It was a busy first day of school but for students, less than half of whose usual numbers filled classrooms in Flagler County’s schools: Fewer than 6,000 students took seats in actual classrooms. That’s less than half the 13,000 enrolled at the end of last year, with another 4,000 enrolled in either of the district’s online options. In other words, almost a quarter of the district’s students didn’t show for the first day, for any of the three options.
There were consequently far fewer students on school buses, something the district is not discouraging (it actually encourages parents to drive their children to school if possible, which overloaded car lines at Old Kings and Belle Terre Elementary today).
Superintendent Cathy Mittelstadt said she expects enrollment numbers to increase over the next 10 days as parents and students get a better sense of the district’s preparations–and first-week enrollments tend to be off anyway, if not nearly by this much.
Teachers, administrators and staffers welcomed students back in various ways, including Flagler Palm Coast High School’s drum line welcoming parents and students back this morning at Buddy Taylor Middle School. Secretaries at Old Kings spent their Sunday preparing “You’ve Got This” goody bags for faculty members. The bags were filled with personal protection equipment, sanitizers, masks and the like.
But if there was a measure of excitement about being back, there was also apprehension, uncertainty, many unanswered questions and a sense that sooner or later, it may all go back to remote-only instruction: that’s what teachers and administrators trained for most in the several days of teacher-training that preceded opening day.
“We’re scared and nobody is really saying that because we don’t want to present that face to children,” a veteran teacher in one of the district’s elementary school said, reflecting on a decade and a half of teaching locally. The teacher asked not to be identified, for fear of retribution. “The nervous tension that I felt was palpable, and I’m pretty much in the center. I’m so glad to be back in brick and mortar and our administrators have done such a great job training us. They’ve laid out the hallways, put things on the ground so the children know what direction to go, the lunch room, we used Google Docs to put the seating arrangements. All the students are facing one way. There’s room between them.” At the same time, with young children wearing masks, half their expressions hidden, an element of surrealism permeated the day, the teacher said.
“There was a little bit of a lack of excitement, that’s probably because half their faces were covered and I couldn’t read their excitement,” the teacher said. “Many of us feel school is going to be shutting down soon and there’s an element of–we’re sacrificial lambs.” But among the unanswered questions–which were posed again and again during training, and left unanswered throughout–was what triggers would cause a classroom to be shut down, or a school, or the district. That uncertainty is leaving teachers and employees fearful.
In one teacher’s case, a young elementary-age student who’d just been introduced, and who didn’t speak English, immediately rushed the teacher for a big hug–as counterintuitive a no-no as there is in today’s environment. “It’s almost like I felt I should have been wearings scrubs today,” the teacher said. “I want to be responsible, and I’m fearful. But I think our administration has done a good job of doing everything they can that’s possible to keep the students and the staff safe, and the faculty. It’s kind of a scary situation.”
Classrooms, for all the efforts to reduce them in size, are still stacked with children: the teacher spoke of 18 students in one classroom, distanced as much as possible, but not to the extent that could happen if there were 12 to 15 students instead. But the district can’t afford smaller classes.
Mittelstadt visited every one of the district’s 10 campuses, including Imagine, the charter school in Town center, and found teachers doing “remarkable” things in a changed world, their adaptability on display in every school. Some taught live classes, some taught remote-only classes, some taught iFlagler, the virtual option where teachers aren’t necessarily interacting with students so much as monitoring their progress and intervening on an as-needed basis.
Just as inevitably, a letter went out to the Matanzas High School community of parents and staffers, informing them that a staffer there had tested positive for covid-19, the latest among a dozen or so staffers who have tested positive in the last few months, with most of those cases concentrated in the past six weeks. School districts across the state are following Gov. Ron DeSantis’s and Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran’s playbook: positive cases, they said last week, are a certainty, but districts should address them on a case by case basis, checking with the state Department of Education first before shutting classes or schools down.
Finally today, as students and teachers were seeing each other for the first time since spring break, a court decision sent a different message to Corcoran and DeSantis. Accusing the state of ignoring the Florida Constitution, a Leon County circuit judge sided with teachers unions that challenged a state order mandating that schools resume in-person instruction this month amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
“Schools should reopen when the local decision-makers determine upon advice of medical experts, that it is safe to do so. Our Constitution requires safe schools,” the judge said in Monday’s 17-page order.
DeSantis’ office quickly said it would appeal, which would put the ruling on hold. That means business continues in local districts, if not as usual, then at least as devised through a patchwork of options across districts and within them. Flagler chose to adopt the tri-fold model of offering in-person instruction to those who want it, and iFlagler and remote-live to those who are not comfortable sending their children to campuses. The remote-live option, with nearly 2,400 in attendance today, means that a teacher is in his or her classroom, teaching students at home through a livestream just as class is unfolding in person.
In some cases, the teachers teach only remote students. School Board member Andy Dance visited Wadsworth and Rymfire Elementary today (and the transportation department), and saw two remote-live teachers teaching without students in their classrooms. “I didn’t get to talk to the teachers, we were just observing, but they were engaged and seemed to be working effortlessly,” Dance said. “As an observer that’s about the limit of what I could get. ”
“The employees we talked to, the administrators, everybody was very excited to be back at school,” Dance said.
Carmen Stanford, a parent who’d been closely involved in the Bunnell Elementary community–serving on that school’s advisory council–and now the Buddy Taylor Middle School community, where her daughter is enrolled in person, described her daughter’s experience today: “Emma couldn’t wait for school to start. She was anxious but all because she started at a new school, new friends, and lots of unfamiliar faces. We’ve decided a long time ago that face-to-face was the best option for her. I have been in contact all summer with BTMS’s principal [and] administrators and I had full confidence that they will do everything they can to provide the safest environment possible. According to Emma all protocols were followed in the school, everyone wore a mask, and they occasionally received brief ‘mask-free’ breaks. She had a fantastic day, zero complaints about her day, except that she doesn’t have lunch with her best friend. No mention of the unusual times. She is completely acclimated to this new normal. She got off the school bus excited and happy.
Stanford’s description echoed Dance’s: “Based on the few kids we saw, the excitement is there, and I think there’s a lot of families and kids that are excited and ready to be back.”
“All in all our families responded so well and had our students prepared,” Mittelstadt said. As the day wore on, the superintendent said she could see “see that summer vacation was over and people were getting tired by the end of the day.” You could tell from students’ looks in their eyes that they weren’t yet used to the early-morning wake-up, the day’s rigors.
Meanwhile the district and its two unions, the Flagler County Educators Association, which represents teachers, and the Flagler Employees and Support Personnel Association, have agreed to a series of memorandums of understanding that define such things as leave with pay when necessitated by covid (full pay when on quarantine, for example, or when seeking medical care related to covid, two-thirds pay when the employee is caring for a family member affected by covid); the parameters and limits of employees’ responsibilities when teaching remote and through iFlagler (the memo requires the district to limit as much as possible “blended” classes, where both live and remote students are taught); and a slight increase, to $542 a month, of the district’s share of employee insurance premiums (from $516).
Meeting on Tuesday, the school board is expected to ratify all the memorandums, Mittelstadt said. The superintendent noted that last week’s reports of shortages of protective and sanitation equipment in schools were misplaced–that the district is well stocked, and principals have been instructed to provide employees what supplies they need, to the extent possible.
Lunch is a new world, too: only two or three students per table, food is prepackaged in a bag or styrofoam containers, all food bars have been eliminated. When paying, students show their ID card and have their bar code scanned. No touching. All the middle and high schools have outdoor eating areas as well. At FPC, one of the gyms was opened for use during lunch.
Jason Wheeler, the school district’s spokesman, visited every campus with Mittelstadt. “It wasn’t that usual electric feel you feel on day one, but it wasn’t like a gloomy gray cloud hanging over everything,” Wheeler said. “There were fewer students obviously, they were moving cautiously, you could see a lot of them were glad to see each other again.”
The day ended with Mittelstadt holding a debriefing to see what could be improved on–an example: the distribution of computers and tablets. There’d also been problems with remote-live instruction through Zoom Monday, but that was mostly a Zoom problem, not a district problem.
“We’d love to have everybody back in the building but considering the times,” Mittelstadt said, noting the way the district has balanced its three options, “where we are right now is a very good place.”
The teacher who was interviewed today said it was apparent that the district was doing the best it could with what it has–and what it knows about how to handle outbreaks, which is not much. “So much has been left on the county’s shoulder, and they don’t really know how to handle it,” the teacher said, citing the number of questions that went unanswered in eight days of pre-planning, such as when a school would have to shut down. “They either couldn’t or wouldn’t tell us, and that’s created a lot of tension,” the teacher said.
“Nobody’s coming out and saying it but we’re frightened, we’re frightened for our families, we’re frightened for our kids. Yeah, we all wanted to go back to brick and mortar, but we wanted to do it in a safe way.”