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District officials: School return this year doubtful

Tim Croft
tcroft@starfl.com
The Star
They hold to a thread of hope, but school officials acknowledged Monday that a return of school this year appears less and less likely.
During a special meeting as the district deals with the coronavirus pandemic, discussion briefly veered to the ongoing repair work at schools on both ends of county and a focus on ensuring schools look “nice come fall.”
“That's what we all have to expect,” said Superintendent of Schools Jim Norton of schools remaining closed the remainder of the school year.
Norton said the decision will ultimately be made up the governmental food chain.
But with schools already closed through May 1, the focus is slowly shifting to ensure schools are ready in August for the 2020-2021 year.
“We are in territory we never thought we would be in,” said School Board Chair Cindy Belin, who agreed with Norton that the current school year seemed headed toward a premature end.
Given that all standardized student testing has already been cancelled for the school year, testing which consumes most of May, the district had just a few weeks left.
“We were about 75 percent over with school before this started,” Norton said.
“(A decision on school openings) is over our head now, but looking at the news and everything, I think we have to expect the school year (is over).”
Norton and board members acknowledged that would be a tough blow for the Class of 2020, with potential cancellations of senior trips and graduation.
And that is to saying nothing about athletics, with high hopes for local teams in several sports, particularly Port St. Joe baseball and Wewahitchka softball.
“My heart goes out to the 2020 graduates,” said board member Brooke Wooten.
Belin and Norton added that the district would “do anything possible” to conduct senior events.
“If we can pull off graduation, trips, and other rites of passage for our seniors, we will do that,” Norton said.
But, he added, a senior trip to Disney World wouldn't be possible amid the pandemic.
The main purpose of Monday's meeting, and in turn the spur for the discussion pertaining to the current school year, was to provide Norton with the management powers required to deal with the pandemic and school closure under an emergency declaration.
The declaration allows Norton to continue with feeding and distance-learning programs put in place the past few weeks.
The original declaration carried through April 15; the extension approved Monday was through May 1 “and/or the end of the current school year.”
The board also convened under what is becoming the new norm for local governments, with board members and administrative staff practicing social distancing.
Staff and board members were scattered in district offices and the public was provided space in an office opposite the board meeting room as well as access online.
“We are doing everything to ensure the public component of our own little sample of democracy,” Norton said.
The district also secured masks that will be provided to all essential personnel involved in the ongoing feeding program, including bus drivers, as well as teachers and administrators working for instructional purposes.
“We are recommending they use them,” Norton said, echoing President Donald Trump's direction of the past week.
In addition to the extending the emergency declaration, the board also approved a change order for work at the Wewahitchka Jr./Sr. High School track and a time extension for work at the Port St. Joe Jr./Sr. High School track due to the pandemic.
Repair work also continues on the roofs at both high schools.