Plastic barriers and ‘mask breaks’ — Florida school districts get creative with plans to reopen schools

School
School Entrance sign. Credit: CD Davidson-Hiers

When Jacksonville schools reopen in the fall, students will see their friends again for the first time in months — through the glossy sheen of a plastic divider sitting on their desks.

That’s because the Duval County School District recently approved the use of these barriers between seats in computer labs and at desks where social distancing is not practical.

With little direction coming from Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Florida Department of Education, school districts across Florida are on their own to implement reopening plans for the fall.

And counties are getting creative.

Duval County’s plan also will reduce the number of in-person class days for older students, using distance learning platforms the rest of the time.

Seventh and eighth grade students will attend classes three days a week. High school students will have two days of in-classroom instruction. In addition, all Duval County School District students have the option of full online instruction.

Meanwhile, the number of cases of COVID-19 continues to rise across Florida, with positive tests for the new coronavirus surpassing 200,000 over the weekend. The situation is leading some school districts to assume they may need to adapt their instruction methods as the pandemic changes.

The St. Johns County School District will allow families to decide the type of instruction for their students — brick-and-mortar classrooms or digital learning — but also plans to adapt instruction models at the possibility of a rise in cases of COVID-19.

The district has identified three levels of spread: low-risk or no spread, moderate, and substantial risk of COVID spread. Under the “low-spread” model, students may return to traditional classroom instruction if their families would prefer. They still have the option of virtual learning.

Under a moderate-spread model, elementary students will receive in-school instruction  while middle- and high-school students will attend classrooms two days per week, with the rest of their schooling occurring online.

In a substantial-spread scenario, all grade levels will return to distance learning. As of this reporting, St. Johns is expecting to use the low-spread model.

Some counties are allowing a choice of either fully in-person education or virtual options. That is the case for Leon County Schools.

In a virtual task force announcement, Leon County School Superintendent Rocky Hanna announced that he was going to recommend that the schools push their starting date back to Aug. 19, a week and a half after their existing planned start date.

Leon County schools will require masks when social distancing is not possible, such as on buses and in classrooms not large enough to maintain six feet of distance between students.

Leon will allow “mask breaks,” described in its plan as “identified classroom spacing where half of the students can safely remove masks while maintaining social distancing, and then switching to the other half of the class.”

While some districts have announced what faculty, parents, and students can expect in the fall, other districts are still in the brainstorming phase.

Broward County will collect parent surveys to help shape their reopening plans until July 6. The Orange County School District will hold a school board meeting featuring public testimony on July 14.

The Florida Phoenix reached out to Florida Department of Education to ask whether the school districts are submitting their plans for approval from the agency — and also why school districts are in such different stages of planning.

“Districts will be sending their summer recovery plans to us soon, so we’ll know more then,” agency spokeswoman Cheryl Etters said in an email to the Phoenix.

The Phoenix responded with follow-up questions about when the department expects to receive those plans. As of this report, those questions have not been answered.