Face masks, staggered classes, outdoor instruction: What lies ahead when the public schools reopen

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Classroom. Credit: Pixabay.

Student, parents, and teachers won’t recognize what they find when Florida’s public schools reopen this fall.

Schools might take advantage of outside spaces to adhere to social distancing practices. That could leave students either enjoying their classes out in the fresh air or sweating in the late-summer Florida heat.

Other schools may choose staggered schedules, with a portion of students starting their day early followed by a second shift — forcing both students and parents to revamp their schedules.

And any student showing COVID-19-related symptoms might be sent to a school clinic reserved specifically for them.

These are all recommendations from the Florida Department of Education for how local districts can safely reopen schools for the 2020-21 school year.

They follow the recent announcement by Gov. Ron DeSantis and Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran that districts should operate at full capacity when students return to campuses in the fall after weeks of distance learning.

The announcement followed weeks of unclear instructions and expectations by the state and the Florida Department of Education.

The recommendations focus on local decision-making.

“Reopening ultimately must be driven by local data and the goal of restoring optimal conditions for learning,” the document says. It underscores that these are suggestions, not mandates.

According to a poll commissioned by the Florida Education Association, 64 percent of the state’s parents agree that decisions about reopening schools should be made at a local level. One quarter of parents believe the governor and his aides should lead the conversation and 11 percent answered “I don’t know.”

However, Fedrick Ingram, president of the FEA, urged school districts to pay attention to the rising number of COVID-19 cases in Florida.

“We are not in a downward trend but are back at peak numbers of new cases,” Ingram said in a letter sent to Florida Superintendents. “We hope beyond hope that this trend will soon reverse. Until it does, we ask that you carefully consider the notion of fully reopening our schools unless and until this dangerous trend reverses course.”

The FEA has been a vocal participant in the conversation about reopening and created a committee of public officials and educators to push forward on the discussion in May.

Sanitation, isolation

A few themes in the FDOE’s document stand out. The document stresses that districts and individual schools should refer to guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as state and local health officials.

As much as possible, they encourage districts are to continue social distancing; heavily disinfect and sanitize high-traffic areas; and prepare to isolate students and faculty who show symptoms of the coronavirus.

If possible, the guidelines say, schools should consider providing supplementary clinics solely for potential COVID-19 cases.

The state will not mandate face coverings but schools should be, “at minimum, supportive” of students, teachers, and staff who wear cloth face coverings.

The document recommends that schools and districts get creative when using large indoor and outdoor spaces, offering that schools could “convert cafeterias, libraries, gymnasiums, auditoriums, outdoor areas into classroom space.”

To limit crowding, the document asks school districts to consider staggered lessons, while working with the intention of having students in the classroom each day. That means exploring staggered start and end times, it says.

Districts also should explore staggered drop-off and pick-up times for students, as those are the times when the largest numbers of people gather on campus. Additionally, the same parent should pick up and drop off the student as much as possible.

The department sees school buses and classrooms as places where “social distancing is not feasible.”

The document acknowledges that maintaining a distance of six feet in between desks will not be possible in most situations. It nevertheless recommends schools create maximum distance between each desk, even if six feet is not possible.

It also recommends that the same group of students stay together throughout the day.

“As feasible, districts and schools could align bus and class schedules and seating arrangements with clusters of students who will spend the majority of their days together to minimize any one student’s daily contacts,” the outline says.

The document recommends that districts “explore the use of cloth face coverings on school buses.” Administrators should consider the pros and cons of opening bus windows during transit, but the guidelines acknowledge that may trigger asthma attacks or pose a risk of students falling out.

Because schools across Florida will adhere to different reopening plans, the document stresses high levels of communication between schools, parents, and students.

Schools should provide transparency about any changes in procedures and be willing to re-evaluate their policies according to fresh guidelines from health organizations and feedback from faculty, parents, and students.

Danielle J. Brown
Danielle J. Brown is a 2018 graduate of Florida State University, majoring in English with a focus in editing, writing, and media. While at FSU, she served as an editorial intern for International Program’s annual magazine, Nomadic Noles. Last fall, she fulfilled another editorial internship with Rowland Publishing, where she wrote for the Tallahassee Magazine, Emerald Coast Magazine, and 850 Business Magazine. She was born and raised in Tallahassee and reviews community theater productions for the Tallahassee Democrat. She spends her downtime traveling to all corners of Florida and beyond to practice lindy hop.