Marci Kennison, a third-grade teacher at S.S. Dixon Intermediate School in Pace, was busy Tuesday morning scrubbing the desks in her classroom with Clorox wipes and arranging socially distant seating around the tables scattered throughout her room.
After wiping down textbooks and stacking them in individual cubbies, she arranged colorful laminated printouts into clear boxes situated next to a small arsenal of cleaning supplies.
On her teacher’s desk was a small wooden painting that read “It Is What It Is” — the motto Kennison is adopting for the upcoming school year as thousands of students are slated to return to in-person school amidst the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
“I was just talking to a friend about this the other day, about masks and social distancing and lunch and how it’s all going to work,” Kennison said. “And you know, it’s a bit shocking that this is happening, but I’m ready to embrace it because I want to get back to school and get back to the classroom and see my kids, and if this is how we have to do it, I’m ready.”
The pupils returning to Kennison’s classroom Aug. 24 will be among nearly 24,000 Santa Rosa County students who are opting to return to brick-and-mortar school this year. According to data provided by the school district, 23,702 students (or 82% of the total student population) opted to go back to in-person school, while 2,260 (8%) chose online virtual school and 2,867 (10%) chose remote learning.
Parents had until this past Friday to make their decision.
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Ashley Miller was a proponent this summer of having remote learning offered as an option for students, since both of her kids are immuno-compromised. But Miller wasn’t impressed with the district’s remote learning option, which borrows curriculum heavily from Florida Virtual School, and she ultimately opted to send her kids back in-person.
“My kids know why they will be wearing their masks and when,” Miller said. “I hate the fact that my kids are going back face-to-face, I absolutely hate it, and I’m scared to death. But what can I do? The (remote) curriculum isn’t going to help my youngest daughter. … All in all, this became harder, more confusing and more stressful, and I’m sick to my stomach sending my kids back to school, but honestly I felt I had no other choice.”
Superintendent Tim Wyrosdick, who is leading the charge into his last school year as superintendent before stepping down, said he wasn’t surprised to see such a high number of students deciding to return to school in-person.
“One part of the communication we had with parents was that, if you’re going to choose the remote option or virtual option — which are different — you need to have a learning coach, someone to navigate the throes of the internet successfully and to keep your child on track. That’s problematic for parents who want to go back to work,” Wyrosdick said in an interview Tuesday with the News Journal. “I think parents thought that they didn’t have that capability, ability or flexibility for keeping their child at home.”
Social distancing, mask wearing and ‘the germinator’
So how does the school district plan to keep children, teachers and staff safe while welcoming 24,000 students back into its halls?
Wyrosdick acknowledged that although they can mandate mask wearing like they do other uniform policies, things like social distancing might be “impossible” in a school setting.
“I do not have the fiscal resources to run enough buses or build enough classrooms to appropriately social distance,” Wyrosdick said. “We have plans in place that will bring students on a bus, seat them accordingly in specific places, but there is no way to socially distance in a middle school hallway when you release classes. … Social distancing is only as good as the number of students that you have in a school, and with 80% of my students returning back to school, this will be our greatest difficulty.”
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At S.S. Dixon Intermediate, Principal Missy Floyd plans to use an outdoor area behind classrooms for most of the moving about that students will need to do, as opposed to using cramped hallways. Classes will also stay together throughout the day and not mingle with pupils in other classrooms.
Additionally, a random 20% of the student population at S.S. Dixon Intermediate will be temperature checked every week, and cleaning crews are installing automatic hand sanitizer stations beside each classroom door this week.
On Tuesday, a group of mask-wearing third- and fourth-grade teachers sat in Maddy Browne’s third-grade classroom and brainstormed ideas for back to school.
The “germinator,” for instance, is a classroom job similar to line leader who will charge one student each day with being the designated hand sanitizer dispenser for his or her classmates.
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The teachers were confident that through leading by example and keeping things positive and fun, they would be able to keep their students safe and healthy during the school year.
“I think if you have a positive attitude about it and you set the example that this is the new normal, they will follow that lead,” said fourth-grade teacher Olivia Wilchar. “They love us, and they love coming to school. So if we set that example for them and we have their parents on board, I think we can make this work.”
What happens if a student tests positive for COVID-19?
Still, school leaders acknowledge that it isn’t a matter of if, but when, that students and teachers will come down with COVID-19, in which case the school district has several plans in place to stop the spread.
COVID-19 cases among young people continue to rise. As of Monday, more than 270,000 young people from birth to age 17 have tested positive for the coronavirus in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In Santa Rosa County, if a student begins displaying COVID-19 symptoms during school and it can’t be explained by another medical condition, the student will be isolated and required to wear a face covering. The child’s parent will be notified to pick up the student immediately.
The student will not be allowed to return to school for 10 days and until their fever and respiratory symptoms improve.
If a student is confirmed positive, only students who were in at least six-foot contact with the positive student for more than 15 minutes without a mask will have to quarantine for 14 days. If the students were in contact with the positive student but were wearing masks, they will still be allowed at school but will have to be monitored closely for symptoms.
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If teachers become infected with COVID-19, that could be a much more serious problem, according to Wyrosdick.
“We can have half a school absent and still have school. But if half of my teachers are absent, that’s going to be very difficult, and that’s one of my greatest concerns,” Wyrosdick said. “If we have a teacher who is sick, I can’t take those students and put them in another classroom because the social distancing would be atrocious. Then comes the substitute piece, which, our numbers right now are lower than normal so I see that as a negative.”
Annie Blanks can be reached at [email protected] or 850-435-8632.