Schools in Okaloosa County will start Aug. 31 after the county School Board unanimously approved the updated 2020-2021 school year calendar at the board meeting Monday night.
Schools have been pushed back from Aug. 11 to Aug. 31 to allow teachers and staff to prepare for another school year during the pandemic.
“I think most of the major dates were preserved,” said School Board Member Linda Evanchyk. “I think we have considered every stakeholder. It’s the best that we can do at this time, with what we know at this time.”
The board also took comments from concerned parents regarding masks and a hybrid school year model that would rotate between in-person and online instruction. As it stands, parents and students in Okaloosa County have the choice between in-person instruction or online courses.
Valparaiso parent Joshua Ashley called into the meeting to say he was “disheartened” by the board’s decision to reopen schools, saying he opted for the hybrid model some school districts have considered.
“We shouldn’t be asking to choose between all online or all in-person,” he said. “A (hybrid plan) would be far better and safer than what the School Board is moving forward with.”
Ashley expressed concern that the pandemic has been politicized, and urged the board to move forward with reopening plans that use “evidence, science and reason.” A few callers that followed echoed his statements.
On the contrary, Crestview mom Amy Downs said online school isn’t effective for all children. She is also opposed to requiring masks saying it’s not “realistic” to ask a child to wear a mask for eight hours a day.
Calling in to the meeting, Tony Rivas of Eglin Air Force Base said he’s not flexible on masks.
“I think it’s just a no-brainer. It has to be done,” he said. “The science is there — we’re just ignoring it and that’s a shame.”
Last week, Dr. Karen Chapman, director of the Florida Department of Health in Okaloosa County, gave a presentation to the School Board on the status of the virus in the county. She also consults with the Okaloosa County Board of Commissioners. With a rolling positive rate of 12.3% and upward of 80 cases per day, Chapman said COVID-19 is a cause for concern, but she couldn’t comment on the school’s reopening plan.
“Right now, we are giving the virus everything it needs, as a community, to easily transmit,” she said at the July 23 workshop.
As for masks, Dr. Chapman said masks could help reduce the positive rate in the community, and they are safe to wear.
"They do not inhibit your ability to breathe," she said.
The School Board did not take any action on a mask mandate, but the school-start delay gives them time to work on a possible solution. School Board member Dr. Diane Kelley suggested a mandate for schools that parents could opt out of.
“I think that’s the most reasonable and rational thing this little mind could come up with,” she said.
“There’s really no doubt we should make everybody wear masks, not sure we’re able to do that from a practical side,” added School Board Member Dewey Destin. “But we want to see as much compliance as we possibly can.”
Superintendent Marcus Chambers said they would “stay moldable” on the issue of masks as they navigate the next few weeks. They will continue to listen, he said.
“The last several months has been trying for everyone in the school system,” he said “You’re not going to please everybody, but we have to do is try to keep the safety of our employees and students in mind at all times.
“Just because a decision has been made right now doesn’t mean we’re not still listening to employees, to parents, and community.”