Plexiglass shields surround each desk in St. Johns County school classrooms. (Photo courtesy of Jay Willets)

How Schools In Florida’s Top School District Are Trying To Stay Safe During COVID-19

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St. Johns County is rated the number one school district in Florida for academics, and it has worked to provide a similarly positive example for safety as schools reopened during the past three weeks.

The school district ordered personal protective equipment for each one of its over 44,000 students, as well as staff members to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Julie Haden, a 1st grade teacher in St. Johns County, said the most challenging part about teaching during this pandemic is that she misses the kids.

“You miss the little things — the conversations with the kids and the activities you do in the classroom with them,” she said.

With schools reopening on Aug. 31, students in St. Johns County had a choice between 4 different methods of learning: 33,000 chose to go back to brick and mortar, 10,000 chose distance learning, 1,000 chose virtual school, and 2,000 chose homeschooling.

Deciding which teachers taught distance learning and brick and mortar was a decision for the principals and vice principals at each school. Middle school and high school teachers are multitasking by teaching brick and mortar and distance learning at the same time.

Some, but not all elementary school teachers are splitting up brick-and-mortar teaching and distance teaching to make it easier for the students. Dividing teaching responsibilities makes it easier for younger students with shorter attention spans, giving teachers more one-on-one time with students.

Christina Langston, a district spokesperson, said as in many Florida counties, St. Johns schools were scheduled to open Aug. 10, but the opening date moved to Aug. 31 to give them time to prepare.

In that three-week interlude, the school district ordered personal protective equipment including a desk shield, face masks/coverings, temperature checks every day, signage for social distancing, hand sanitizer for every classroom, contactless water bottle refill stations in the hallways, cleaning solutions for every classroom, portable hand sanitizer stations and even an electrostatic sprayer, called OmniShield, used in classrooms and on buses to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Jay Willets is a principal in St. Johns County for over 18 years and a purchasing director for the personal protective equipment. He was focused on the equipment consistency in every school and making sure every student has what they need to excel.

Pediatric face shields and bucket hats were ordered for younger students so they could stay safe more easily. Also, for American Sign Language students and teachers, face shields are used instead of face masks because facial expressions are necessary for communicating.

Having the equipment was not enough to make the school district feel safe. Willets and other administrators wanted employees and students to receive training and understand why these safety protocols are necessary.

“It’s not just about ordering the materials,” he said. “It’s about teaching students how to stay safe.”

Teachers went through training before school started on, and students have access to training videos on the district’s website. Also, there are signs on walls, mirrors, entrances, and hallways that teach students how to stay safe as well. Staff members are also trained on contact tracing, so if a student does receive a positive COVID-19 test, it will be handled with the Florida Health Department to limit the spread as much as possible.

According to the St. John’s County District website, several dozen students and four staff members have had positive COVID-19 results. Nearly 500 more have had to quarantine at home due to possible exposure.

About Austin Galbraith

Austin is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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