Class is in session: Walton County schools leave COVID-19 precautions up to parents

Jim Thompson
Northwest Florida Daily News

DeFUNIAK SPRINGS — Superintendent Russell Hughes says the Walton County School District is "going forward as normal" even as the new school year that kicked off Tuesday begins under a resurgence of the coronavirus pandemic.

Across Florida, the school year began under an executive order from Gov. Ron DeSantis precluding school systems from mandating that students wear masks as a public health measure against COVID-19, instead leaving the decision to parents.

Some school districts are bucking against the executive order, but in a recent YouTube video previewing the new school year, Hughes noted that masks are, indeed, optional for Walton students, in line with the executive order.

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"But if you want your child to do so (wear a mask), talk to them about doing that," Hughes said.

Otherwise, Hughes said in a recent interview with the Daily News that students are being reminded of social distancing as a public health protocol designed to keep the coronavirus in check.

Beyond that, school officials will rely on parents to communicate with their children about coronavirus protocols such as washing their hands and staying home if they're sick, he said.

"That's what we're going to try to do as long as we don't have any outbreaks or cases," Hughes said.

Walton County Schools Superintendent Russell Hughes made the rounds Tuesday on the first day of school. Hughes said the School District is committed to keeping children in classrooms, and will approach any coronavirus issues with an eye toward minimal disruption.

"We want to make sure that we can come to school for 180 days," Hughes said in a recent YouTube video previewing the new school year. In the video, Hughes notes that 96% of Walton County students were in brick-and-mortar classrooms last year, and that no schools had to shut down as a result of coronavirus issues.

According to Hughes, as the new school year begins, worries about the coronavirus don't appear, from his perspective, to be a particularly deep concern for parents.

Walton County teachers and students began a new school year Tuesday. The School District is complying with an executive order from Gov. Ron DeSantis that leaves it up to parents to decide whether their children will wear masks to school in light of the coronavirus pandemic.

"Truthfully, I haven't gotten any calls about it," he said a few days before the start of the new school year.

Nonetheless, the School District will be focused to do "whatever needs to be done to keep children in school," Hughes said.

He added that the School District's responses to any issues with COVID-19 will be "surgical, not sweeping" in order to ensure that students can continue to come to school for face-to-face instruction.

"In my opinion, for the majority of children, it's paramount," Hughes said. "You can't ever replace an in-classroom teacher, by way of one-to-one" instruction.

Walton County Schools Superintendent Russell Hughes visits with students  on the first day of school Tuesday. The School District began the year with 400 more students than last year, Hughes said.

The Walton County School District begins the new year with 400 more students than it had last year, Hughes said. An increasing student population has become an annual issue, he said, noting that new students were coming in to the district just days before the start of the school year.