A petition with nearly 2,500 signatures that is making the rounds on social media implores the Santa Rosa County School District to offer more options when it comes to sending students back to school next month, underscoring the multitude of challenges and uncertainties facing families and teachers as coronavirus cases surge locally.

The petition, created by Navarre parent Ashley Miller, asks the district to consider distance learning and hybrid learning (a mix of in-person school days and distance learning school days) as options for students who don't want to go back to full-time, brick-and-mortar schools and don't want to enroll in the virtual learning program.

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“Virtual schooling is just not an option for my oldest daughter (who is 15),” Miller told the News Journal on Friday. “Navarre High School has over 2,000 kids in it, and I just don’t feel comfortable with her being around all of that with as many coronavirus cases as there are. So I started asking everybody’s opinions on what they’re going to do with their kids, and someone suggested I start a petition.

“It was mainly about me and my kids at first,” she added. “And then, all of a sudden, 1,000 signatures later, it turned into a whole group of people.”

Santa Rosa County schools currently have three options for students when school resumes on Aug. 10: Brick-and-mortar, five-days-a-week schooling; Santa Rosa Online; or traditional home-schooling.

Santa Rosa Online is a virtual schooling program that has been in place for several years, but is much different than the distance learning option that children had at the end of the 2020 school year. Miller's youngest daughter, who is 9 years old, has an Individualized Education Program, or IEP, and needs individualized attention from a teacher, which distance learning can offer but Santa Rosa Online cannot.

“If I do home schooling with her, she is not going to get her ESE (Exceptional Student Education) teaching,” Miller said. “She needs to be one-on-one with her ESE teachers, she doesn’t need to sit in front of a computer for six to eight hours a day and not get the one-on-one that she needs.”

The dilemma Miller faces is one that parents across the county and state are facing with the start of school looming in less than a month: as coronavirus cases reach all-time highs in Florida, is it safe for students to return to school, where social distancing and full-time mask wearing are going to be nearly impossible?

But, on the flip side, if children don't return to brick-and-mortar schooling, how will it affect parents who rely on school so they can go to work and provide for their families?

There just isn't an easy answer, said Dr. Jennifer Zimmerman, a Pace pediatrician who suffered from coronavirus this summer herself. Zimmerman has since tested negative and said she is "happy to have survived," but fears that returning to school could have dire consequences.

“I will be honest, half of me is a little scared, because the data states that the virus exists and that the number of cases are rising,” Zimmerman said. “But I do understand we need to get children back to learning — it’s not just learning, we cannot sustain everybody just being at home.

“But we cannot be reckless, and we must be adaptable to the changes,” she said. “We must be one step ahead of the virus. If we know the numbers are rising, we should not push for it to rise even further with close contacts.”

There are still many unknowns about what will happen when children return to school. What happens if a child tests positive? Does their entire class and teacher have to quarantine for 14 days? What about every other teacher and child that the student interacted with?

The school district has yet to release a plan for if that happens. Superintendent Tim Wyrosdick did not return the News Journal's request for comment on Friday, and school board member Wei Ueberschaer, who sits on a district task force charged with reopening schools, declined to comment to the News Journal, saying the board will likely be discussing multiple issues concerning school reopenings at its July 23 meeting.

David Godwin, a Pace High School teacher and member of the Santa Rosa Professional Educators teacher’s union, said the union hasn’t officially done any polling on teachers to determine what they think about returning to school in August, but anecdotally, he said, many of them are worried and would like more options.

“The concern I have personally is that, if you only have those two options, I think a lot of kids are going to go brick-and-mortar, and there’s just absolutely no way to come close to any of those social distancing guidelines with all your students there,” Godwin said. “I mean, do you know of any place that would stick 30 people in a 25-by-40-foot room right now? The district is having a new employee orientation virtually on July 30, and then a few days later we’re gonna have 600 kids together in a cafeteria? That seems inconsistent.”

Godwin’s preference would be to do a hybrid model, where half of the student go to school on one day and the other half goes the other day. The students would do distance learning on the days they’re not in school. That would allow them to maintain social distancing within the buildings more than they could if all children went back to school at the same time.

The only thing that is known at this point is that students will return to school on Aug. 10, one way or another. And pre-school jitters this time around for many parents are more than just what their child's teacher will be like, if their child will make friends and what their child will eat for lunch that day; it's if their child is going to get seriously ill.

“Cases are skyrocketing every day and it’s frustrating, the whole situation is frustrating,” Miller said. “I want my kids to be safe, and if my kids are going to go back to school, I want them to go back to school safely. I don’t want them to go and then come back one day with no symptoms, and then they’re positive for corona, and then they spread it everywhere. It’s just so nerve-wracking and scary.”

Annie Blanks can be reached at ablanks@pnj.com or 850-435-8632.