The Big Back-to-School Experiment

“We expect you to be serious when you make that choice. You’ll be locked in.” – Superintendent Malcolm Thomas

by Jeremy Morrison, Inweekly

The upcoming school year will be unlike any before it. With the COVID-19 numbers in Florida spiking as summer barrels toward the academic year, school officials are mapping out plans to accommodate health measures and educational alternatives.

“We are living in a challenging moment and a moment we’ve never seen before,” Escambia County School Superintendent Malcolm Thomas said Wednesday, as he presented the district’s plan for this year.

At the state level, the Florida Department of Education has ordered that all schools return to session on physical campuses come August. In Escambia, students will be deciding between that on-campus option — the traditional option, the district is calling it — as well as remote and virtual options.

“This plan will far exceed the requirement that the Department of Education has outlined,” Thomas said, while also conceding that the coronavirus landscape is presenting educators with a “huge dilemma” and that “perhaps none of the options we’re going to offer will be perfect for any family.”

With schools in session by early August in Escambia, the district is requesting that each student and their family select one of the three options by July 20. Once an option has been selected, changes — for example, switching from remote to traditional — will not be allowed until later in the year.

“We expect you to be serious when you make that choice,” Thomas said. “You’ll be locked in.”

Untraditionally Traditional

The first option Escambia is offering, and the default option if no option is selected, will be the traditional option. This option entails a quasi-normal return to school for a student, albeit with COVID-related changes.

“It will be face-to-face,” Thomas said, cautioning parents that “it will be difficult to socially-distance, as many would want us to do” in a campus environment.

Students — as well as teachers, staff and bus drivers — going back to school on campuses will be encouraged to wear a face mask, but will not be required to do so.

“We’re not going to require it simply because it’s an unmanageable mandate,” Thomas said. “What do you do if they don’t?”

The district will, however, be instituting other measures. For example, lunches will become a prepared grab-and-go affairs, with many elementary students eating in classrooms and older students taking advantage of outdoor seating areas. Additionally, water fountains will be retrofitted to transition students away from a shared-use nozzle to a bottle-filling station. And large indoor gatherings, such as pep rallies in a gymnasium, will disappear.

Escambia is also suspending extracurricular activities, such as after-school clubs. And shifting toward a school day with half as many class changes to minimize movement. And no one but students, teachers and staff will be allowed in a school building — that means no parents, volunteers or mentors.

Another safety measure being introduced is the staff and teacher temperature check upon arriving at school. If anyone has a 100.4 degree fever or higher, they’re sent home.

Students will also be isolated and sent home if they arrive at school sick. And if anyone is found to have contracted the coronavirus, contact tracing will be conducted to determine who else might be at risk and should perhaps be isolated; to make contract tracing more logistically doable, classrooms will have precise seating charts.

Thomas noted that it was not a matter of if, but when someone within the district would test positive for COVID-19.

“It’s going to happen,” the superintendent said.

Thomas said that in the event someone test positive, the district will conduct contract tracing and isolate people that may have come in close contact with the individual. Those in isolation will shift for two weeks to the district’s remote classrooms offered as part of option two. The superintendent stressed that the isolations would likely be limited in scope, and wouldn’t likely impact an entire campus.

“I think it will be very rare that an entire school will have to be shut down,” Thomas said, adding that the prospects of a district-wide shutdown were “virtually impossible.”

Remote & Virtual

In addition to welcoming students back to physical campuses, Escambia is also offering two options that involve off-campus online learning. The first option, dubbed ‘remote,’ tethers the student to their home school, while the second, called ‘virtual,’ allows for a more individualized, flexible path.

Thomas said that the district will not be having teachers conduct both traditional and remote options simultaneously. They may, however, dip into the varying models during different times of the day. Additionally, older teachers or those with health issues will be given priority when selecting teachers to conduct online classrooms.

With the remote option, students will spend the hours of the traditional school day participating in an online classroom along with other remote students and teachers. This is the more face-to-face-on-a-screen option.

“In remote learning, the student is at home, the teacher is at school,” Thomas said, explaining that this option would not be akin to the district’s operations during the shutdown months of the spring semester, as it would more closely mirror a traditional school day. “This is not what we did in April and May. If that’s what you think remote is, you need to erase that from your mind.”

With the virtual option, students have access to teachers, but much of the work is done independently and at the student’s chosen pace and time, though the scope of work is the same.

“Virtual doesn’t have a schedule,” Thomas said. “The students that would choose virtual need to be relatively independent.”

With both the remote and virtual options, students will still be expected to accomplish the same scholastic goals as their on-campus counterparts, and also be required to complete state assessment testing. Also with these options, some elective classes, such as band or a culinary class, will not be offered.

Into the New Normal

Ahead of the start of the school year, Escambia is already instituting some COVID-related changes. High school football players, currently participating in summer practices, are among the first to experience aspects of the new normal, which includes daily temperature checks for both players and coaches.

“It’s just been this week that they were allowed to start throwing the ball and catching it,” Thomas said, explaining a cautionary pace. “Of course, those balls have to be cleaned and sanitized.”

To fund this new normal, Escambia is using funds from the CARES Act, designed to fund coronavirus expenditures. The district received $12.3 million in CARES funding, and is using the money to purchase PPE, or personal protective equipment, including 400,000 disposable masks, as well as disposable thermometers.

The funds are also being used to pay for the equipment and software needed to conduct online-based learning. And the district is holding onto between five and six million dollars in case it needs to supplement its budget in lieu of laying off staff due to coronavirus-related impacts in the future.

— For more information regarding Escambia County School District’s reopening plan, or to research and select an option for a student, visit the district website: