WELLINGTON, Fla. — Three weeks into the new school year and with more than 3,200 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Palm Beach County public schools, the virus and mask debate have dominated the conversation.
But despite all the controversy and concerns, one high school teacher said it's been one of the best starts to a school year he's ever had.
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"A lot of the students are just excited to be back in school, to be working with their peers and classmates," said Palm Beach Central High School teacher Eric Jourgensen.
Jourgensen said that in almost 20 years of teaching, students this year were more excited to be in the classroom than ever.
"The socialization and the social skills that that they learn from being in class are just as important, if not more important, than the lessons themselves," Jourgensen said. "I just think that the students, without realizing it, really need that and they just enjoy being face-to-face with other people."
With rising coronavirus cases and quarantines, as well as a much fuller classroom, Jourgensen said the COVID atmosphere looms over them. But he's using it as a teaching moment, too.
"I'm reminding the students that they are living through history," Jourgensen said. "Years from now, this will be in textbooks and they may even talk about the fact that students were called out of class to be put on quarantine orders. Because it's just such a bizarre thing. It's a necessary thing, but just bizarre."
Superintendent Michael Burke of the School District of Palm Beach said that while visiting schools across the district, he too has seen the excitement from students and staff and looks forward to when that can be the focus once again.
"This whole mask issue has gotten a lot of attention and I think it's detracted from what's actually happening in our classrooms every day, and that's teaching and learning," Burke said. "So I'll be happy when we can put this behind us and just get back to doing what we do best, and that's taking care of the students, making sure they get back on track, both academically and social-emotionally."
Jourgensen sees his students every day trying to work together and make the best of what can be a difficult situation.
"They're really upbeat and they are keeping each other up," Jourgensen said. "When somebody is a little bit down, the other students are helping each other and giving advice to overcome it."
According to the latest numbers from the School District of Palm Beach County, 4,304 students have been told to stay home as of Monday because of possible exposure to COVID-19, including 136 students from Palm Beach Central High School.