First day of school in Santa Rosa, Escambia counties: Students, parents cautiously optimistic
School bells rang through elementary, middle and high schools for the first time in five months Monday as the new school year officially began and children entered back into classrooms — both in-person and remotely — throughout Escambia and Santa Rosa counties.
At Montclair Elementary School in Pensacola, students arrived on school buses and in parents' cars, and a handful walked to school from nearby neighborhoods through drizzling rain caused by Tropical Storm Marco's march toward the Louisiana coast.
As parents pulled their vehicles under the school's front awning to form a drop-off line, guidance counselor Camelia Willis hustled up and down the sidewalk, welcoming students back to class, wishing them a great day and giving out socially distanced "air hugs."
One little boy jumped out of his mom’s car and ran excitedly toward Willis.
"Hey!" Willis greeted him before she stopped short and said, "Where is your mask? I can't hug you if you don’t have your mask."
Masks are heavily encouraged for all students, teachers and staff at schools in both Escambia and Santa Rosa counties this year, one way that COVID-19 has upended the traditional learning environment and forced school districts to adapt to the ever-changing pandemic.
Just about half of Escambia County students opted to return to in-person school this year, while 82% of Santa Rosa students chose the in-person option. The remainder of the students opted for remote learning, Florida Virtual School, home schooling or private school.
Each school has its own policies and procedures related to the pandemic. For instance, at S.S. Dixon Intermediate School in Milton, students won't be allowed to use the hallways, and at A.K. Suter Elementary School in Pensacola, students can't mingle with students in other classes.
Some students absent due to COVID-19 exposure
Escambia County School District Superintendent Malcolm Thomas stood near Montclair's entrance Monday morning, watching students file inside.
"We have to get them back in schools," Thomas told the News Journal. "Five months of no education is going to have its consequences. It’s going to take time to get them back up to where they were."
Students left school in early March for spring break, just as the coronavirus pandemic was beginning in the United States, with the intention of coming back to school after the break. But Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis closed schools until April 15 and later for the remainder of the year to help stop the spread of COVID-19 as the rest of the state went into lockdown.
Thomas said in an email later Monday morning that the first few hours of school has gone "well" so far.
"There were a few technical issues with remote/virtual, but they are isolated and being resolved," he said in the email.
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Masks in Santa Rosa County:Santa Rosa schools will require masks when social distancing isn't possible
In neighboring Santa Rosa County, Superintendent Tim Wyrosdick said there were multiple absences across the district from students who had possibly been exposed to the coronavirus.
"We are aware of some students who did not come to school because someone in their family was positive," Wyrosdick told the News Journal.
Wyrosdick later said he was encouraged that parents kept their children home due to possible COVID-19 exposure.
"The parents did health checks in the morning and kept their kids at home," he said. "That is huge. If we can get that practice done at home and a student not come to school if they have symptoms, that is encouraging for the school year."
Wyrosdick told the News Journal on Monday afternoon that there weren’t any unexpected issues to arise on the first day of school in Santa Rosa County, although he said Santa Rosa virtual school had been a “nightmare.”
"The numbers (for virtual school) are just far more than we had anticipated, and we have some students who have not yet received their teacher assignment or class assignment," Wyrosdick said. "That will be our largest workload (Tuesday) and Wednesday, will be to get everything back on board with that."
Wyrosdick said the school district had one known issue with masks so far but the issue was “resolved,” and things were going smoothly in the classrooms and the cafeteria. He also said there were multiple empty buses on the routes Monday morning, which isn’t unusual for the first day of school when many parents want to take their kids in their own cars. Still, he said, there were more empty buses than normal.
"We knew it would be light, but we didn’t know it would be that light," he said.
The district will be re-evaluating its bus routes and transportation accommodations as the week goes on.
Concerns over masks, hallways
In Santa Rosa County, one parent of Navarre High School students said that by Monday morning, her kids had already reached out to her and complained of lax social distancing and mask wearing.
Kathy Dunn said both of her kids go to Navarre High and were sent with plenty of extra masks to hand out to other students who may not have had them. But Dunn said her kids reported that hallways were crowded, many students weren’t wearing masks and even a teacher wasn’t wearing his mask correctly, when he was wearing it at all.
"In her first period class, she had a class with 38 students, and the teacher only had his mask on his mouth, not covering his nose," Dunn said. "But then she sent me a picture later where he completely took his mask off, and in the couple of pictures she sent me, I would say at least five or six students weren’t wearing masks in the pictures."
Dunn has several health issues and said her kids are worried about bringing the virus home to her.
“Both of my children worry extremely bad (about COVID-19) because I am very high risk,” Dunn said. “I have a lot of health issues, and they’re just afraid. They’re not afraid exactly of catching it, but they’re afraid of bringing it home to me.”
Not all Navarre High students had the same experience, though. Senior Shane Bristol, 17, told the News Journal on Monday afternoon that administrators had divided the school's hallways into zones. When it was time to switch classes, different zones were announced over the intercom and students were only supposed to move around the school when their zone was called.
"The hallways really weren't crowded that way," he said.
"Yeah, it worked," added fellow Navarre High senior Meghan Bringmans, 18.
Still, reflecting on their first day of school, both seniors acknowledged it felt different.
"Definitely different, with the masks and stuff," Bristol said.
Neither were fans of the facial coverings.
"Sometimes it was hard to breath," Bringmans said. "It's also different because we don't know what is going to happen. Are we going to have football? Will homecoming be canceled? If one person gets it and gives it to everyone else, we don’t know if they’ll shut the school down. Then, we’ll have to go back to online learning."
Earlier in the day in Pensacola, Thalisha King held hands with her 5-year-old son, Jimmy Gilliams, as they neared Montclair Elementary on foot. Gilliams wore a Ninja Turtle-themed mask depicting a green-faced turtle in a blue bandanna.
As her son was beginning his first day of kindergarten, King expressed concern about COVID-19 but said her little boy was just too excited to keep at home.
"He's excited," she said. "He’s ready. He’s very excited."
She looked down at her son before using a slightly sterner tone.
"But he’s not going to get COVID at school," King said. "He said that he’s not going to let anybody touch him because he doesn’t want coronavirus."
"That’s what you said!" Jimmy added, his mother nodding approvingly.
About a half dozen students walked to the elementary school without chaperones in small groups from nearby neighborhoods, crossing the street past crossing guard Felipe Lawall, a physical education teacher at Montclair Elementary.
"It’s nice to see the kids,” he said, holding a stop sign. "Yes, it’s going to be a little different this year. A little different in the use of equipment, and there is a sanitizing process in place to make sure all the equipment is clean. We are modifying activities that we usually do. There will be much more individual skills than team activities."
Annie Blanks can be reached at email@example.com or 850-435-8632.