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For schools a break, and the return of Friday night lights

By Tim Croft
The Star

The Labor Day weekend will offer a dose of the new and old normal for Gulf District Schools. 

The district will take Friday to practice the new normal, with all students taking a “distancing learning” day during which students will not report to the school buildings. 

They will instead complete their assignments at home. 

And the old normal arrive with the football season. 

The Wewahitchka Gators will head to Cottondale and the Tiger Sharks of Port St. Joe open the Coach Tanner Jones era in Marianna. 

“Absolutely that is another step toward normalcy for the school year,” said Superintendent of Schools Jim Norton of the start of the football season.  

Norton said Jackson County Schools, Marianna and Cottondale are both in Jackson County, will adopt a similar stance toward COVID-19 as Gulf intends when the teams return home next week. 

“They are going to practice social distancing, bring a chair if fans want, and encourage people to wear face masks,” Norton said. “That is all we can do.” 

They are not, as reported elsewhere, limiting attendance to 50, Norton added. 

For Gulf District Schools, the first three weeks of school heading into the long holiday weekend “has gone exceptionally well,” Norton said.  

“We have had some hiccups, but not hiccups you would notice.” 

The numbers of students and staff in quarantine or having tested positive for COVID-19 is trending down, he said. 

Each day the district and health department collaborate on a list of those students and staff members who should not be in school. 

“The health department has done a phenomenal job,” Norton said. 

Currently, roughly 90 percent of the students in the public schools are in the buildings for their education, while 10 percent are employing the district’s distance learning modules. 

“Teachers have been working very hard, not only in the classroom but making sure lessons are available to those students doing distance learning,” Norton said. 

He added that another trend line had students on distance learning slowly returning to the bricks-and-mortar buildings. 

And on Friday, all students will be “in school” from a distance. 

The state’s guidelines on re-opening urged districts to work into their calendars distance learning days in the event of a school(s) closure due to the pandemic. 

The days are intended for students to use the “mental muscles” to navigate the online lesson, know how to distance learn. 

This is no day off from school, all students will have a lesson for the day that must be completed, Norton said. 

“We have the ability to issue every student K-12 a Chromebook,” Norton said.  

“For a county this size, in a fiscally-constrained county, that is a major accomplishment.” 

In addition to providing all students a practice day of distance learning, the day is also aimed at allowing “some of our contractors a day to catch up,” Norton said. 

Roofs and chilling stations at the two junior-senior high schools. 

Improvements in lighting and temperature control at all schools. 

Replacing the gym floor at Wewahitchka Jr./Sr. High School. 

All projects that will benefit from the longer weekend, as will teachers and staff, Norton said. 

Further, using Friday as a distance learning day, specifically selected to ensure a longer Labor Day weekend, will provide something of a “circuit breaker” for the spread of COVID-19 in the schools.