'A big deal': Okaloosa County schools suspend field trips in light of COVID-19

Savannah Evanoff
Northwest Florida Daily News

FORT WALTON BEACH — Many activities were placed on hold in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and some still haven’t returned.

Field trips in Okaloosa County are one of them.

Diane Fraser, the director of the Emerald Coast Science Center, said field trips have been on pause for one full academic school year plus the last nine weeks of the previous year. And while likely a disappointment to every student hoping to explore a new environment on a weekday; it’s equally — if not more — of a disappointment for the field trip venue.

“No. 1, because that's what we love to do; that's our lifeblood,” Fraser said. “That's our jam, right? It hurts our heart. But No. 2, the bottom line is field trips are what are the revenue generators, what makes the mortgage payments and pays the utilities. Across the board, every museum is terrified. This is a big deal.”

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Emerald Coast Science Center Director Diane Fraser shows off a resident hedgehog to visitors Wednesday afternoon. The Science Center stands to lose revenue after the Okaloosa County School District announced a temporary halt to field trips because of COVID-19.

The Okaloosa County School District recently announced it will postpone field trips.

“The School District has temporarily suspended field trips during the school day as one of its COVID-19 protocols,” Deputy Superintendent Steve Horton said in an emailed statement. “We will continue to review available data and hope to reinstate field trips at some point this fall, as they can be an important supplement to school-based curriculum.”

In the 2018-19 school year, the Emerald Coast Science Center made $60,000 from field trips composed of a total of 5,182 students. In 2019-20, during which the last nine weeks of school were canceled, it made $42,000 from 3,843 students.

In 2020-21, it made $11,000 from 1,056 students. The Science Center has had an 81% loss in field trip revenue from the last full year of field trips to now, Fraser said.

The Science Center had recently begun booking field trips for this school year, she added.

“I think it was Bluewater (Elementary School) that had booked a field trip, and then they called us back and said, ‘Hey, the district just put field trips on hold,’” Fraser said. “It's probably due to the surge right now. I hope that maybe by January that it would be in a position to where kids would be going on field trips again.”

Docent Dan McKnight talks with Kim Romans and her granddaughter, Cassie Crow, as they visit the Camp Walton Schoolhouse in Fort Walton Beach on Tuesday. The Fort Walton Beach Heritage Park & Cultural Center, which includes the Indian Temple Mound Museum, Camp Walton Schoolhouse, the Garnier Post Office, Temple Mound and the Civil War exhibit building will not host field trip students after the Okaloosa County School District announced a temporary halt to trips.

Gail Lynn Meyer, the museum manager at the Fort Walton Beach Heritage Park & Cultural Center, said the center has experienced many schedule changes from Okaloosa County schools. She expects schools in Walton, Santa Rosa and Escambia Counties will follow suit.

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“We have some teachers that have said, ‘Oh my gosh, yes. Hold my dates. We hope to see you in November or December,’” Meyer said. “We have other teachers that are saying, ‘Let me pre-emptively make my reservation for February.’ Teachers are choosing to do both. We’re all trying to make the best of what we can in this situation.”

The museum typically saw more than 8,000 pre-school through college students a year, Meyer said.

Canceled field trips will affect the museum’s financial standing, but they are not its largest source of revenue, Meyer said. And the museum has already compensated for the lack of field trip revenue for a year, she added.

“We have expanded the hours the museum is open to the general public,” Meyer said. “We have changed the days of the week we are open to the public based on our past data records of which days are busier, which days are quieter. We hope to return to that revenue stream, but we also realistically recognize it may never return to what it was before.”

The biggest loss isn’t money, though.

Hats, lunch pails and bonnets hang on a rack beneath a portrait of longtime Okaloosa County educator William C. Pryor at the Camp Walton Schoolhouse in Fort Walton Beach. The Fort Walton Beach Heritage Park & Cultural Center, which includes the schoolhouse and other exhibits, will not host student field trips after the Okaloosa County Schools District halted such trip because of COVID-19.

“The crux of the loss for us is that we have the artifacts from the prehistoric people,” Meyer said. “We have artifacts from the early history of Fort Walton Beach. The experience of being in the Camp Walton Schoolhouse, standing on top of the Mound that was used 1,000 years ago, is what is lost. It’s the wow factor, what you hope will become a lifelong interest of these kids. Yes, that can be generated through virtual field trips, but trust me, watching it on a computer screen is not the same thing.”

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Meyer isn’t under the impression that an hour-long field trip will change the lives of every student, but it will inspire them, she contends.

“It’s going to have them ask questions and think about things,” she said. “That’s what education at a museum is about. We are going to miss the students that don’t get to come this year, that didn’t get to come last year, but field trips will start again. I have no doubt of that. Not only that, the normal that everyone returns to is going to be different — even if 10,000 students come back next year, the reality of wearing masks and hand sanitizing and all the things part of our world now are going to continue for a long time.”