by KATHRYN DENTATO
In March, when Florida schools dismissed students for an extended spring break and school buildings remained closed the remainder of the year, teachers and administrators adjusted with remote/distance learning. Requirements were less strict than for regular eSchool classes, with weekly check-ins rather than daily expectations.
The recent announcement by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis that it was essential for schools to reopen in August has met with mixed reactions throughout the state. Though students are at lower risk than adults, returning them to enclosed school environments could potentially increase the risk for those students and their families.
Hernando County Schools surveyed parents over a two-week period at the beginning of June to determine whether they were comfortable with students returning to a physical school or if they preferred another option. With nearly 4,000 responses and 86% in favor of students returning to school campuses, the District developed options for the 2020-2021 school year.
On June 23, Hernando County had two plans for reopening and both were approved unanimously at the June 23 School Board meeting. Plan A is to return to the physical school campuses for face-to-face instruction. Plan B is to enroll in the Hernando eSchool. The first day of school will be Aug. 10, 2020. Teachers will return to work by Aug. 3, 2020. Since the meeting, a third option has been proposed which will be reviewed by the school board on July 20. The third option is called Digital Home Learning which entails students learning from home through live online lessons taught by their teachers from their school.
Superintendent John Stratton said Hernando County School District is taking steps to mitigate those risk factors beginning with the first encounter of the day, transportation. In addition to extra sanitizing and encouraging students to wear masks from home, each bus will seat fewer students, so more trips will be required to transport them.
Foodservice will use carts in multiple areas to allow for greater distances between students. Meals will be prepackaged so contact between students and food service staff is minimized. Students will not be charged for the meals. Additional cleaning will be required as well.
Classrooms are being rearranged to create distance between students. Desks, chairs, and other surfaces will be cleaned and disinfected daily, Stratton said, with media centers/labs and other common areas receiving more frequent cleanings.
At the June 23 meeting, it was determined that while Hernando County Schools will not require all students to wear masks in classes, students who wear masks must keep the dress code in mind. However, the mask requirement will be considered at the July 20 special meeting.
On school campuses, students can expect to see signs showing which direction hallway traffic will move. Locker rooms and gyms will be cleaned often, and hand sanitizer will be available. Elementary students will have recess, but large groups are not encouraged.
Teachers will likely have to work more closely with students to “fill in the gaps” left by the disruption to the 2019-2020 school year. Students with special needs, including those who are medically fragile or ESOL students, will have their needs addressed. IEP meetings will be scheduled in the fall with the potential for virtual attendance.
The District will also address students’ mental health needs with continued staff training in Youth and Mental Health First Aid and the Kognito Suicide Prevention. All students will receive instruction in either mindfulness activities or other curriculum, depending on the age group.
Visitors as well as volunteers to the school will be limited to those considered essential and will be asked questions relating to their health and travel. Temperatures may be taken. Students or staff with a temperature of 100.4 should remain at home. There are additional safety measures for students who become ill at school.
Families who choose to enroll students in Hernando eSchool should be advised that they must provide their own device for learning (laptop, tablet, etc.) with internet access. Students must complete the semester in order to receive course credit. If they wish to transfer to a physical school, they must wait until the semester ends. Families must inform the District of their choice (Hernando eSchool or physical campus) by July 24, 2020.
In the event the schools are closed during the 2020-2021 year, students will receive live instruction three days each week and have independent study on the other two days. Attendance will be taken daily in each class and students will be required to complete assignments on time.
The District also created contingency plans if they should need to close again later in the year.
The digital home learning option will be reviewed by the School Board on July 20, 2020, at 9 am. The boardroom will be closed to visitors, but the meeting will streamed live by using the link from the district’s website.