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Santa Rosa Schools Working Around COVID To Educate Kids

Santa Rosa County School District

In Northwest Florida, schools have been back in session for about two weeks, with all students — not in quarantine — required to report to the classroom, despite the ongoing surge of COVID-19. Santa Rosa County School District is working to meet the challenges.

“Well, this Delta Variant is certainly behaving differently than the virus in our last school year," said Santa Rosa Superintendent Karen Barber.

She says this time around they’re seeing students with the virus at every level.

“We are seeing across the board students with the virus. There really is no pattern. Last year, it was mainly our high school students where we saw positive cases. That is not the case.”

Dr. Barber says 150 cases were confirmed on Tuesday alone.

"So we’re working with the Health Department to make sure that we notify those families, that those students need to remain home through that positive period."

Like last year, the Santa Rosa School system is tracking the pandemic with a COVID-19 Dashboard on its website. As of Thursday morning, the district reported 614 positive cases among students throughout the district. An additional 196 students were symptomatic, and 875 had been exposed.

An update, a half-hour later, showed small increases in each category.

It’s real-time data, a fluid situation that Barber says the district is keeping a close eye on.

Jennie McKeon/WUWF Public Media
WUWF Public Media
A screenshot of the Santa Rosa County School District COVID dashboard.

"I have a team that includes myself, as well as our director for student services and our director of safety," she said. "We monitor these numbers every day. We have a call in the afternoon to determine, ‘where are our hotspots.’ As we look at those numbers, and the schools that have the highest percentages of children and staff affected by COVID, we make school site visits."

Barber says they’re walking through classrooms, gyms and cafeterias, school offices, and hallways — making sure that they’re observing mitigation strategies in place in those hotspots.

"Want to make sure there are hand sanitation stations in every classroom, that those are available in common areas as well," she said. "That we are cleaning and sanitizing particularly those rooms where we have had a positive case ... that we are social distancing as much as possible...This past week we produced a training video that all staff are required to watch."

As of Thursday, the dashboard showed 6% of district teachers and staff were COVID positive or put under quarantine. It’s this report that district officials use to determine where extra support is needed.

"When it comes to the staff data, one of the things we’re looking at is we have to have adequate coverage in classrooms, in the lunchroom, and at bus dismissal," said Barber. "So, do we have adequate staff at that school? One of our elementary schools had 20 staff out total, so the district staff and I, as well as a school board member, went to that school and provided extra coverage."

According to the superintendent, the determination of whether students and staff must stay at home and quarantine is the responsibility of the Florida Department of Health in Santa Rosa — which is now stretched to its max due to the volume of cases.

"They have contact tracers through the Health Department," Barber said. "Once a positive case has been identified, the department every day sends us a list of those positive cases and then we provide seating charts from classrooms and the buses to the health dept. and they begin the communication process with families."

For students who are required to stay at home, Barber says lessons learned during the previous academic year have helped the district improve its education delivery systems.

Dr Karen Barber
Dr. Karen Barber

"This year, we want to make sure that the device that they have is adequate for accessing their homework and the resources that we need so that they can stay engaged in school," she said. "So, we are issuing a laptop, with internet connectivity if they need it, to every student that has to go home for quarantining."

Additionally, the district has developed a “stay at home resource page” and has videotaped daily lessons for such students, with social workers and assigned staff required by the Florida Board of Education to engage daily to determine if additional support is needed.

Of course, remote teaching is happening as a result of quarantining, but it’s not a full-time option this year in Florida, and it’s likely to remain that way regardless of the climb in COVID cases.

“There isn’t a magic number or percent — at this point — that I’m aware of," she said. "So, at this point, we’re not looking at closing any schools or closing any programs.”

Under the circumstances, the district is doing what it can to provide quality education to students, whether at home or in the classroom.

In addition to extra cleaning and other measures to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus, the district is ‘highly recommending’ the wearing of face coverings.

According to Barber, most people in the schools are not wearing masks, but she has noticed a slight uptick.

"I think as the Delta variant has continued to infect more and more students and staff, you’re seeing an increase in staff and students wearing a face covering at school," she added. "I can tell you, I’m wearing mine when I go into schools every day."

Referencing the lawsuit challenging Gov. Ron DeSantis’ order banning mask mandates, Barber indicated that all she could say for now is that they’re monitoring the situation.

Meantime, the district is forging ahead during what she characterized as a very difficult time, with two teachers passing from COVID-19 just this week.

"It’s certainly heart-breaking the effect this is having on employees and the parents of our children and we’re doing our very best under the circumstances to provide high-quality instruction and the safest environment possible."

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.