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Students return to public schools Monday

By Tim Croft
The Star

Students, parents, teachers and administrators take a bit of a leap of faith into the unknown beginning Monday. 

Public schools will welcome students back for the first time since March when the state shuttered schools as the COVID-19 pandemic surged. 

The district has crafted re-opening plans, among the first approved by the Florida Department of Education, which are both district-wide and school-specific. 

Additional planning days added to the front end of the school calendar have focused on training teachers for instruction both in the classroom and online. 

The district has stocked hand sanitizers and cleaning supplies, established social distancing for common areas such as lunchrooms and gyms. 

There is a “requirement” for face masks, particularly within common areas. 

Each school has thermal thermometer kiosks to temperatures as students enter each day. 

Each student will be issued an electronic device, Chrome Book or something similar, in the event schools must temporarily close and move to distance learning. 

In short, Superintendent of Schools Jim Norton said, while the district has planned and stockpiled, many questions still attach to the “invisible enemy” of coronavirus. 

“We are doing everything we can,” Norton said. “We have gone to great, great measures to make schools safe. 

“We have a good plan. We hope to have as normal a school year as we can and we are starting the school year with that in our minds.” 

Norton emphasized the close working relationship the school district has with the Florida Department of Health in Gulf County, which spearheads the nursing program in the public schools. 

“We are working closely with the department and have an excellent partnership with them,” Norton said. “We have taken so many precautions.” 

The district has been, Norton said, “proactive” since February when the Gulf County School Board approved emergency measures that allowed the district to begin to stock supplies. 

Tuesday, the board approved the leasing of 50-foot by 150-foot tent, which will be erected between the Port St. Joe Elementary School gym and Shark Stadium. 

Initially, the district considered a similar, but smaller structure to be used to expand the lunchroom capacity and enhance social distancing. 

The costs, including air conditioning the tent, were prohibitive. 

Therefore, the gym will be used as a lunch room and the new tent, 7,500 square feet and which the district will lease for $5,500 per month, will be used as long as needed as the school’s gymnasium. 

The lease is month-to-month, Norton said, and the price significantly reduced from the retail cost. 

“All the lunchrooms are ready to go,” said Assistant Superintendent of Schools for Business Bill Carr. 

The school board was still approving teachers for open positions this week, but also approved a lengthy list of substitutes. 

Tracy Bowers, district supervisor for testing, said she was pleased with the response from both the communities of Wewahitchka and Port St. Joe for substitute teachers. 

“I would like to thank those for stepping up and helping us as substitutes this year,” said board member Brooke Wooten. “That’s big.” 

Student registration and orientation has taken place this week, with students receiving class and, where applicable, locker assignments. 

As this juncture, roughly 40 students have enrolled for the district’s online distance learning, which is different by school. 

Lori Price, Assistant Superintendent of Schools for Instruction, said she believed those students would return to the classroom eventually, but were not yet comfortable coming back. 

By enrolling in the district’s distance learning, as opposed to Florida Virtual School, the students remain educated by county schools. 

Norton said the trends of the week indicate 90 percent or more of projected students would be returning to the classroom Monday. 

“They want to be back,” Price said. “They need to be back.” 

Wooten echoed a similar sentiment. 

“We need to stay committed to keeping the kids in school,” Wooten said. “They really need the structure.” 

Some infrastructure projects remain underway and will be close to completion in the next couple of weeks. 

Roofs at both junior-senior high schools should be finished, with a final change order for Wewahitchka Jr./Sr. High School approved by the board Tuesday. 

The track at Wewahitchka has been completed and the surface of the track at Port St. Joe Jr./Sr. High School is the next step in that project. 

Johnson Controls is completing projects to energy plants at both junior-senior high schools, installing anti-viral UV lighting and finishing work on temperature controls within the schools. 

None of those ongoing projects will impact the school day.