In Florida’s Hamilton County, straddling the Georgia line, School Supt. Rex Mitchell talks about his 41st first day of school in 2020-21, an extraordinary time because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
He’s prepared his brick-and-mortar schools with new safety measures and procedures to help combat the spread of transmission. Classes started Monday, with many kids wearing masks, though not all, and some teachers are gone — retired instead of returning to their classrooms.
“Personally I think it went as smoothly as it could have possibly been,” said Mitchell in a phone conversation with the Phoenix. “This was my 41st first day of school — and yet, by far, it was not the most hectic of years that I’ve been in education.”
As of Wednesday, at least 10 Florida public school districts have opened their doors to in-person instruction: Baker, Bradford, Calhoun, Dixie, Gilchrist, Hamilton, Hardee, Martin, Suwannee, and Union.
Wakulla County schools will open Thursday and Franklin County will open Friday.
Some of the North Florida school districts, such as Hamilton, have seen high rates of COVID-19 infections.
Hamilton is a small school district — fewer than 1,700 students last year, according to state data. The enrollment situation is different now because of the pandemic.
Mitchell said that one of the most noticeable differences from this year compared to others is there are fewer students in classrooms.
Hamilton County provided either remote-learning options or brick-and-mortar instruction. One of the remote-learning options allow students at home to tune into their classes in real time and follow the same bell schedule as students in a school building.
“In the actual classroom you’ll see about half [of the students] or a little more in a number of cases, then again you have three or four students on the computer,” Supt. Mitchell said.
“I think the next step is to find out how students like the at-home innovative model,” he said. “Just to see how long it might take for some of those students to say ‘you know what? I think I really miss being there.”
Mitchell said that he has been “very impressed with how well people have adapted” to the new safety measures and procedures within schools.
“We’re really focusing, the first 10 days, on trying to develop those good safe healthy habits that will help protect you against any virus for any issue,” he said.
Currently, Hamilton County does not enforce a mask mandate and neither do the schools — except in situations where social distancing is not practical, such as on buses. But some Hamilton students are wearing masks.
“We have a lot of students wearing masks,” Mitchell said. “It’s really surprising to see how many are wearing them just on their own. And I think as they see others wearing them – you know, if that’s the style, the fashion – you’ll see more and more do it.”
So far, schools are keeping crowds down during lunches and encouraging students to wear masks in congested hallways.
“I know they understand that we’re not just making a rule…that this is for your health. On buses, if you’re not going to wear your mask, you’re not going to ride the bus. That’s just how it’s got to be,” Mitchell said.
He shared a story from his first two days of the 2020-21 school year, where he interacted with a student that did not want to wear a mask.
“There was one young man in a group and when I asked him about wearing a mask, he said something like ‘well, I’m not going to wear a mask.’ I said ‘that is absolutely your right, but I need you to move away from the others, at least social distance, to protect yourself and them.’ And he was very compliant.”
Hamilton County schools have experienced some technical difficulties — such as WiFi connectivity and some students not being able to log in for online classes. But Mitchell reported that those issues are getting better.
As a small school district, Mitchell said he is fairly accessible when difficulties arise.
“I walk the hallways and believe me, in a small district like ours, if there’s an issue they’re going to stop you and tell you about it,” he said.
The district has only two public school buildings: Hamilton County Elementary School and Hamilton County High School. Mitchell told the Phoenix that he was very fortunate that his office is on the campus of the two schools.
“Believe me, I’ve heard a lot more complaints from the first day of school in years past than I have this year.”
He mentioned that some of Hamilton teachers saw it best to retire than to return back to school this year, but that most of the teachers are “so happy that the students are back in school.” He reported that the teachers are wearing personal protective equipment, such as types of masks.
“When you’re in a small community, school is such a big part of it for many reasons. And the teachers really know their students and love them,” Mitchell said.
However, he said he “feels confident that at some point, we will have a positive (COVID-19) case.”
In that situation, Mitchell said, the district will handle things on a “case-by-case basis.”