachers as gestures of appreciation and thanks – right down to sanitizing wipes, extra school supplies for the classroom, or whatever they could afford to support their school.

“Students and parents that have chosen to return have fully embraced the opportunity to return to school. I thank all of those parents that have chosen to trust us to do our very best for them and their children,” Roush commented.

To help ease teacher workloads, they have pulled teachers that would have regularly been in front of students in the classroom in the traditional sense, to serve students in the hybrid option and Suwannee Virtual School.

“Janene Fitzpatrick, Assistant Superintendent of Instruction, has worked tirelessly to work with all of our principals to avoid having teachers pull double duty. We have not put our teachers in the position of having to teach students during the day in the traditional classroom and then also have to serve students who are virtual. Nothing about that seemed fair as we planned over the summer.”

Mask wearing is not mandatory but highly encouraged at Suwannee schools. Roush said because the research on masks is sketchy and there are so many studies and statistics that support both sides of that discussion (to wear or not to wear), they elected to have masks as recommended but not mandatory. He strongly feels, without apology, that parents are the best ones to determine whether or not a school-aged child covers their face with a mask. “I just as passionately believe that full grown adults … that is faculty and staff, do not need a mandate from the school district to determine what is most beneficial and comfortable for them as individuals. I trust folks to make the decision that is best right for them.”

During the first few days of reopening, some students and staff tested positive for COVID. Roush wanted to assure everyone those that tested positive and their close contacts were in quarantine and that the school is taking the necessary steps of protocol and following CDC guidelines.

“It is no secret that COVID-19 exists across all facets of society. Because it exists in the community and the schools are made up of the community, as a school district we will work with the Suwannee County Health Department/Florida Department of Health day to day, case by case, to take the appropriate recommended actions in dealing with quarantine, contact tracing and required notification of those affected.” Roush said. “Just as people contract this virus at home, church, work, and going about their daily lives, so too the virus will be something that must be dealt with in schools. Like society, schools do not operate in a glass bubble, immune from the challenges of the day. Even so, we will continue to educate and be there for our students and families in the days ahead for those that choose to send their children to school. We are prepared to work with families and work with parents on an as-needed basis to provide for education services just like we would if they had to be a out with the flu for a couple of weeks.”

In closing, he wanted to add that they are working hard to push for the opening of all fall sports.

“I have been in communication with Governor DeSantis and Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran to strongly lobby for the beginning of fall sports. Our student athletes, their families, and the community deserve to have these activities return in full swing with as much precaution as can reasonably be taken. As a school system and as a community we must not live in a state of fear and social paralysis but choose to thrive, live, and enjoy the experiences of life, family, and community understanding that there is inherent risk in everything we do in every day life.”