A new school year that is unlike any before

Principal Matt Koff, left, and Stephanie Collins, the Assistant Principal of Curriculum, look over their schedules and plans as students begin to arrive on the first of school at Osceola Middle School in Ocala.

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Posted August 28, 2020 | By Brad Rogers, Executive Editor | Photography by Bruce Ackerman

School crossing guard Wilfredo Lopez Raman directs traffic and pedestrians on the first day of school at Osceola Middle School and Eighth Street Elementary School in Ocala.

It’s been since March that Marion County’s public schools have been open to all students and teachers. So, when the county’s 50 schools reopened this week for the 2020-21 school year in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, there were obvious concerns.

But after the first couple of days, school officials were cheering how well things went. New Superintendent of Schools Diane Gullett credited a unified effort from the entire community.

“I am just so grateful to the community, our parents and our staff for being prepared,” she told the School Board. “It was such a joy to have the kids back. I think we did all we could to be prepared for Day 1.”

The first day enrollment – including in-person and online students – was 32,411, significantly lower than the projected 43,000 district officials anticipated. A total of 21,949 students showed up for face-to-face learning – about 68 percent of students present on opening day – while another 10,462, or 32 percent, took online classes.

Principal Matt Koff, left, and Stephanie Collins, the Assistant Principal of Curriculum, look over their schedules and plans as students begin to arrive on the first day of school at Osceola Middle School in Ocala.

Part of that lower headcount can be attributed to the staggered start of kindergartners, who arrived for their first day on staggered days, but officials are still trying to determine where some 6,000 remaining students are. They said they suspect some have opted for private or home schooling.

This school year started unlike any other because of the coronavirus. All students and teachers are required to wear masks when and maintain social distancing whenever possible. Teachers must also clean their classrooms after each class. And students are eating in their classrooms.

Gullett assessed the good and the bad of the first couple of days. The things that went well, she said were:

  • Transportation: While 7,483 students road the bus, it was well below historical numbers, partly because almost one-third of students stayed home to take online classes. Nonetheless, the 264 buses ran largely on time, a rarity for opening day.
  • Mask wearing: Students came prepared and most kept their masks on. “They seemed very comfortable wearing masks,” Gullett said.
  • Social distancing: Student and teachers adhered to social distancing “to the extent possible.”
  • Online teaching: Teachers and students seemed to be better adapted to online instruction, with many teachers implementing creative approaches to keeping online student engaged.
  • The areas where Gullett sees the need to improve:
  • Technology: “I would say it’s at the very top of our list, right now,” Gullet told board members. She said many students have bandwidth issues and too many online classes are too large. She also said there is a need to give parents additional support in helping their children.
  • The Department of Health: The agency, which has said it will respond quickly to school needs, was “overwhelmed” the first day, and Gullett says that has to be corrected.

School Board members also have been monitoring the schools and urged parents to be patient – the school district is working to iron out wrinkles.

School Board members were pleased with the outcome of the start.

School Board Chairman Eric Cummings said he traveled to several schools and was impressed with how seriously parents and students were taking the COVID-19 requirements.

School Board member Beth McCall said she visited three schools on opening day and was also pleased with the commitment by everyone to adhere to COVID-19 rules.

“It was very, very smooth,” she said. “My experience was very, very good. Even the little ones had their masks on.”

Much of the first-day success was attributed to two weeks of training the School Bord provided to administrators and teachers when it moved the start of school back two weeks. It allowed teachers and staff to get training on the coronavirus rules as well as important training on the new platforms being used for online instruction.

“It was very evident that the additional training paid off,” Gullett said. “… I heard it said that it was like opening a brand new school.”

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