LAND O’ LAKES — In one month, school will be back in session.
At least that’s the plan for Pasco County Schools. The district board held a telephonic special workshop June 30 to detail what school is expected to look like in the midst of the global COVID-19 pandemic.
The start date for students countywide remains Aug. 10. Today, July 1, the school district distributed a Family Information Guide for Re-Opening 2020-2021 and a document called Re-Opening Guidance for Schools 2020-2021 to help prepare parents and students for policy and operational changes this school year.
Families were also provided an extra week, until July 8, to choose one of three back-to-school options: Traditional in-school, mySchool Online and Virtual School. Pasco County Schools released a statistic last week that 76% of responding families intend to send children back to school in the traditional fashion. School Board public information officer Stephen Hegarty stated in a pair of emails that, as of 7:30 a.m., July 1, the return rate is at about 45%, or about 35,000 responses. The current numbers are preliminary, Hegarty wrote, and the district anticipates a "big push" of selections at the last minute.
Sixteen percent of respondents elected the mySchool Online option, which incorporates virtual education with a connection to a student’s enrolled school, and 8 percent opted for Virtual School through Pasco eSchool.
Families have until the end of the business day July 8 to make or alter their decisions for the upcoming school year.
What about masks?
The June 30 meeting began with a hot-button discussion being had by organizations and governments throughout the country — masks.
“The wearing of masks for the executive team is not an ideological issue,” said Deputy Superintendent Ray Gadd. “We are very concerned about our students in our school system. They do not have a choice about whether or not they can go to school. School is mandatory. We have presented three different options students and families can choose from to return to school. But I can tell you that the staff believes that, at a minimum, all secondary students and staff should be wearing masks.”
As of the June 30 meeting, elementary students would be required to wear masks while going to class but may remove them during class. Secondary students and staff will be strongly encouraged to wear masks at all times, unless social distancing is possible.
Gadd reminded the board and anyone listening that nothing is set in stone.
“Every time we think we’re getting close, things change,” he said. “The thing that has most recently changed is the infection rate for COVID-19 has begun to spike and is spiking. We’re not overly optimistic about when that is going to change.
“Nonetheless, we are going to forge ahead with a plan. And we want to make it very clear that the plan you see today … is just a plan. Due to the conditions that we confront on a daily basis, that plan could change.”
The wearing of masks by students and staff received unanimous support from the School Board. Board member Cynthia Armstrong said she appreciates the flexibility the plan provides to change course if necessary.
“This is very much a changing arena, what is going on with COVID-19, and it is impossible to say exactly what is going to be needed when school is open,” Armstrong said.
Board members Colleen Beaudoin, Alison Crumbley and Megan Harding all reported “overwhelming” support from parents and staff they’ve been in contact with recently.
“The vast majority of teachers and staff members I’ve heard from said they wanted the students to wear masks and that they will wear them,” Beaudoin said. “I know it’s difficult to teach in a mask and got one email from a teacher who did not want to. I can tell you right now, I don’t want to wear a mask when I teach, either. I don’t. Although I don’t want to, I’m going to. I have to and I will be doing it. I hear you that it’s not going to be easy but I’m going to be doing it, too.”
The 51-slide plan to reopen schools also touched on protocols for keeping facilities clean and sanitized, how students would eat breakfast and lunch, new rules for riding the bus and how certain learning programs will be affected.
To develop its reopening plan, Pasco County Schools gathered information from national and local surveys, focus groups that included school leaders, teachers and families, and organizations within the community like the Florida Department of Health in Pasco County and various chambers of commerce.
One particular survey asked families and staff to prioritize a list of issues. Parent and student respondents were most concerned with “cleanliness, sanitation and hand washing,” followed by “multiple options for learning,” “attendance policy and staying home,” and “social distancing and overcrowding.” Staff’s primary concern was “social distancing and overcrowding,” followed by “attendance policy and staying home,” “cleanliness sanitation and hand washing” and “health and safety priority.”
The School Board’s plan includes an array of new sanitation and cleanliness standards. There is to be a “collective responsibility” for everyone to be involved with cleaning and sanitizing at every school. Among other protocols, air conditioning filters are to be changed more frequently and spray bottles of germicide and microfiber cloths will be placed in each classroom.