Leon High School in Tallahassee Florida on July 21, 2022. Credit: Danielle J. Brown
The vast majority of school districts opened their classroom doors Wednesday, with hopes of a more normal school setting following a rocky two years that included the COVID pandemic, remote learning, mask controversies, an overhaul for statewide testing and prohibitions on certain school topics.
“It feels like this year is closer to how it was in 2019, as far as getting the school year started,” said Russell Bruhn, a communications staffer with the Brevard County school district on Florida’s Atlantic Coast. He had visited two district schools, an elementary and middle school, to assess their first day of school.
“Compared to last year, there’s a little bit more ease, it feels,” Bruhn said.
That said, “Obviously COVID is still among us and we’re concerned about it,” Bruhn said. “But last year, we were also welcoming a lot of kids back who may not have even been in school. They were doing virtual learning from home, and so there was a lot of kind of getting reacquainted last year, it felt like, in addition to the uneasiness of what would come later in August when we had, in Brevard County a pretty significant spike in COVID cases and quarantines. So I think this year, it feels more normal so far.”
Chris Petley, communication staffer for the Leon County public schools, shared a similar optimism.
“Things are just really looking like — I hate to use the phrase ‘back to normal,’ but they’re really looking good for us,” he told the Phoenix.
Last year, students and teachers entered the 2021-22 school year with an air of uncertainty. COVID cases were rising and state education officials were fighting over mask mandates, the Phoenix reported at the time.
However, there are some uncertain elements looming around the corner.
For one, the COVID pandemic is not over, and as a new subvariant becomes the predominant strain, districts will have to be on the lookout for potential flareups in cases.
In a November special session, the Florida Legislature prohibited mask mandates and voluntary mask use is down significantly, some school districts reported Wednesday.
“I saw some attached to backpack straps this morning, but I don’t think I saw anyone wearing masks,” Chris Petley, with Leon County, said.
But there’s a new threat this year: the monkeypox outbreak, which started to greatly increase in cases in Florida over the summer, when kids and teachers were not in school regularly. So far, schools may not be a big spreader of monkeypox, the Phoenix previously reported, but school districts will need to keep an eye out.
“Right now, that’s not something that we’ve had in depth conversations about,” Bruhn said. “Currently in Brevard, my understanding is that there’s very few cases and that’s great…if it becomes an issue then then we will kind of address it. But right now we’re mostly focused on welcoming our back kids back and making sure that they have a safe school environment to learn.”
Meanwhile, the Florida education system will be making a major testing shift: multiple assessments throughout the school year in what’s called progress monitoring.
There will be three statewide exams throughout the school year. Two of them are considered diagnostic exams to see how students are progressing. But the third exam is the end-of-year cumulative and comprehensive assessment for reading and math.
For the 2022-23 school year, the first window to implement the progress monitoring assessment runs from Aug. 15 through Sept. 30. The second assessment is planned to occur sometime between December 5 through January 27, 2023, saddling the days off students get for winter break. The final assessment will occur in the window from May 1, 2023 through June 2, 2023.
But for Andrew Spar, president of the statewide Florida Education Association, the progress monitoring system may not actually reduce testing time and teachers my not have enough time to incorporate the data into their classroom instruction.
“If we’re not reducing testing, and we’re not getting that information to teachers and giving teachers the time to to actually implement strategies in the classroom — then it’s all for naught,” Spar told the Phoenix. “And that’s part of the problem because teachers do not have the time they need…to actually take data, that’s usable data, and be able to craft strategies of lesson plans to help every child succeed.”
In addition, polarizing education policies from the 2022 legislative session have some teachers concerned about the Florida education system, Spar said. That includes new laws that limit discussions around the LGBTQ+ community and history or race.
“Certainly, it’s hurting keeping people in the profession… all of that impacts kids,” Spar said.
While most school districts are open, a handful of them are not, including the massive Miami-Dade and Broward school districts. Those public schools will start next week.
There are some 2.8-million public school students in Florida.
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