In-person or online? As COVID-19 cases rise, Escambia, Santa Rosa families weigh switch
Tara Peterson and her family have had a lot to consider when deciding if their children would go to school in-person or online during the pandemic. She is a cancer survivor with asthma and her 13-year-old son also suffers from asthma.
Peterson said she's been open minded and even considered the possibility of returning her 10-year-old daughter and son to in-person learning after their first grading periods. But in the first week back from school after the winter break, both children remained in online learning as local coronavirus cases soared following the holidays.
"I know most people heal, get it, get through it and are fine, but the chance that one of us isn't (fine) just isn't worth it to us right now. But we also have glimpsed something frightening in our lives with (my) diagnosis, and so we may have a different perspective than other families do, not to judge anyone else," Peterson said.
Coronavirus cases in both Escambia and Santa Rosa counties have climbed steadily in the fall and winter and have surged over the past few weeks. Escambia County saw 338 new cases reported Friday alone, bringing the total number of infections to 24,868 since the pandemic began. Santa Rosa County reported 214 cases Friday to total 12,524 since March.
In the wake of those numbers, families have had to decide how best to handle the return to school after winter break. In Santa Rosa County, roughly 1,100 students changed how they're learning, with most choosing to move to in-person, despite the spike in cases. Meanwhile in Escambia County, it wasn't yet clear how many students would opt to change how they receive instruction.
In Santa Rosa County, about 75% of the students who changed how they were learning starting in January were online students who chose to move back to in-person, according to Santa Rosa County School District Superintendent Karen Barber.
Barber said she believes many parents are feeling more comfortable with in-person instruction because they see the safety efforts schools are making, students want to return to the resources they had in a brick-and-mortar setting or parents want to hand over the teaching reins back to schools.
"Now, we have some families that have made the opposite decision," Barber said. "We've had some kids that have quarantined multiple times, and so that's been very stressful for those students, naturally, and their parents. So wanting continuity, they will not have to quarantine if they're learning remotely. So that continuity is something that is a priority for them."
Even with the local surge in COVID-19 cases, Escambia County hasn't seen many families transition from in-person to online schooling after the holiday. More often, it's the other way around, although most families that began remote learning did so for a particular reason, and that has yet to change this school year, according to Escambia County School District Superintendent Tim Smith.
"We're really not having kids go from the face-to-face to the online. That's a move we're not seeing a lot of," Smith said. "That would be more on the rare side for that to happen."
Before Christmas, the district sent letters to more than 7,500 of its roughly 9,400 online students who were underperforming to ask them to meet with principals about potentially transitioning back to in-person. Those meetings are still underway and may change how many students eventually come back to school.
Smith said he couldn't say exactly how many students are doing in-person versus online after one week back because meetings with struggling students are still happening. It'll be up to their parents what happens next after the meetings.
Before the break, a little more than 74% of the student population was already in-person, Smith said. The school district has roughly 40,000 total students.
'We want to do what's best for our kids'
Peterson, a former teacher of 22 years, said her family's online school experience has been largely positive, particularly for her son, although she knows that hasn't been the case for other families. Her daughter, who normally would attend Cordova Park Elementary School, has had to use two laptops and a kids' messenger app to do all of her work, and not everyone has the ability to use all those devices to be successful.
"I don't think there's any replacement for the brick-and-mortar classroom, and it's been difficult. With all the technology these days though, it's been doable," Peterson said. "But I do think the cooperative nature when students work together is missing."
Going back in the school's final grading period — the final trimester for Peterson's son and final nine-week quarter for her daughter — is still a possibility, Peterson said, but the family will have to consider how cases are in Escambia County and how Peterson is healing from an upcoming surgery.
Over in Gulf Breeze, Lulu Jahn's children returned to their respective schools Monday. The three children have been in brick-and-mortar school since the beginning of the school year. The family briefly talked before Christmas about changing to online, but ultimately decided they were happy with the way things were going.
Jahn and her husband asked their kids which option they preferred. Their 10-year-old at West Navarre Intermediate School and their two 11-year-olds at Woodlawn Beach Middle School all said they wanted to be with friends and teachers.
"We want to do what's best for our kids, but at the same time, we don't really ask our kids what they want," she said. "So It was really important for me and my husband to go, 'We know what we want but what do the kids want?' "
Jahn said while she was nervous about the virus, she believes the disease is often less severe for children. The family previously tried online school before the pandemic and had a negative experience.
She also feared there was a chance her children would have to repeat a grade because they weren't learning like the kids in-person school.
"They're in a class. They're with their teacher. If they have a question or something's wrong, they can get it straightened out in real time. It's hard to do that when you're doing the distance learning," Jahn said.
Both school districts brace for more COVID-19 exposures
Recently, the Escambia County School District has seen more students home quarantining because of exposures to COVID-19, according to Smith. The district currently has 288 students excluded from in-person school and another 72 positive for COVID-19, according to the district's dashboard.
"We've got a number, I know, of more exposures. And sometimes we're hearing that from parents saying, 'I'm keeping my child home because there's somebody in the family (exposed).' Our parents are doing a really good job of staying out in front of that," Smith said.
In Santa Rosa County, the school district was anticipating more cases stemming from more community activity over the holidays. Barber said the district started to see an increase in cases during the first week of school and was expecting even more of an increase in the coming week.
On Friday, Santa Rosa schools had 441 students at home quarantining and 54 COVID-19 positive cases in students.
"Meanwhile, we just want to make sure that we increase the number of laptops that we have, increase the skill level of our teachers to be able to teach students who are quarantining," said Barber, who added that the district also offers counseling and tutoring services for students.
Madison Arnold can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and 850-435-8522.