Marion County schools coping with COVID-19 as semester nears end

[Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette]

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Posted January 8, 2021 | By Brendan Farrell, Ocala Gazette | Photography by Bruce Ackerman

[Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette]

As the calendar flips from 2020 to 2021 and students return to school following winter break, Marion County schools are beginning to see how COVID-19 has affected education over the course of a whole semester.

The fall semester ends on Jan. 14, concluding the first full semester students have had since the beginning of the pandemic in March. According to MCPS spokesman Kevin Christian, about 60% of students were in-person to start the 2020-21 school year. That has since increased to about 82%.

“I think that speaks loudly in that many of our parents and students want face-to-face learning and value that as the best way for their children to learn,” Christian said. “So, we’ve been able to accomplish that and yet keep our students and our staff members safe because we stress, of course, we have the board resolution requiring face coverings and of course we’re social distancing as much as possible, washing hands, doing all of those sanitation steps throughout the day and then our custodians go into the classrooms and other areas each evening and cleaning those high-touch areas as well.”

Even as most students return to in-person learning, there are still concerns that students are struggling compared to pre-pandemic times. Christian said that online learning isn’t the best situation for some students.

“Well, I think it would be fair to say that, if you looked at student grades overall, they would be somewhat lower than they were last year,” Christian said. “Online learning has changed everything, from how we teach, what we’re required to teach, how we grade what we’re required to grade.

“I think that our students and our staff members have adapted to the new way, if you will. We hope that translates into higher scores. The only way to find out really is to have those tests taken and see how those students do.”

Ginger Cruze is the principal of West Port High School. She says that of the “between 2,600 and 2,700” students at West Port, 1,200 started online and ended the semester with 800.

“Our teachers are champions, and they have worked very well with the students online and face to face,” Cruze said. “We’ve done a great job with keeping things clean and safe. Our kids and staff have been awesome about wearing their masks, and we’ve had kids that have been out, but we really haven’t had a lot of actual COVID cases. It’s been more exclusions because of contact.”

Cruze said that grades are down for both online students and in-person students. Additionally, as an arts magnet program, West Port has had to do things a bit differently this year.

“We’ve had to rethink all of our art programs, everything that we’ve done,” Cruze said. “(The) kids had a play and they wore masks the whole time. You know, rock band concert, the kids had masks. It’s just a whole different way.”

Cruze is hoping to have more students return to school and re-evaluate how they will utilize online classes after the semester ends.

Sonya Nasser has two kids, one who goes to Osceola Middle School and another at Vanguard High School. Both of her children are attending online classes because she didn’t feel that in-person classes were a safe environment for her son, who has asthma.

One of the issues that Nasser, who works remotely, has faced is that internet connections in Ocala aren’t the greatest. When both of her kids are online for school and she needs to do her own work, it’s difficult for everyone to have a consistent connection. Additionally, it has been hard at times for her kids to stay connected with their classmates, even with options like FaceTime.

“It’s difficult in that respect,” she said. “I would love for them to be able to go back to regular school when the time is right because socializing is difficult.”

Nasser believes that she’s lucky because her children are older and more responsible.

“I think that if I had smaller children in elementary school, it would have been a bigger challenge,” Nasser said. “I think because my children are in middle school and high school and they’re pretty good students, they are able to keep up.”

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