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Judges will be happy when live court returns

SEBRING — Circuit Court Judge Peter Estrada is hoping for the day he won’t have to play the role of air traffic controller, a term he uses to describe his attempt to manage incoming voice and video feeds.

Though his bosses at the Florida Supreme Court loosened COVID restrictions, Estrada and other judges continue to hear motions and communicate with defendants over Microsoft Teams. Estrada sits behind the bench in his judicial robe, his office computer screen on his desk and a second, larger screen standing not far from where lawyers directly address the jury.

When virtual court is in session, the large screen displays several images simultaneously: a masked defendant in orange jail clothes in the jailhouse courtroom across the street; a prosecutor at his desk in the Highland County State Attorney’s Office; a defense attorney staring into his laptop camera somewhere else, not necessarily in Highlands County. Estrada also must field phone calls from defendants in the community waiting for their cases to be called. They dial in from home or other location, and like everyone else, forget to turn their mute buttons on or off at appropriate times. It is easy to do; full disclosure: this reporter has also done it.

For a year or longer, Estrada and other judges have had to halt court proceedings when the video, audio or other aspect of the court’s Microsoft Team platform fails. Throughout it all, Estrada and other judges seek to maintain a sense of humor as their patience is tested.

The virtual court session of Wednesday, June 23, illustrated the challenges Estrada and other judges face in the age of online jurisprudence.

As the afternoon session begins, Estrada tells the lawyers and defendants on the big screen in the courtroom that “for the safety of your clients with other pods” he would be hearing jailed defendants jail pod by pod.

The Teams screen indicates there are at least 41 people — defendants, lawyers, members of the public — linked to the courtroom system by laptop or by phone. Those without a computer can call in to listen in and respond when Estrada calls his or her case.

Estrada then informs everyone that he will have to switch his attention to a case involving a minor in Polk County, which will require a hookup with a camera and video platform there. “We’ll see if they are there yet. “Is Polk County online?” he asks. There’s a beep sound. “Not yet,” Estrada says.

A woman’s voice booms from the large screen in the courtroom, complaining that the judge is not visible on her laptop.

“Put the camera up there, you can’t see me on the large screen. Can everybody see me?” Estrada asks. “Everybody said they could see me previously …. all the snafus that occurred this morning.”

He calls a case. Estrada asks the defendant, “Can you see me, can you see your attorney, the state attorney does not have his video on, Mr. [prosecutor] can you turn your video on?”

A defense attorney informs Estrada that her client has picked up a kidnapping charge and asks for a continuance. It is granted.

“Are we changing pods?” Estrada asks. “Yes,” comes from the screen in answer.

A female attorney’s voice suddenly booms from the video screen; she is so loud that she is difficult to understand.

Defense lawyer Jennifer Powell set up a special area with laptop and camera in her office to more easily participate in virtual court. The case order can become jumbled, she said.

”The most difficult part was two things: getting the technology to work, and the calling of cases,” Powell says. “For the jail inmates, they are called by pods to avoid mixing because of COVID. I used to be able to provide a list of my cases and they’d call them at one time.”

Meanwhile, throughout the afternoon court session, the judge can hear people waiting at home as they talk, eat, laugh, and on one day, heard someone order his dogs to be quiet.

A defendant suddenly pipes up on the phone line, complaining to Estrada that he has been waiting all day and has not been called. Estrada checks his name and tells him his case has not been called yet. Another defendant who says he hasn’t been called yet is told his case was called earlier in the day. He is told to call his lawyer.

Estrada states for the record that someone with his mute off could be heard during court using the bathroom and flushing during the morning court session. He laughs and says at times he’s heard dogs barking in people’s homes.

“Just warning everybody,” Estrada suddenly tells everyone waiting for their cases, ”we’re having some network problems here, I can already tell you because it’s flashing and if I go out that’s why and I’ll have court technology down here.”

The rest of the afternoon, buzzing, clicking and other network noise can be heard, which Estrada refers to as “Teams Meltdown.” Despite interruptions and technical issues, Estrada completes the afternoon’s docket.

In the closing moments of the afternoon’s court session, Estrada laughs and says, “Tune into the same channel on Monday. It’s going to be … bad.”

Lesson Update - Elementary and middle schools prep for new ELA curriculum

SEBRING — District educators are preparing for something new in the upcoming school year at the elementary and middle school level — new English language arts curriculum.

Curriculum is what is taught in a given course or subject and curriculum also refers to the interactive system of instruction and learning with specific goals, contents, strategies, measurement and resources.

In grades K-5 the School Board of Highlands County will be using Amplify CKLA (Core Knowledge Language Arts) Florida.

In grades 6-8 the curriculum is HMH Into Literature Florida. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt is an education resource company.

Following this year’s review process, high schools voted to postpone the adoption of English language arts (ELA) curriculum. The ELA materials will be reviewed during the 2021-22 school year, following the district’s textbook adoption review process.

Professional development trainings for teachers, instructional coaches, and administrators started this past week, and will continue through Aug. 6, to support schools in the initial implementation of the new curriculum.

During these trainings, publishers work with teachers to understand the design principles and organization of materials, lesson components, and instructional routines. Throughout the school year, additional trainings will be offered to strengthen implementation based on teacher and school needs.

What does the curriculum change mean to students?The district responded stating, students need daily practice discussing and writing about informational and literary text and other media in order to be successful in college and their careers. We give our students the support they need to read texts closely, then challenge them to speak and write about what they have read or viewed using evidence to back up their positions.

Supporting our students’ ability to read critically, build arguments, cite evidence, and communicate ideas today prepares them to be better citizens tomorrow.

Students acquire the foundations for reading. Our younger students are afforded systematic and explicit instruction and practice with foundational skills in reading.

Reading foundations are approached with equal importance to building knowledge and vocabulary through worthwhile complex read alouds.

Older students who may have gaps in foundational skills are supported with effective interventions to rapidly bring them up to speed.

What does the curriculum change mean to parents?Students will be immersed in a variety of topics throughout the year to engage in a wide range of speaking and listening, writing, and reading tasks and activities related to these topics.

Parents can help their children be successful in the new curriculum in a number of ways:

• Provide an area at home that supports learning.

• Ask about and listen to what their child is learning at school.

• Make sure their child completes all his/her homework.

• Stay connected with their child’s teacher.

One veteran elementary teacher who participated in the district’s instructional materials review process wrote, “One reason I like Amplify so much is that the listening and learning domains are easily brought to life through engaging and meaningful activities. For example, our first grade students re-enacted the Boston Tea Party and Lewis and Clark’s expedition out west, and had a Mayan dig to name a few.

“I also like how the domains aren’t presented in a one and done style. They progress through the grade levels. This allows students to have background knowledge to build upon when they encounter the unit in the next grade level. I believe this helps to cement the learning.”

District ELA/Reading Specialist K-12 Tina Starling said, “Students read worthwhile texts. By reading rich, challenging texts that build our students’ understanding of the world, we empower them with the understanding that reading is their pathway to knowledge.

“We put meaningful, complex texts at the heart of nearly every lesson and set students up to do lots of reading on their own so that all of our students, regardless of their reading level, build their knowledge of the world, gain confidence with challenging texts, and develop the critical thinking skills and vocabulary necessary for long term success.”

Superintendent Brenda Longshore said, “Leading up to the adoption of new English Language Arts curriculum materials, we had over 80 stakeholders from both the elementary and secondary levels dedicate over 400 hundred hours, rigorously evaluating and analyzing the material.

“I greatly appreciate this group for their dedication to education and for the work they all did for the benefit of students and teachers.”

Bashoor recounts the scene at Surfside collapse
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SEBRING — Highlands County’s Public Safety Director toured the heart-breaking scene at the site of the Surfside condominium collapse that may have claimed as many as 140 lives.

Marc Bashoor was the guest of Dave Downey, the retired Miami-Dade Fire Rescue chief, directing what has become an effort to retrieve the remains of residents and others who died in the collapse.

“I went as goodwill ambassador and as a Highlands County representative who has collapse technical rescue team members who can go down there if called,” he said.

Downey allowed Bashoor to tour the command post as well as watch emergency workers search the pile of rubble for bodies using various tools and techniques, he said.

“I also wanted to see what, mentally, those rescuers were going through,” he said.

One psychological aspect he won’t forget was the “overwhelming stench of death” which he could smell a block away from the collapsed Champlain Towers South at 8777 Collins Ave.

“I walked around three sides of the pile and didn’t smell anything,” he said. “But then, when I came on the fourth side, which was downwind, was when it hit.”

Though he’s smelled decaying bodies in his career, the “difference was the sheer magnitude of no matter where you walked you smelled it.”

He spoke of the continuous rain, followed by sun and heat, that bedeviled the hundreds of rescuers and responders from around the state.

He thought of Highlands County’s own technical rescue team, trained to extricate people from collapsed buildings, trenches, and construction. Battalion Chief Brett Hogan in Lake Placid is the team leader.

“We are our own team, they are fully fully certified in trench rescue levels,” he said. “If there was a request for deployment, we can fulfill the request, but that did not occur.”

He spoke of the equipment rescuers used to remove debris as rescuers searched for bodies.

“They have a device they call a picker, it’s a big crane-like device that picks heavier pieces off of the pile and puts them to the side and people would then jump in and continue to sift though until they find a body. That’s when everything stops. They manually uncover the body, then go through the process of recovery.”

Another tool that actually helped rescuers’ morale: canines specifically trained to work on disaster scenes.

“Hounds were used like crazy on the pile,” he said. “First job was to search for survivors. They did pull people out of the rubble the first few days, but then they had to switch to cadaver dogs.”

Families and neighbors accepted the death of loved ones before the process switched from searching for survivors to recovering bodies, he said.

“There was a wall a block away that someone set up as a remembrance wall with pictures of people, filled with roses and all kinds of stuff. It was a sad reality. That was Day 12; it was Day 14 when they called it ‘recovery.’”

“There were heated discussions about the builders, but it was more anxiousness and despair ... people needed to vent,” he said.

He is also a member of the Florida Fire Chiefs; members of the organization have also attended the recovery process.

Bashoor, who is leaving his Highlands County job Sept. 30, also wrote of his experience on the national FireRescue1.com website, where he serves as executive editor.

In his post for the website, he wrote, “I will forever remember three things from my short time at the pile: The overwhelming stench of death, the solidarity and teamwork of crews from all over the world; and the pride in being an American — and an American firefighter.”