OKEECHOBEE COUNTY, Fla. — Monday marked the first day of school for students in Okeechobee County, the second school district in the area to begin the 2020-21 academic year.
Students in Okeechobee County have three learning options to start the year.
Superintendent Ken Kenworthy said about 50% of students are choosing to come back to campus for face-to-face in-classroom instruction, which is about 3,000 students.
Another 25% are participating in a hybrid learning option the district is calling Okeechobee Sync. Students will watch their lessons live at home and be able to participate in the class instruction through distance learning. Another 25% have chosen virtual school.
"It's not a matter of if, it's a matter of when," Kenworthy told WPTV on Monday, admitting that the school district is preparing for students to be quarantined because of the coronavirus. "We know that COVID is out there. It's prevalent across the state. And so there will be a time when we have to address that. It's just a matter of when that's going to occur."
Kenworthy said the school district has plans in place to transition students to remote learning in the event that a classroom needs to be quarantined, like we've already seen in Martin County.
"We're taking lots of steps across our county in order to make sure students are socially distant as much as possible, there's hand washing, our buses are operating at half capacity," Kenworthy said.
INTERVIEW WITH SUPERINTENDENT:
"We have never ever planned school around a national pandemic, so it has been a challenge," said Tuuli Robinson, the principal at North Elementary School.
Robinson said that roughly 120 students are taking part in virtual learning on Monday, and the school is prepared in the event that more students need to be transitioned to remote learning on short notice.
"If there is a shutdown, in case they have to transition to virtual learning, we have experts here who can train them and assist with that transition as well," Robinson said."
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Everyone on school campuses in Okeechobee County is required to wear a mask, and students will also have their temperature taken upon arrival at school.
Kenworthy said that while this school year is unlike any other, it still comes with the same nervous excitement that greets any new school year.
"The start of any year can only be described as nervous excitement," Kenworthy said. "I think both of those are a little more elevated this year. Nervousness on the level, I think we are ready in terms of the facility, but there are so many unknowns out there that we're just going to have to hit them head-on, but excitement. All educators are always excited to welcome kids back and it's going to be nice to see the smiles on their faces, their interaction with their peers."
INTERVIEW WITH ASSISTANT SUPERINTENDENT:
Kenworthy said the county has been working with families to get broadband internet access and hot spots out to them to support distance learning, but sometimes they don't work well.
"We are in a remote location or a rural area. We have some areas of the county that may not necessarily have access to technology or to internet, and I think those kids who have signed up for what we call option two or Okeechobee Sync and/or option three, which is virtual school, they might experience some difficulty," Kenworthy said. "So I really feel for those individuals, so I think we are good in terms as our bandwidth as far as the school district is concerned and our infrastructure, but when you rely on some of the home infrastructure in some of the remote areas, I have a feeling some of those kids are going to struggle much like they did the last nine weeks of school."
Kenworthy added that the district is learning from what other school districts are going through as they begin to open.
"It's not a matter of if, but a matter of when we have some exclusions, and it's incumbent upon us as educators to ensure that instruction continues while they are out and being able to track who is out when and how many days they've been out when and coverage for this teacher's class," Kenworthy said. "I mean, we've got some plans in place, but we really won't know the scope and magnitude of that until we get in and try it a while."
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Kenworthy also said preparation is key.
"We know that's going to happen and, you know, it's unfortunate that it happened that quickly [in Martin County] but we've got some plans in place and all school districts kind of share information and talk about what you do in specific scenarios," Kenworthy said. "We've had some conference calls with the Superintendent's Association."
Through it all, Kenworthy said he's glad to get back.
"We have some reservations, like everybody does, what's day one going to look like and how is it going to turn out, but I can tell you there always is a level of excitement for the return to school," Kenworthy said.
Kenworth is asking families to have patience as the district navigates this new year together and do health screenings at home.
"The objective on the first day of school is always get them there, get them fed, get them home, and it was a success," Kenworthy said. "Well, now you are throwing in take their temperature, do some screenings, get them signed online. So there are all kinds of things that are going to have to happen that we know are going to be a little messy, and we are going to work through those things and we just ask that you be patient with us."
For more information about the Okeechobee County School District's plan for the 2020-21 academic year, click here.