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ALACHUA COUNTY ‒ On Monday Aug. 31, schools in Alachua County reopened for in-person classes for the first time since mid-March. Due to COVID-19, the last semester of the 2019-20 school year was taught virtually online as educators scrambled to rethink teaching delivery.

The Class of 2020 graduated in the spring with limited graduation ceremonies and proms and many of the other activities traditionally associated with the transition from school to adulthood. For students with more years to go, there is an uncertainty of whether there will be a return to traditional in class education.

This year, back to school has taken on new meaning as the School Board of Alachua County (SBAC) is offering several options that have been approved by the Florida Department of Education (FLDOE). In addition to brick and mortar teaching, the SBAC offers the new Alachua Digital Academy.

Through the Academy, students will receive live lessons provided by teachers from their school of enrollment. The model allows them to interact with their classmates online, and their daily schedule mirrors the regular school schedule. Students are provided with devices if they don’t have them, and the district will work with families to obtain Internet access. Digital Academy students also have access to free meals and other programs and services.

A third instructional option for local families is the Alachua eSchool, which allows students to learn material and complete coursework on their own schedule and pace without live lessons. The eSchool has been in existence for eight years and during the last school year served about 3,000 full and part-time students.

In July, the SBAC asked parents to vote on which method they preferred. Of those who responded, about 41 percent selected the traditional in-person model, 41 percent selected the Digital Academy and 18 percent chose the eSchool. The SBAC is offering all three options and is working to balance safety and health concerns while maintaining effective in-class teaching for bricks and mortar learning. This ‘traditional’ model includes significant health and safety protocols, including but not limited to mandatory masks, intensive cleaning/sanitizing, and strategies to promote as much social distancing as possible.

The district has also been working closely with the Alachua County Health Department and experts from the University of Florida on COVID-related safety protocols, including the steps the district will take if a student or staff member tests positive.

There have been concerns about whether schools could reopen safely and not become a mega breeding ground for COVID infections. Some teachers and staff felt they would be risking their own safety and that of their students if the reopening was done to soon. Teachers in Florida, along with the Florida Education Association (FEA), sued the State to block an emergency order requiring schools to open with in-person instruction. They say, with the high number of coronavirus cases in Florida, the order violates a provision in the Florida Constitution requiring the state to ensure schools are operated safely.

It is especially concerning for the teachers as they deal with multiple classes daily, exposing them to more than just one classroom. In some places, including Alachua County, teachers have organized protests, stating their disagreement and concern about reopening. Initially a judge ruled in the FEA's favor, but then the State asked to move the trial to Tallahassee, which effectively delayed any action to limit the school year opening until after the school's opening date and the mandated in-person classes.

Some other states that have reopened have seen a surge in cases. In Canton, Georgia, the Cherokee County School District reopened on Aug. 3. Within two weeks nearly 1,200 students and staff members in the district had already been ordered to quarantine. Two high schools in that county closed until at least Aug. 31. Several colleges, including the University of North Carolina, are offering only online learning.

For many families, remote learning from home is difficult. Parents with younger students have had to miss work or even lose jobs due to the need to homeschool and babysit children. Some low-income families have trouble gaining access to online learning despite efforts by the school system to provide computers and internet access.

Another factor affecting low-income families is the meals program. For some students the lunch they get at school may be their only or biggest meal. Throughout the end of the last school year and all through the summer, the SBAC made a monumental effort to provide meals to every student. Since the end of March, the district has distributed more than 2.3 million meals to students across Alachua County.

For many older students the isolation and lack of social contact is a major factor in wanting to return to school. But risks remain and only time will tell both if reopening was safe and effective and whether the state and federal governments are providing accurate information for the schools and parents to make an informed choice on which method to choose.

The SBAC has tried to make the school as safe as possible with strict regulations on mandatory masks for students and staff as well maintaining social distancing, temperature checks and removing anyone who shows symptoms.

At Santa Fe High School, 71 percent of the students have chosen the brick and mortar option, higher than the average. Principal Dr. Timothy Wright says they have set up traffic flow patterns so all students move in one direction with northbound students using the main front walkway and southbound students using the back walkway.

“Each teacher has a temperature gauge to test students as they enter the classroom and chairs are distanced six feet apart.” Said Wright. “For lunch time, we are serving boxed lunches and have put markers on seats to maintain the social distance as well as set up tables outside. In the more narrow interior walkways, we have signs directing students to walk to their right to keep lines from intermingling from different directions.”

At Irby Elementary, Principal Tanya Floyd said they have about 50 percent of their students returning for in-class learning. While the rules for social distancing and masks are the same as other schools, Floyd said that they are also trying to make it less about regulations and more about learning to help calm the fears of the younger students. “We are trying to put more emphasis on colorful signs and making mask wearing part of the education process rather than regulations.”

While the schools are trying to do as much as possible to safeguard staff and students, they are also emphasizing that parents also have a responsibility in the process. The SBAC website has a list of procedures parents should follow every day before sending their children to school.

Parents are asked to do a temperature check each morning and if it is 100.4 or above the student should not go to school. Other signs to look for are chills, new cough or shortness of breath, unusual fatigue, muscle or body aches, new onset of severe headaches, especially with a fever, new loss of sense of taste or smell, sore throat, non-allergy congestion or runny nose, diarrhea, vomiting or abdominal pain.

Students who have had significant exposure (within six feet for at least 15 minutes) with someone who has COVID-19 may return to school 14 days after their exposure as long as they have no fever or other symptoms or they have a documented negative test result on the ninth day after their exposure.

Students who have tested positive for COVID-19 may return to school when they have gone 24 hours without a fever (and without the use of fever-reducing medicines), their symptoms have improved and it has been at least 10 days since the test was administered. More information can be found at the SBAC website at https://www.sbac.edu/

The SBAC believes the reopening can work as long as the schools, parents, health officials and the State government work together to maintain the necessary safeguards and provide accurate information. Whether the reopening will work or be a breeding ground for a surge of cases will only be determined by what happens within the next two weeks, which is the average time for an infected person to show symptoms.

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