"I don’t want my child to be a test child."

PANHANDLE – It used to be easy.

Before the coronavirus outbreak, Tanya Back had no qualms about the idea of sending her daughter to Navarre High School. Now, it’s a “super hard decision,” Back said, of choosing between a virtual or in-person education for her high school senior.

“You’re trying to weigh the pros and cons of both options,” Back said. “It’s my child’s life that I’m worried about, because we don’t know a lot about COVID. We don’t know what it does to children. There’s so much information out there that is conflicting. One study says kids don’t carry it and they don’t spread it as much as adults, and one study says the opposite.”

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Back leans toward virtual school for the first semester of the year and returning to brick and mortar for the second. She first wants to see how the school adapts.

“I don’t want my child to be a test child,” Back said. “I want to see proof that the school is handling this appropriately before I send her back, and the numbers, of course, are lower.”

Her daughter has experienced some anxiety about the idea of not returning to school.

“She’s a senior, she wants to do prom and homecoming and hang with her friends,” Back said. “Now, we’ve had an informal family meeting and talked to her about it, and she’s OK. It was actually worse for me to tell her, ‘We’re seriously looking into virtual school for you for the first semester.’ That was the hardest part of this whole process.”

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Senior year is one of the main reasons Samantha Santana wants to send her daughter, Abby, back to Walton High School.

“I might feel different if my daughter was not going to be a senior this year,” Santana said. “She already missed the capping – where the seniors cap the juniors. She missed that and I don’t want her missing out on her senior year.”

The DeFuniak Springs resident also had to make the tough decision for her two sons, Christopher, a 10th grader at Walton High School, and Mason, a seventh grader at Walton Middle School. She has chosen to let them return to school. The two have already started football practice, she said.

“I’m preparing my kids to wear masks and bring lunches from home just in case,” Santana said. “I’ve been talking to them. I’ve taught my kids about social distancing and proper handwashing. I am a caregiver, so I know all the precautions we need to take.”

Her main concern is about Mason.

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“He hasn’t had to wear a mask yet,” Santana said. “But he actually talks to me when we’re in Walmart together and he gets after me for not following the correct signs.”

Page Dolloff, a junior at Niceville High School, also opted for physical school.

“I didn’t care so much for online,” Dolloff said. “It wasn’t that it was hard, but I feel like I learn better with a teacher there. My schedule for this year, going into my junior year, I have a lot more AP classes. I feel like having a teacher there is better than an online class.”

What Dolloff knows right now is that masks are required on the buses and in the hallways, and strongly encouraged – if not mandatory – in classrooms. She is comfortable with the rule.

“If we’re sitting close together, then that’s what we should be doing,” Dolloff said. “But if we are spaced out, then I feel like it’s the student’s choice. In high school, the mask (is) is going to be a struggle I feel, because people could be wearing it wrong.”

Some parents are still grappling with the decision.

Ashley Stuck, a DeFuniak Springs resident, is comfortable with two of her children returning to Cornerstone Christian Academy.

“Private school, I don’t have an issue with my children going back to, because it is a very small setting,” Stuck said. “This past year, there was only a total of 10 students. So they would be able to adequately keep space between everybody and follow the CDC guidelines.”

Her issue, though, is with public school. She has one child enrolled at Maude Saunders Elementary School.

“With it still on the rise, why should we subject our children to that?” Stuck said. “Why should our children have to wear a mask all day? I don’t think we should. We’re putting our children’s lives in danger. I would be putting his life at risk if I put him in a school.”

Coronavirus is no joke, Stuck said.

“One child, as we know, can have it, show no symptoms whatsoever, comes in contact with my child and my child now has corona and dies,” Stuck said. “Who would be responsible for that?”

The decision is equally challenging for students seeking higher education.

Olivia Betancourt recently graduated Fort Walton Beach High School and now faces a choice between accepting student housing at the University of Central Florida in Orlando for a “semi-normal” freshman year or declining it and taking online classes.

The dorm situation is a bit different this year, she said.

“They’re doing reduced dorms, so instead of having two people in every room or four people in a suite, it’s limited now for safety reasons,” Betancourt said. “A lot of the facilities on campus are restricted a little bit, limited access at certain times. They’re making it very safe for us if we decide to go back down there, which I think we all really appreciate.”

While Betancourt respects the extra safety measures, it’s still a toss-up, she said.

“I’m not totally sure if all my classes are online yet, since I’m taking a lot of science classes and they require a lot of lab work,” Betancourt said. “If they are all online, I’m going to choose to stay home. I just think it’s a safer option – save some money, spend more time with my family. I think maybe it’s not so worth the risk to go down south – the cases are a little bit worse than here.”

When she first considered living at home, Betancourt’s siblings encouraged her to go and get the full college experience. But they, too, are concerned for her safety and now support her decision.

“For me, it’s not so much I’m worried about getting sick,” Betancourt said. “I’m worried about if I come home and get somebody else sick or I walk around campus – even if we wear a mask or gloves – there’s only so much you can do to prevent carrying it around.”

Betancourt’s college freshman year likely won’t look like she expected. If anything, the coronavirus outbreak has taught her patience, she said.

“At first I was really sad,” Betancourt said. “I was disappointed that I didn’t get to go down and explore this place I’ve been dreaming about for the last couple of months – since I got into UCF. I was down on myself like, ‘Man, maybe I’m making the wrong decision about not going.’

“I thought about it, and I’m going to be going in the spring if everything opens again. I can wait a couple of months and I can go next year. I don’t think it’s the biggest disappointment ever. I’m taking it with a grain of salt and staying hopeful about it.”