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Bryson Kessel, 5, wears a mask as he works on an activity in Kristen Givens’ classroom where social distancing was being observed during the last week of a three-week summer enrichment program for students at South Ocala Elementary School.

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Posted August 21, 2020 | By Brad Rogers, Executive Editor | Photography Bruce Ackerman

Gullet outlines short-, long term vision.

Kristen Givens, a teacher, works with students in her classroom as Andrew Massengill, 7, tries to adjust his face shield during the last week of a three-week summer enrichment program for students at South Ocala Elementary School.

With Marion County Public Schools on the threshold of opening for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic broke out, new Superintendent of Schools Diane Gullet on Wednesday addressed the business community for the first time and outlined her vision for the immediate future as well as the long term.

When local schools open Monday, Gullet said more than 43,000 students will be enrolled. About 70 percent of them are expected to be at their respective schools for face-to-face instruction. Parents and students were given the option of in-person learning or online instruction when reopening plans were unveiled.

She warned those attending the Ocala/Marion County Chamber and Economic Partnership’s monthly breakfast that as parents and business owners they can expect “perpetual disruption” in the coming weeks and months as the schools deal with the impact of COVID-19 on students, teachers and other staff. When students or teachers are identified as being positive for COVID-19, they and the people they have been in contact with at school will be sent home to quarantine.

Superintendent Diane Gullett.

“Our task is to ensure we’re providing a safe environment for our students and staff,” Gullett said.

She said the school district is working closely with the county Health Department to ensure schools can respond quickly to suspected cases of the virus so students or teachers can be isolated and tested expeditiously.

Masks will be required on everyone on school property and intensive cleaning will be part of the new school culture, she said. Nonetheless, she added, “We know these cases will be disruptive to a class, to a school.”

When schools open on Monday, the district is expecting 20,316 elementary, 10,208 middle school and 12,091 high school students. Gullett said that 68 percent of the district’s students qualify for the free and reduced lunch program — a clear indicator of the number of poor families in Marion County. Finally, she said the district’s 262 school buses, which make more than 3,000 bus stops every day and costs $21 million a year to operate, is the 84th largest school bus fleet in the nation.

While the short term for MCPS is less than rosy, Gullett outlined her vision of the schools in enthusiastic and ambitious terms.

Vanguard High School is shown in Ocala.

“We will be the shining star of the state,” she said. “I guarantee it. We will be the shining star of Florida.”

To achieve that, Gullett said intends to “invest in human capital” and create a culture of continuous improvement. She also is already working on a long-range, five-year strategic plan that will be “multifaceted and measurable.”

“If we do this well,” she said, “it will have a tremendous impact on the schools here and on the community.”

“It’s not just about our students graduating … it’s also about what happens once they leave us.”

She said the educational model she envisions provides “equity and access” in providing students with educational opportunities, and the schools have to be adaptable to meet whatever the students’ needs are.

“We have to look at the data across the district and reach out to our students wherever they are.”

Gullett, who came to Marion County from the Las Vegas school district, the nation’s 6th largest – said a key to her vision succeeding is to start talking to children about what they want to be when they grow up as early as elementary school. Then, she said, the school system’s mission must be “meeting them where they are and providing them with a pathway.”

Gullett, who grew up in Clay County, south of Jacksonville, said she also wants to start something called Leadership MCPS, a community leadership program that will allow the district to engage citizens more productively.

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