First day of school in Santa Rosa, Escambia counties: Students, parents cautiously optimistic

School bells rang through elementary, middle and high schools for the first time in five months Monday as the new school year officially began and children entered back into classrooms — both in-person and remotely — throughout Escambia and Santa Rosa counties.

At Montclair Elementary School in Pensacola, students arrived on school buses and in parents’ cars, and a handful walked to school from nearby neighborhoods through drizzling rain caused by Tropical Storm Marco’s march toward the Louisiana coast.

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As parents pulled their vehicles under Montclair’s front awning to form a drop-off line, guidance counselor Camelia Willis hustled up and down the sidewalk, welcoming students back to class, wishing them a great day and giving out socially distanced “air hugs.”

One little boy jumped out of his mom’s car and ran excitedly toward Willis.

“Hey!” Willis greeted him before she stopped short and said, “Where is your mask? I can’t hug you if you don’t have your mask.”

Masks are heavily encouraged for all students, teachers and staff at schools in both Escambia and Santa Rosa counties this year, one way that COVID-19 has upended the traditional learning environment and forced school districts to adapt to the ever-changing pandemic. 

Just about half of Escambia County students opted to return to in-person school this year, while 82% of Santa Rosa students chose the in-person option. The remainder of the students opted for remote learning, Florida Virtual School, home schooling or private school.

Each school has its own policies and procedures related to the pandemic. For instance, at S.S. Dixon Intermediate School in Milton, students won’t be allowed to use the hallways, and at A.K. Suter Elementary School in Pensacola, students can’t mingle with students in other classes. 

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Escambia County School District Superintendent Malcolm Thomas stood near Montclair’s entrance way watching students file inside Monday morning.

“We have to get them back in schools,” Thomas told the News Journal. “Five months of no education is going to have its consequences. It’s going to take time to get them back up to where they were.”

Students left school in early March for spring break, just as the coronavirus pandemic was beginning in the United States, with the intention of coming back to school after the break. But Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis the closed schools until April 15 and later for the remainder of the year to help stop the spread of COVID-19 as the rest of the state went into lockdown. 

Thomas said in an email later Monday morning that the first few hours of school has gone “well” so far. 

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“There were a few technical issues with remote/virtual, but they are isolated and being resolved,” he said in the email.

In neighboring Santa Rosa County, Superintendent Tim Wyrosdick said there were multiple absences across the district from students who had possibly been exposed to the coronavirus. 

“We are aware of some students who did not come to school because someone in their family was positive,” Wyrosdick told the News Journal.

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