What seemed likely to district school officials earlier this month became reality over the weekend.
On Saturday evening, Gov. Ron DeSantis announced that the current closure of public schools will continue through the end of the school year the first week of June.
Students statewide will continue on the distance learning tracks they have been on since the state closed schools last month in response to the corornavirus pandemic.
According to an announcement from the governor’s office, Vice President Mike Pence and U.S. Secretary of Education Betty DeVos recently stated that Florida is setting the pace nationwide for distance learning.
“We will continue to provide instruction through distance learning and paper packets through May 22,” said Superintendent of Gulf District Schools Jim Norton.
“We will continue to serve lunches through May 21.”
In addition to an “Instructional Continuity Plan” that had to be in place by March 30, the district also established a lunch service, cooking and packaging at the two elementary schools for distribution via bus routes.
“Hurricane Michael was a great dress rehearsal for this,” Norton said. “A lot of districts didn’t have that experience. Our lunchroom workers have gone above and beyond.
“The teachers have done a great job, keeping in touch with their students every week, grading their work, offering guidance. I am blessed with the people I get to work with.”
Earlier this month, during an emergency meeting, district officials expressed the belief that schools would not re-open this year.
Norton said district officials should consider a target date for re-opening in August.
“We will have football players reporting for practice Aug. 3 and students back Aug. 15,” Norton said. “Until someone tells me otherwise, that is how we are planning.”
The preparation for the next school year includes a number of construction projects taking place around the district, which when it is all tallied will amount to nearly $50 million in improvements to aging facilities.
In breaking down the energy plant Wewahitchka Jr./Sr. High School parts of equipment were found that dated to 1967.
The roofs at both junior-senior high schools are being replaced as are the running tracks.
Johnson Controls is in the midst of the first phase of a project to replace energy plants at both high schools, replace light fixtures and bring uniformity to plumbing and operational equipment at all schools.
“When we do return our schools will look very nice and be more efficient,” Norton said.
The major short-term question for the district is graduation of the Class of 2020.
Born in a post-9-1-1 world, Norton noted, they have now experienced Hurricane Michael and global pandemic during their high school years.
(And for the moment, a pause for the five senior Lady Gators who were denied a chance at another run at a state softball title, their only high school season that did not end at Vero Beach).
But the typical community-wide graduation exercises at both ends of the county are out of the question due to the pandemic.
“We are planning to do something for our seniors,” Norton said. “We are looking at maybe some kind of drive-by (ceremony) to receive their diplomas.”
The district will also be issuing grades for the school year as mandated by law.
No students would be in danger of being held back, Norton said.
The state had already cancelled standardized testing.
“Although COVID-19 has been a huge disruption for Florida students and educators, Florida teachers have done a fantastic job,” Desantis said during his weekend announcement.
“Our number one goal is to ensure the safety and security of students and to provide a great education. At this point, opening school campuses would cause a massive shift for our students, teachers and families who have done a great job of adapting to distance education.”