Finally giving students, parents and teachers some idea of how the 2020-2021 school year will play out, the highly-anticipated July 14 Sarasota County School Board meeting resulted in not just one plan, but three. Sarasota County Schools announced that schools will open August 31 (pushing the date from the original August 10 start date). Families may choose between three different plans: enrollment in“brick and mortar” school, remote learning, or Sarasota Virtual Academy.
Through a survey, which was available on the county website, families were asked to choose one of these three options for each student by July 20. Further details about the protocols and procedures established to make brick and mortar education safe are outlined in the “SCS Reopening Guidance” document: https://www.sarasotacountyschools.net/cms/lib/FL50000189/Centricity/Domain/1284/SCS%20REOPENING%20GUIDANCE_Final_071520.pdf
Undoubtedly, Pine View has many features within its campus, curriculum, and student body which distinguish it from many other schools, presenting an array of issues that typical elementary, middle, and high schools do not face.
“As a principal and a parent, I look at it from many different lenses, but first and foremost is always the safety, security, and health of everyone,” Pine View School Principal Dr. Covert said. “I am very confident that we will have a safe place to come and teach, learn, and grow.”
In fact, Covert believes that Pine View is better positioned than many other schools because of our open, outdoor campus.
“The research and directive from the CDC is clear. If you have two people in the same vicinity and they are both wearing masks, the likelihood of viral transmission goes way down, and that’s if they are in an indoor area. If they are outside, it goes down almost to zero,” he explained.
Among all the discussions at the July 14 school board meeting, the conversation about a mask requirement was perhaps the most controversial. Ultimately, the board unanimously agreed that masks would be mandated for all students and staff on campus. Families will be encouraged to send their students to school with their own masks, but extra masks will also be available on campus. Either way, mask-wearing will be enforced.
“Any time a student or any employee is anywhere on campus, unless they are drinking or eating something, they need to have their mask on,” Covert said. “That includes in class, during transitions, fields, everything. Aides, teachers, and admin will be tasked with making sure everyone is keeping their masks on.”
Many other aspects of the “brick and mortar” plan, including contact tracing systems, elective classes, and specific cleaning protocol, are outlined in the updated SCS Reopening Guidance document, a document that Covert describes as “living, breathing, and subject to change.” For instance, the county plans to issue each student a personal trifold clear plastic “barrier” which will be utilized in each class. As for social distancing, plans to “Encourage distancing as much as possible in classrooms” and “Set up classrooms to allow for maximum distance possible between student seating,” can be found in the document. Despite the amount of notoriously cramped portable classrooms on the Pine View campus, Covert thinks this can be done at Pine View.
“A portable has a finite square footage, as any classroom does, so if we can eliminate all of the stuff in a classroom that doesn’t really need to be there, then we can add some available square footage to spread out desks,” he said.
However, there are some concerns that the document does not address. For one, no plan regarding bathroom usage is ever mentioned. In addition, the document explains plans to “Prevent substitute shortages by increasing the pool prior to the start of the year,” but no other mention of substitute teachers exists. According to Covert, though, plans to resolve these issues are still in the works.
“The District has told us that they are working on making sure we have enough substitutes and that they have a plan in place to provide them training on how to use the technology that we are adopting. They didn’t go into detail on what that plan is, or how they are going to do it, other than to say they are working on it,” he said.
Additionally, Covert spoke about district plans to hire and assign additional custodians to each school.
“There’s so many things that we still have to work through. We want all our kids to get a great education, have rigor, have high expectations, all those things, and, at the same time, have it be safe and keep everyone healthy,” Covert continued.
The district’s “Innovative Remote Option to Provide Continuity of Instruction” plan, outlines Option 2 (remote learning). The expectation for remote learning is that “Beginning August 31st, all remote students engage daily in a minimum of five hours of instruction and a minimum of 45 minutes per course at the high school level.” More details regarding expectations and accommodations for teachers of remote students, attendance, and progress monitoring can be found in the document.
“We are going to work with families if they choose to do the remote learning option where they take remote instruction from Pine View teachers, Covert said. “We are going to try to create schedules that meet our students’ needs. We are going to be flexible with that.”
This remote learning option will look different than the online learning that students and teachers participated in at the end of the 2019-2020 school year. To make remote learning easier and more accessible for families, especially students, every remote teacher will be trained in technology tools and expected to utilize Blackboard, an online classroom platform that many students are already familiar with.
“I think that single learning management system will be helpful for students and parents,” Covert said.
Although the survey deadline has passed and plans for reopening have begun to feel more definitive and finalized, the aura of uncertainty surrounding the upcoming school year has hardly faded.
“If you focus on everything that is changing, it can feel like a tsunami, just completely overwhelming,” Covert said.
Neither Covert nor the district has looked past the mental, social, and emotional toll that this pandemic has taken on students, staff, and their families.
“How do you get kids to socially distance, wear masks, use barriers and hand sanitizer, and not passively give the message that every single person they come into contact with is a carrier of something that could hurt them?” Covert said. There was a pensive pause before he continued. “That’s the challenge and opportunity we have. In spite of masks and shields and barriers and social distancing, community is still at the core of Pine View. There’s a great quote that I have always loved: ‘In the midst of difficulty lies opportunity.’ This is definitely a difficult time, so that means there is incredible opportunity. We can re-envision how we do what we do, and if there are better, safer ways we can do things. I think building on the opportunities that this presents us is where all of the creativity and brilliance of the Pine View community will shine.”