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Schools will open on time

Tim Croft

The COVID pandemic will not impact the local school calendar, at least not the opening day.

Gulf District Schools will open on time next month, with students returning to the classroom Aug. 10, said Superintendent of Schools Jim Norton this week.

Norton said the Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran had directed “bricks-and-mortar" schools across the state to open this fall, leaving it to districts to provide the blueprint for re-opening.

The district’s re-opening plan was finalized this week, said Assistant Superintendent for Instruction Lori Price.

“We are going to have school,” Norton said. “We are gearing up to go.”

Norton added that the district worked all summer to stock hand sanitizer, wipes and thermometers and would provide face masks to all students and teachers.

Norton, stopping just shy of a mandate, said masks would be “very, very strongly recommended” in common areas and the classrooms.

The district is also purchasing plastic face shields.

Schools will have sanitizer stations throughout common areas and the school board approved this week spending $70,000 for UV anti-viral lighting for the common areas in all schools.

Norton also noted that projects performed at all schools over the summer, which includes millions of dollars of work from damage done by Hurricane Michael, will result in improved air quality in all schools and classroom-specific controls.

“All of that will help our overall program” Norton said. “The reality is that COVID (19) is with us and it will be in our schools.

“We are doing everything we can to make our schools safe.”

The district will be flexible, he added, with teacher leave time due to illness or contact with COVID, noting teachers will be “on the front lines.”

On the instructional side, the district will provide every student a technology device to be assigned to them, be it a Chrome Book or something similar.

With the foundation on distance learning put in place in March for the remainder of the 2019-2020 school year, the district will push to another level in the event of a temporary school closure due to an outbreak.

There will be more specific instruction to curriculum, and at the high school level teachers will effectively post their daily lessons through a digital platform for those students who choose distance learning.

“We want it to be an easy transition,” said Port St. Joe Jr./Sr. High School Principal Josh Dailey. “Whatever happens, we want to be prepared.

“We want to serve our kids the best way we know how.”

And students will have the choice of distance learning, home-schooling or Florida Virtual School, should they choose to opt out of a “bricks-and-mortar" classroom, Norton said.

However, a student who instead enrolls in the district’s online instruction will not be eligible for extracurricular activities such as athletics.

Florida law allows students enrolled in FVS to be eligible.

Worth noting is that recent research demonstrates that while online and distance learning have their place, there is little substitute for direct in-the-classroom learning to achieve success.

Additionally, no students will be allowed to move back and forth between the district’s online instruction and attending a school; one or the other, Norton said.

However, many details must still be finalized and approved by the state Department of Education.

“There are more questions than answers right now,” Norton said.

That re-opening plan includes four components, Price said.

What facilities will look like when teachers and students return, how instruction will be handled, actions to be taken in the event of a positive or multiple positive COVID-19 cases and how instruction would function with distance learning.

The district’s plan will be shared with the Florida Department of Health in Gulf County for additional refinement.

Sarah Hinds, administrator of the department, noted that one advantage is that school nurses provided by the department are by public health professionals.

Hinds emphasized the importance of the sanitizing stations and providing as much distancing as possible.

“As much as we can spread the kids the better,” Hinds said. “The less congestion the better.”

Norton said the district did not consider staggered schedules due to state mandates on instructional hours.