Schools open amid COVID-19 uncertainty

Gabrielle Wade, 11, gets a hug from her mother, Elsa, as she gets dropped off for her first day of school in sixth grade at Osceola Middle School on Tuesday. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette].
School started on Tuesday in Marion County, with much of the focus on the record-setting COVID-19 surge in the area.

At Osceola Middle School, Michaela Wingster was concerned about the resurgence of the virus. She was unsure if she was ready to send her 13-year-old son, Kaden, off to class.

“I’m definitely hesitant about it,” said Wingster through a blue mask. “But I do have faith that the school is doing the right things. I taught [Kaden] the proper precautions. Washing his hands. He will be masked up. That is our thing. We choose to do so.”

Jami Harrer, a mother of three, is putting her faith in the vaccine.

“All of my kids have been vaccinated,” said Harrer. “So, I think I’d be a little bit more worried if I had elementary school kids and they weren’t vaccinated.”

Harrer’s youngest son Sebastian, 13, an eighth-grader, waited in a long line of students that snaked across Southeast Fifth Street. The students were waiting for the bell to sound.

He was wearing a mask, but he was in the minority.

Most students were maskless; their smiles were on full display as they navigated the crosswalks. Many walked and laughed, side by side, with their fellow schoolchildren.

Cassidy Bostic, 6, who is starting first grade at Eighth Street Elementary School, gets walked to school by her mother, Elizabeth on Tuesday. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette] 
Sebastian hasn’t seen the inside of a classroom since the pandemic first hit full swing last summer, said his mother. She was more than ready for her son to return to the classroom.

“I’m very excited that he gets to have a teacher again,” said Harrer. “It’s been really rough having him learn from home this last year and a half.”

As the highly contagious delta variant races through unvaccinated populations at an alarming clip, many parents are worried that schools could return to remote learning if the current spike in cases continues to rise.

Cases in Marion County topped out at 2,402 for the seven days through Aug. 5, according to the latest numbers available. That eclipsed the previous seven-day high of nearly 2,000 cases from January. COVID-19 hospitalization also hit an all-time high of 230 this past week. Almost all those hospitalized were unvaccinated.

As of now, masks are optional in Marion County. An executive order signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis recently barred school districts from requiring masks for children. That order was followed by a State Board of Education ruling on Aug. 6, that would allow parents to apply for vouchers to move their kids to another school if they perceive any type of “COVID-19 harassment” against their child in connection to district rules on masking, testing and isolation due to exposure, officials said.

The board also passed an emergency rule that gives students who do schoolwork while quarantined at home due to COVID-19 credit for attendance.

Brady Boutwell, 13, who is starting 8th grade, left, wears his mask as he waits for the first bell with Jullian Ruiz, 11, who is starting 6th grade, right, on the first day of school at Osceola Middle School on Tuesday. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette] 
The Marion County school board said they would revisit the mask issue if needed. In the meantime, they did give guidance to not allow visitors on elementary school campuses but allowed visitors at middle and high schools.

Some parents preferred the choice being made for them like it was last year when masks were required.

“They did a great job last year,” said Wingster. “I was very pleased with the school’s procedures. The only difference now is the mask. They were very precise before.”

For other parents, they were glad to see a return to normality for their kids.

“We’re thrilled to be able to have him back in school,” said George Garner, whose 11-year-old son Cameron stood nearby, waiting patiently for the bell to ring.

“It’s his first day of middle school. We’ve met the teacher already and everything else. We’re happy to see that we were able to get everybody back into schools.”

Garner agrees with DeSantis’ executive order.

“I’m fine with it,” said Garner. “I support DeSantis on this issue.”

Students gather together as they wait for the first bell on the first day of school at Osceola Middle School on Tuesday. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette]
Principal Matthew Koff spent part of his morning helping to direct lost students to their classrooms. He acknowledged his disappointment in starting another school year under the shadow of COVID-19.

“I kind of thought it would be over at this point,” said Koff. “But it’s not. So, we’re taking as many precautions as we can. We have a very crowded campus, so we’re using all the mitigation strategies we have.”

Those include lots of hand washing and hand sanitizer, Koff said.

Since mask-wearing is optional, he and his staff stress the importance of social distancing among students.

“We’re going to hit it really hard daily,” said Koff. “That’s how important it is. We all share that responsibility.”

Despite it all, Keith Jarvis, the school’s Ocala Police Department resource officer, was determined to see the bright side.

Standing near Osceola Middle’s ornate entrance, Jarvis beamed.

“I’m excited about a new year and all of its possibilities for these kids,” said Jarvis. “I think everybody is excited about that. Let’s just get this ball rolling for these kids.”

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