Some FL school districts wary about relaxing COVID safety rules; others are considering changes

Teacher with students, in a classroom. Credit: Getty Images.

As North Florida’s Hamilton County School District completes its second month of brick-and-mortar classroom instruction, Supt. Rex Mitchell says schools will keep current COVID-19 precautions for the foreseeable future.

“Even though the governor opened the state up, we have not relaxed any of our procedures,” Mitchell said. “Right now we just feel like we need to continue what’s working.”

Mitchell spoke with the Florida Phoenix previously on his initial thoughts of reopening Hamilton County schools with traditional instruction in a classroom setting amid the COVID-19 pandemic. That was Aug. 10.

Florida’s Hamilton School District Supt. Rex Mitchell. Credit: Hamilton district webpage.

With just two school buildings, the Hamilton district is small compared to other school districts in Florida. It does not have a mask mandate in their schools, but they encourage students to wear masks and maintain social distancing practices.

“In our whole district, which we have about 1,600 students,” said Mitchell, “I believe we’ve had about 10 cases actually here at school that were traced back to off campus somewhere.”

With brick-and-mortar schools around the state operating for more than two months now, some people might expect sanitation measures and social distancing procedures to relax — either intentionally or by accident.

But Mitchell noted that social distancing practices have become a habit for students and staff, saying that it has “just become a way of life here.”

The district has been keeping group sizes small, holding virtual faculty meetings, and having extra custodians walk the halls to sanitize high-contact surfaces.

Like other North Florida counties, the number of COVID-19 cases are low compared to big counties in South Florida. But the infection rates are actually very high in Hamilton and other North Florida counties. That’s based on infections per 100,000 people, according to a New York Times analysis.

Overall, the Florida Department of Health on Tuesday reported 760,389 infections across the state. That’s the third highest number of infections in the country, following California and Texas, according to the Times. And Florida ranks 6th when it comes to the rate of infections, based on 100,000 people.

Mitchell expects the district to loosen some COVID-19 precautions in the future — but right now he doesn’t want to rush things.

“We’re trying to stay on top of that, so we don’t relax too early and have some kind of an outbreak,” Mitchell said.

At the beginning of the year, he and other staff had to verbally encourage some students to socially distance and wear masks.

“We’re finding we have to do less and less of that,” Mitchell said. “It’s just become a habit of practicing these safety protocols to hopefully reduce the chance for infection.”

The reopening of Florida schools has been a contentious conversation since early July, when Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran signed an emergency order that forced Florida school districts to provide a brick-and-mortar learning option for students amid the COVID-19 pandemic, or risk losing funding.

The controversy lead to a lawsuit by the Florida Education Association, a statewide teacher union, which claimed that the emergency order took power away from local school boards to make their own decisions on opening brick-and-mortar schools during the pandemic.

The lawsuit has not yet concluded, and all Florida school districts are now open for in-person instruction as of early October.

Many Florida school districts have been continuing the same sanitation practices since their first day of brick-and-mortar instruction.

But there are some changes afoot.

The Orange County School District in Central Florida updated its mask policy last week, allowing students to remove their masks when outside and maintaining social distancing as well as in class activities such as choir and theatrical performances, according to Orlando-based news site News 6.

In the Santa Rosa County School District in the Panhandle, Daniel Hahn, safety director, calls the social distancing practices in his district a “well-oiled machine.”

Daniel Hahn says Santa Rosa County School District is a “well-oiled machine” when it comes to COVID-19 precautions. Source: Santa Rosa County School District website

Currently, the district has a mask mandate in their schools, hand sanitizers distributed throughout buildings and frequent sanitation for high-traffic surfaces. The district also has repurposed several water fountains to be water bottle refill stations.

The district promotes social distancing when possible — though it can be difficult. “In schools, socially distancing is especially difficult. Schools are not built for that purpose,” Hahn said.

The district is continuing the same protocols to keep COVID out of schools, though some exposure comes from outside of school buildings.

“The learning curve is understanding that we only control a student for six hours of the day, five days a week. We have no control over what they do when they leave school or what they do on weekends,” Hahn said. “So, we’re taking the same actions we have been taking since the beginning so we do not have COVID in our classrooms — but it gets brought in.”

That said, the district is considering adjustments to COVID-19 protocols and will be meeting this week to determine if any changes need or can be made to create a more normal learning environment.

The measures under consideration could allow students to go on playgrounds and allow volunteers on campuses.

At the state level, the DeSantis administration is pleased with Florida’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic when it comes to public schools.

At a press conference Tuesday, Gov. Ron DeSantis reiterated that reopening Florida schools during the COVID-19 pandemic was the correct choice.

“The evidence was abundantly clear then, and more obviously clear now, that schools are not drivers of spreading coronavirus and schools need to be open,” DeSantis said.

He stood firm in his position that keeping schools closed was a “bad public health policy,” citing academic slide and mental health difficulties for students. When it comes to adjustments to the COVID-19 response, he made one thing clear:

“Going forward, whatever the future may hold — school closures should be off the table,” the governor said.