Safe reopening a major concern for Leon County school officials, parents

By St. Clair Murraine
Outlook staff writer

     Rocky Hanna, superintendent of Leon County Schools, has announced Aug. 19 as the start date for the fall semester. The question, though, is how safely schools can reopen if the state continues to see a daily rise in the number of coronavirus cases reported.

Hanna’s announcement came a week after state Education Commission Richard Corcoran followed up on an executive order by Gov. Ron DeSantis calling for schools to be reopened in August. The order also calls for schools to be in brick-and-mortar classrooms at least five days each week.

Joy Bowen, district 5 school board member, has heard from worried parents around the school district.
Photo special to the Outlook

However, while the reopening plan for Leon County district isn’t cut in stone, parents have been expressing concern over safety. Some have posted their angst and anxiety on social media.

About 150 parents, mostly from Title 1 schools, participated in virtual town hall meeting on Zoom last week with District 3 school board member Darryl Jones. Later in the week, Jones had a virtual one-on-one conversation Rev. O. Jermaine Simmons, pastor at Jacob Chapel Baptist Church, in an effort to calm some of the fear.

Jones outlined many of the safety measures that the district will have in place such as the use of masks and social distancing in the classroom.

“We want to make certain that learning continues to occur but in the safest environment possible,” Jones said. “If that safe environment is at home or in our brick-and-mortar facilities we see it as our responsibility that we are good stewards of your children.”

No matter how children attend school, Jones urged parents to be engaged in their learning. He warned that students have to be ready for potential testing after being out of the classroom since March.

School board member Darryl Jones held to virtual town hall meeting last week to inform parents in his district 1.
Photo special to the Outlook

As vehemently as DeSantis called for the reopening of schools, his order left some leeway for county health officials to make the call on the safety of schools. If Leon County Health Department decides it’s too risky all classes will be digital for the semester.

“Brick-and-mortar will no longer be an option and virtual will be the rule of the land for everyone,” Jones said. “Yes, school will start but it will not start in physical facilities. What’s important about the weeks ahead whatever we do; plan A or to provide the option of a single plan based upon safety, the district, principals, faculty and the leadership will have to turn on a dime to make sure that our children will be able to continue their learning.”

District 5 School Board member Joy Bowen expressed reservations about school resuming in buildings. She’s been fielding calls from parents who are “frightened” and “petrified,” Bowen said.

Rocky Hanna, superintendent of Leon County Schools.
Photo by St. Clair Murraine

However, she pointed to the fact that a task force was in place to come up with a reopening plan. But there is concern about the effectiveness of the safety measures outlined.

“While I think we are doing the best that we can do; trying to make sure everybody is safe,” Bowen said, “none of us know if that’s going to be enough.”

Chris Petley, spokesperson for Hanna, said that while Aug. 19 is pegged as opening the opening date, about 40 percent of district’s 32,000 parents said their children will opt for what the district is calling a “digital academy.”

Despite the governor’s order calling for students to be in classrooms five days each week, Petley said the district’s primary concern is safety.

“This is all about our local kids here; our local students and we will do whatever it takes to keep them as safe as possible,” he said. “What they are saying on the national level and the statewide level is not necessarily resonating with us here. We know what our backyard looks like and we’re going to continue focusing on that.”

During the online town hall with Jones, Sabal Palm Elementary principal Anicia Robinson said that children will have individual supplies that they will use exclusively to avoid a spread of the virus. Parents will also get a manual with details on the reopening concept and how to make it work.

Parent Stephanie Wilson said two of her three children are eager to return to school. 

“When my kids come home, they talk about school like they’d been on an adventure all day,” Wilson said. 

At the same time, she said she knows that “COVID-19 is real.” The potential that attending school could be a health risk for her children bothers her.

“I’m torn,” she said. “I don’t know what to do.”

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