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Walton schools see issues with COVID-19 protocols

Jim Thompson
Northwest Florida Daily News

DeFUNIAK SPRINGS — As Walton County schools are into their second week of classes, students who have opted for brick-and-mortar classrooms over virtual learning, and their parents, are getting gentle reminders of the need to maintain social distancing — and to wear masks when social distancing is not possible. 

One of the safety changes at South Walton High School this new school year was to make the school's wing hallways one-way during class change times to minimize face-to-face contact. Here students follow a one-way foot traffic pattern back into the school during a class change.

About three-quarters of the district's 10,700 students have opted to attend in-person classes, according to the most recent figures available from the school district. The remaining students have opted either for Walton Virtual School, a full-time or part-time virtual learning opportunity, or for the Innovative Learning Digital Academy, which links students digitally with actual classroom instruction during the school day.

More:Walton County public schools re-open; educators, students face COVID-19 realities

"School did start last week," Holt told county commissioners at their Tuesday meeting, adding "I know there were some situations going on in the schools — which you knew ... was going to happen, because (of) a lot of kids together, a lot of teachers, and that kind of thing," 

More:Okaloosa Health Department Director sees encouraging coronavirus trends

But, Holt said in a Wednesday interview, school offricials have done "a great job in keeping COVID out of the schools and have been very vigilant with their plans about keeping COVID out." 

The scope of COVID-19 issues in Walton County's public schools wasn't immediately apparent Tuesday, but the situation did warrant the school system using both its website and its Facebook page to ask parents "to continue to reiterate the importance of social distancing and the wearing of masks, when social distancing is not feasible with (your) ... children."

As the first week of school slid into a new week, the notes to parents indicated, "many students started to feel comfortable and more at ease in their surroundings and that’s encouraging, but we do want to continue to remind students that social distancing and masks are best practice until the pandemic is over."

More:PHOTOS: First day of school at South Walton High School during COVID-19

Walton County Schools Superintendent Russell Hughes did not immediately respond Tuesday to a request for an interview on the COVID-19 situation in the county's public schools.

Holt took an opportuity during her Tuesday presentation to the county commission to make the point abut COVID-19 public health protocols to a countywide audience. Her reminder came just two weeks after commissioners unanimously declined to adopt what would have been a narrow resolution merely encouraging the wearing of masks in public during the COVID-19 pandemic.

South Walton High School has added a third lunch to reduce the number of students in the cafeteria and also modified the seating so students would not be sitting directly next to, or across from each other.

That decision came after a string of public comment contending that  a government body even merely encouraging the wearing of masks constituted a dangerous incursion on civil liberties. 

"This is not China or the Soviet Union," one commenter told commissioners at the Aug. 1 meeting, "so why are you allowing our civil liberties to be trampled?”

Holt said Tuesday, "I just want us to continue just remembering if you aren't able to social distance, we encourage masks, and also to wash your hands, and to stay home if sick. Those are the three main things."

In other developments Tuesday, Holt told commissioners that the county has ordered three COVID-19 rapid-testing machines, which can supply results of testing for the serious respiratory illness in about 15 minutes. The machines are being purchased with federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funds, and should be in the county by October, Holt said.

In the meantime, Holt told commissioners, the health department is proceeding with planning how best to utilize the machines once they arrive.