As back-to-school season approaches, COVID-19 concerns are engulfing the usual first day jitters.
Students within the Alachua County Public School system were given three options by the school board to resume classes on Aug. 10: return to traditional school, listen to lectures on the Alachua County Digital Academy or learn at their own pace on eSchool, said Jackie Johnson, the communications director for Alachua County Public Schools.
The plan for the online options is still pending state approval, which is due July 31. Families are required to decide which option they prefer by July 19 so that more decisions can be made on the return to campus.
ACPS sent out a survey to students’ families and teachers in June to determine what option might be the most comfortable learning experience for the Fall. Based on those results, the school board created its reopening plan, according to Johnson.
“We will continue to develop strategies on how to maintain as safe of an environment as possible,” Johnson said. “We have to look at how the virus is progressing, and at this point, there are a lot of moving parts.”
The plan involves different precautions, Johnson said. If the spread of COVID-19 in the county is “minimal” in Fall, in-person schooling will remain an option for students. If the spread becomes severe, schools may move completely to distance learning.
It is unclear what number of positive COVID-19 cases will be considered minimal or severe by the school board.
Classrooms will be sanitized and students will be required to social distance in school, Johnson said. She did not specify how social distancing will be enforced. She added that masks have not yet been made mandatory for Fall, but it is a possibility that will be voted on by the school board.
“We have people saying ‘There is no way schools should be open’ to ‘If my kid is made to wear a mask he will throw it in the toilet’ and everything in between,” she said. “So we are really hearing opinions on all sides.”
Parents and teachers have expressed concerns about the reopening of schools as statewide COVID-19 cases soared past 15,000 cases in Florida. At a recent school board workshop, parents and board members alike pointed out the lack of COVID-19 testing in the reopening plans.
As of now, testing is available for teachers and transportation workers but isn’t mandatory for students to return to school, Johnson said. The school board also hoped to push back the start date from Aug. 10 to another time in the fall, but are waiting to vote on an official date
The prospect of returning to school frightens Tracy Staples because her daughter will start school this year. While her soon-to-be kindergartener knows the importance of wearing a mask and washing her hands, Staples said she believes the plans lack a procedure in the case that a student or teacher falls sick with the virus.
“It's discouraging since this will be my daughter’s first school experience, and younger kids are given the least options” Staples said.
Staples said she hoped for more options for younger age groups than have been presented thus far, like staggered schedules and reduced class sizes. Now, she is caught between two options: homeschool her daughter or put her and her family at risk.
Dr. Cindy Prins, a UF professor of epidemiology, said elementary education is slightly less risky than middle and high school as students don’t mingle as much with other classes or students throughout the day. Most of the time, the same students are contained to one room.
The three factors in preventing COVID-19 spread are distance, mask-wearing and duration of exposure to others, Prins said. She said duration is just not possible to limit in schools, where students are learning all day.
“If someone in a class was to test positive, there would need to be contact tracing and sending home those with high risk to quarantine,” she said.
The threat of COVID-19 extends beyond the classroom as well, Johnson said. Areas where masks and social distancing aren't possible, such as cafeterias and buses, which is still being discussed on how to make as safe as possible, concerned parents.
More information will be available after July 19, once families have completed the Fall survey and made their choice, Johnson said. The school board will meet again Wednesday to vote on mandatory masks and the school start date.
“You can't send out a plan like she sent out and expect it to work for everyone,” Staples said. “And really, it's not gonna work for anyone because it doesn't have a plan.”