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What will Santa Rosa County schools do this fall?

Annie Blanks
Pensacola News Journal

With less than three months standing between students and the start of the 2020-2021 school year, school districts are scrambling to figure out what August will look like for teachers and students.

Will a second wave of COVID-19 hit the country in the fall, like some experts predict — forcing all schools to continue virtual learning in the new school year? Will students return to classrooms just as they did in August 2019, with nothing changed? Or will there be a "new normal" in schools, and what will that new normal look like?

The answers are anything but clear, local school district leaders say. Direction from the state has been lacking as uncertainty about the virus and what it will do abounds.

“The situation certainly creates these different dynamics of process and execution, so we need answers to some of the questions we’re asking,” said Tim Wyrosdick, outgoing superintendent of the Santa Rosa County School District. “How do we organize an attendance schedule that would accommodate the governor’s orders? What does transportation look like? What does band look like when you really shouldn’t be in a room where you’re blowing into the air constantly? What do hall passes in between class look like?”

There are more questions than answers at this point, but as the schools districts of both Escambia and Santa Rosa counties wrap up the 2019-2020 school year, they will go into overdrive this summer to prepare for a variety of scenarios that could play out this week. School district leaders agree there are essentially three possible scenarios for the fall semester.

Scenario 1: Students return to brick-and-mortar schools

The best-case scenario for school districts is that the COVID-19 curve flattens to the point where students and teachers can safely return to school buildings.

But even that will pose issues, and a new normal will have to take the place of long-established practices.

"Obviously, we will clean more frequently and we’ll use different tools to de-sanitize, and we’ll try to mitigate group size," said Escambia County Superintendent Malcolm Thomas. "But, to be honest, schools are places where large numbers of people congregate. So to think you’re going to get a six-foot distance at a school is really not practical."

School districts are also worried about their budgets for the upcoming year, which could take a hit as pandemic-related lockdowns have sucked once-flowing tax revenues out of the state's coffers. Stimulus funds will be heading to the schools just as they did during the Great Recession in 2009, but there are still costs associated with the pandemic that could dry up school districts' budgets and force layoffs or other cuts.

In Santa Rosa County, for example, Wyrosdick said if students return to school, they'll need to purchase supplies to do regular temperature checks on students. It would cost the district $45,000 to purchase so many new thermometers, he said.

"Before COVID-19, on March 6, we passed the budget and I was $3.5 million short — that was before we had any economic downturn," Wyrosdick said. "I’m very concerned now about what the budget looks like for this year, but I’m even more concerned about what it will look like next year, when we don’t have those stimulus dollars coming in anymore."

Scenario 2: Virtual school could continue for next school year

In what teachers say is possibly a worst-case scenario, students could be forced to do another semester of school at home.

Such a measure would happen at direction from the state Department of Education, which hasn't issued directives yet on what the next school year would look like. But the possibility is still a concern for parents like Manda Moore, whose son, Jagger, will be heading into the fourth grade at Oriole Beach Elementary School in Gulf Breeze.

"As a working parent, the virtual school has its challenges, especially right now," Moore said. “My son is too old to be in any kind of day care situation, and his summer camps have been canceled. As far as going back to school in August, I think that it just depends on what the climate is going to look like with this pandemic, but I’m going to do whatever is the best and safest for my child.”

David Godwin, a math teacher at Pace High School, said both he and his two high school-aged daughters are itching to get back to school.

Virtual school, Godwin said, was fine for a short period of time, but nothing compares to being in an actual classroom setting.

“Speaking as a parent, too, I just don’t think that the face-to-face interaction between a teacher and a student can be replaced with online learning,” Godwin said. “I certainly think there’s a place for online learning, but not for everything the student does.”

Participation in online school has been dwindling over the past few weeks, officials say. With summer nearing and students not around each other to help stay motivated, the number of students checking into virtual school and participating in work and assignments has declined.

"In the very beginning, I would say for the first five to six weeks, participation was very high," Thomas said. "But as you get into the last couple of weeks of school, it’s just like when you’re face-to-face. With seniors we call it 'senioritis,' but with this group we call is 'summer-itis.' We didn’t see the enthusiasm quite as much and it was difficult to sustain over time."

Scenario 3: Parents and students could choose to go back to school, or choose virtual learning

A third option, one that seems the most likely as things stand right now, is that the state could allow students and staff to return to school as normal — with a caveat for parents who don't want their child to put themselves at risk in a traditional school setting.

Virtual learning has been a program in Florida for years now and is still an option for students who feel that is the best way for them to receive their education.

"Some parents might not feel comfortable sending their kids back to school, in which they can go full-time virtual. But that’ll be different than the kind of remote learning where we had their classroom teacher guiding them through the lessons," Thomas said. "Other parents desperately need us to put students back on campus."

Santa Rosa County schools will offer the Florida Virtual program as well as the Santa Rosa County virtual program, which they developed in March and April for student education during the pandemic.

But parents like Godwin say both they and their kids want to get back into school.

“I thought my oldest daughter would really like distance learning and would want to do virtual school if she were given the choice, but she’s ready to go back to school. Both my daughters are,” Godwin said. “She misses her friends and wants to get back to her band and all the extracurricular activities.

“That’s a big part of school, the extra activities,” he added. “I hope things get back to normal as quickly as they can.”

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