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After Tough Start, Santa Rosa Hits Stride With Distance Learning

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Sandra Averhart
/
WUWF Public Media

Because of the coronavirus, schools systems across Florida began gearing up for distance learning about a month ago. Now four weeks into the process, WUWF has a report on remote education from the Santa Rosa County School District.

“The transition to at-home learning has been difficult; it’s been difficult for parents, teachers, (and) students to make this transition,” is how Superintendent Tim Wyrosdick described the initial days of the process.

“One of the issues was the lack of planning time that we had to stand up a virtual school. And, as we have begun that work, we have certainly been able to flesh out what works and doesn’t work and we’re kind of getting the hang of it as we go through.”

As the district ramped up to provide virtual learning to students, one of the primary issues to be addressed was online capacity.

“Is there enough bandwidth? Do our current bandwidth providers have enough to put 28,000 students online during the day,” said Wyrosdick of the questions district administrators had to ask. “Those issues became very evident in the beginning and I think our online providers have responded very well in beefing up the capacity for us to do this virtual work.”

However, when it comes to technology, Santa Rosa is not a one-to-one [1:1] district like its larger neighbor Escambia, which means school officials do not have enough computer devices to distribute to each of the district’s 28,000 students. This has necessitated both a blended approach and targeted approach to at-home instruction.

“We provide technology to very specific groups of students; we tried to prioritize those students that would need the technology immediately,” explained Wyrosdick.

“We looked at seniors who were in need of graduating and making certain they had any technology that they needed to make that transition.  Such things as advanced placement courses or dual enrollment courses, those were the target areas among our seniors, and then those needing credits to recover so they could graduate.”

On the issue of graduation, the district has set aside potential commencement dates in June and July, while also pursuing other options, pending new coronavirus guidelines.

In the meantime, those select students who were issued computers are completing their assignments online, and some are thriving.

Many others have received paper packets for their work.

Wyrosdick says it’s been a team effort to distribute learning materials and ensure that no students have been missed.

“I don’t know of a school that hasn’t reached almost every child that could possibly be reached, even to the point where our school resource officers, when we can’t find a child, they’re doing a ‘child find,’” he proclaimed, proudly.

“They’re going physically and looking for that child and to date, we haven’t lost one, so I feel confident we’ll continue to engage that work with our students.”

After the difficult start, the process of remote education in Santa Rosa has gone smoothly for the last few weeks.

Over that period, the district has ramped up its at-home feeding program, with multiple pickup sites and delivery.

During the first week of school closures, the district distributed 700 meals. Now, they’re up to 37,000 meals served per week. The superintendent referred to the dramatic uptick “a stark climb that demonstrates the need of our society right now.”

While Santa Rosa school officials understand the need to continue distance learning as the state addresses the COVID-19 outbreak, Wyrosdick said they were disappointed to hear that it will be a while longer before schools can reopen.

“Our teachers, teachers really need to be with the students; they breathe and their life is centered around that,” he said of the feedback he’s been getting.

“I see some teachers and hear from teachers who are desperately needing to talk to their children in a physical sense, being in their presence and I hear from parents and students who want the same thing.”

In the meantime, Wyrosdick says preparations are underway for the rest of the year, including phase two of distance learning. 

On Monday, May 4, the Santa Rosa County School District will launch the One District, One Book initiative. Students in grades kindergarten throughh fifth grade will receive their own personal copy of “A Boy Called Bat” to be read throughout the month with their families.