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Escambia School District Ready for New Year Amid COVID

The Escambia County School District is finalizing preparations for the new school year.
Hunter Morrison
WUWF Public Media
The Escambia County School District is finalizing preparations for the new school year.

Students in Santa Rosa, Okaloosa and Waltoncounties headed back to class Tuesday for the first day of the 2021-22 school year.

Students in the Escambia County School District start school Wednesday.

“The first day of school is always filled with excitement and anticipation for our students,” said Escambia Superintendent Dr. Tim Smith, kicking off his second year at the helm and his second in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We are going to keep moving forward and do our best to get a good jump on the school year with our academics, policies and procedures; and we certainly realize COVID is there and we need to be mindful of it and take the necessary precautions.”

That leads us to the district’s extensive COVID-19 guidelines, released last week. Superintendent Smith says it was helpful that protocols were largely developed by the state departments of Education and Health.

“Because we had some medical-side input and consistency throughout the state; because without that guidance, different districts would have been following different guidelines.”

In line with Gov. Ron DeSantis’ ban on mask mandates, the Escambia School district is making face coverings optional.

“It really is the choice of the family,” he declared. “The governor’s executive order really articulated that quite well in giving the families the choice. So, one of the things we want to encourage families to do is to have that conversation before the first day of school, where a parent has clearly articulated to their son or daughter, “Here’s what I expect you to do,” so there’s no confusion on that.”

Escambia County School District Superintendent Tim Smith
Escambia County School District
Escambia County School District Superintendent Tim Smith

One of the more important aspects of the guidelines, says Smith, involves the response when a student is exposed to COVID, in terms of contact tracing and quarantining. The protocols will be different for a student, age 12 and above, who’s been vaccinated.

“They need no quarantine if they were vaccinated and they’re not showing any symptoms,” the superintendent explained. “If they are showing symptoms, then they will be quarantining and getting medical attention. If a student was not vaccinated, then they will be following the guidelines provided there. If they are without symptoms, they’re able to come back sooner than they were last year.”

Acknowledging the difficulty of social distancing with all students mandated to return to the classroom, he says reacting quickly to COVID outbreaks will be key.

And, with more students back on campus, Smith says the district has been gearing up to staff accordingly, although he conceded that hiring new teachers has been difficult.

“The number of vacancies is higher than it was at this time last year and that’s a tough situation,” pointing to an ongoing teacher shortage.

“I think it’s fair to say there are fewer college graduates coming out of college of education programs and teacher preparation programs. So, we certainly take those opportunities where we can go recruit college students as they’re graduating, who are in those programs. But, we also have to look elsewhere.”

That means looking at those who are changing careers or have recently relocated to the area.

Meantime, the district is also experiencing a shortage of bus drivers, which forced a change in some elementary school start times to allow existing drivers to take on additional routes. Recruiting efforts continue.

In preparing for the new academic year in terms of student learning, Smith says he’s thankful that the state recognized that student performance suffered during this past COVID year and has decided not to calculate school grades for 2020-21. However, the districts have received some data in the form of test score percentiles to help tailor academic improvement plans.

“We know how schools performed in 4th grade English or a middle school performed with 6th grade math, so, we have those scores,” he said, before pointing to some of the steps taken.

School buses outside Escambia County's Ferry Pass Middle School are a sign the new school year is about to start.
Sarah Jane Brock
WUWF Public Media
School buses outside Escambia County's Ferry Pass Middle School are a sign the new school year is about to start.

“We’ve added some intervention specialists at our elementary schools and we’ve taken some other initiatives to support our students as they are engaged in their learning activities.”

A close watch will be kept on the chronically low-performing Warrington Middle School, which is getting off to a fresh start, with a new principal Denny Wilson and new external provider Learning Sciences International (LSI) leading the way.

“We are excited about the pathway that has been planned and we are looking forward to seeing great results from Warrington,” Smith stated.

Elsewhere, field trips and school athletics will return to normal, which Smith believes is especially important for this year’s senior class, which has endured two years of disruption due to COVID.

Although his first year on the job was challenging, because of the pandemic, the superintendent said he learned a lot about heart and character of the district’s staff, students and parents, and he’s excited to get going.

“I can’t wait for tomorrow, being our first day,” he exclaimed. “It’s always a great day when kids come back. I will be around the district tomorrow and I’ll welcome them to the school building for a new year.”

Sandra Averhart has been News Director at WUWF since 1996. Her first job in broadcasting was with (then) Pensacola radio station WOWW107-FM, where she worked 11 years. Sandra, who is a native of Pensacola, earned her B.S. in Communication from Florida State University.