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Getting back to school: Students will wear masks, but what do you do about buses?

Sun Sentinel logoSun Sentinel 5/31/2020 By Scott Travis, South Florida Sun Sentinel
a group of people sitting at a table using a laptop computer: Nikki Warris and her husband, Cory, home-school their daughters Lexi, 8, and Natalie, 5, on Friday. She has concerns about sending her children back to school in the fall and doesn't want them to have to wear masks and stay 6 feet apart. © Mike Stocker / South Florida Sun Sentinel/South Florida Sun Sentinel/TNS Nikki Warris and her husband, Cory, home-school their daughters Lexi, 8, and Natalie, 5, on Friday. She has concerns about sending her children back to school in the fall and doesn't want them to have to wear masks and stay 6 feet apart.

No more school cafeteria. No more milling in the hallway. No more whispering to the person seated next to you.

Facing the threat of the coronavirus, South Florida’s schools could look dramatically different when they reopen this fall, serving both mask-wearing students on campus and virtual learners in their homes.

Students and staff may have their temperatures checked. Desks would be at least 6 feet apart. Students may have to eat lunch in their classrooms, and the cafeteria might be converted into a large spread-out learning space. Hallways may include one-way-only signs, similar to grocery stores.

“We know that the opening of school will not look like last year," Broward Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie said in a video message to parents. "The old normal will not be the new normal.”

The coronavirus pandemic uprooted the 2019-20 school year in March, and all Florida school districts switched from in-class to at-home online education. With the school year ending in the next few days, districts are now making plans for the next school year, which will start in mid-August.

Districts say they hope to balance parents’ health concerns related to COVID-19 with their desire to get kids back in school. They expect some but not all students on campus this fall, and online learning will remain a major part of students’ education.

Any reopening plan would follow the guidance of the state and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, educators say.

“It’s a sad fact that everything we’ve been doing fails to meet even the most relaxed CDC guidelines,” said Justin Katz, president of the Palm Beach County Classroom Teachers Association.

Each school and class will likely need to have fewer people since classrooms aren’t equipped to hold 25 or 30 students spread 6 feet apart.

“In a class of 20, in some cases, you will have 10 students physically present and 10 attending via Zoom,” Miami-Dade Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said, referring to the popular videoconferencing software.

So far, Miami-Dade is the only South Florida district to announce specific plans for students to return. The students who are among the lowest 25% in academic performance will return in early August, two weeks before the regular school year, to get intense instruction.

“The disruption in the fourth quarter compounded by a summer regression impacts some of the most fragile students the most,” Carvalho said. “Nationally, we’re going to see an academic slide like we’ve never seen before.”

Plans for the regular school year are less clear. All three districts are trying to figure out how to make schools smaller while serving everyone who wants an on-campus experience.

One option being considered is having some students come only part time, either half a day or on alternate days, and working at home the other days. But they also must figure out how to accommodate parents whose work schedule won’t allow them to stay home with their kids. And how to provide transportation since school buses don’t lend themselves to social distancing.

Some parents have decided not to return, including Boca Raton mom Nikki Warris, a former teacher.

Warris’ older child was attending Addison Mizner Elementary, but after the school closed, she decided to switch to home schooling. She didn’t like the curriculum or platform used by Palm Beach County schools and decided to use the home-schooling curriculum by Time4Learning, a Fort Lauderdale-based company.

Warris is pleased with their progress and plans to continue that for the new school year. She said she’s “not paranoid” about COVID-19 and doesn’t want her kids faced with all the possible restrictions.

“Having my kids wear a mask all day and be 6 feet apart from each other, that’s insane,” she said. “I’m a certified teacher and capable. The reason to send them back is to get the social aspect, but if they’re not even going to get that, I’d rather just keep them at home.”

Nadia Greenwood, also a former teacher, has two kids attending Harbordale Elementary in Fort Lauderdale. She likes the virtual learning experience for her kids, which includes lessons on Zoom. She’s not sure she’s ready for them to return to school. She said she would want the school to have more custodial help.

“I would feel more comfortable if I knew that personnel were on staff that had the time to clean and sanitize each room on a daily basis," Greenwood said. "Teachers are not required to clean their own rooms. Most custodians just empty the garbage and clean the floors on a daily basis due to the workload.”

Local districts say they plan to upgrade cleaning efforts. Runcie said at a recent meeting the district is looking at new cleaning supplies for schools and buses that are now used to clean subways in New York.

Andrew Shutter said he’s ready for his daughter to return to Whispering Pines, a Miramar school for special needs students,. He said he’d feel safe as long as the school did temperature checks and kept out students who were sick.

“The students and teachers need to be back in the classrooms. Broward’s remote learning was not enough,” he said. “My daughter needs the social interaction provided in the traditional onsite program. She has done well academically this quarter, but it is hard to get the social skills training this way."

School districts are surveying parents to see what options they are looking for in the fall. A Miami-Dade survey found that about a third of parents are ready to return, a third have major hesitation and another third are open to their children returning but want to know more about the safety precautions being taken, Carvalho said.

Keith Oswald, deputy superintendent in Palm Beach County, said officials in his district will be busy this summer developing a plan.

“We have a lot of smart people putting their heads together,” he said. “If you had asked me in early February whether we would have been able to go all-virtual in March, I would have laughed at you.”

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©2020 the Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.)

Visit the Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.) at www.sun-sentinel.com

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