AVON PARK — “Now I can scream that we made it. Now everyone, everywhere I go, they say ‘gratulations.”
As their class song “Congratulations” by Post Malone says, the Avon Park High School class of 2020 truly has made it. Although none of them could have anticipated how 2020 would change their final year of high school, not to mention their lives, Friday night was their time to celebrate making it through a difficult year and coming out the other side stronger for it.
“You may not be aware of the significance of your experiences you’ve had since Spring Break, but you have done much more than you know,” said APHS principal Danielle Erwin in her speech to the graduating class.
Erwin touched on how the senior class took to online learning to insure they finished their courses, even at the expense of working full-time jobs to help their parents and their community during this tough time. “Some of you created your own study groups to support each other and many of you cared for loved ones so that your families could work.”
The 240 graduates and their families in attendance at Joe Franza Stadium on Friday night followed social distancing and wore their masks, a sign of that although they have fought hard and persevered through this pandemic, it wasn’t yet over. “You have learned first hand in just a few months the value of life and how our lives can change in a flash, in a moment,” said Erwin.
The Alan Jay Automotive Network handed out five $1,000 cash scholarships to Dalton Edward Green, Kevin Leigh Myers Jr., Angelica Mendoza, April Brianna Robinson and Savannah Rose Durrance.
The class of 2020 history was presented by Lizbeth Amanda Capote Solano. She thanked the teachers for never giving up on them, showing them how to help each other and how to use their skills to help others. “I hope each class after us learns to be a family and grow incredible relationships with one another and amazing faculty at this school,” said Capote. “We finally made it and I know that God has so much in store for each one of our lives. Congratulations class of 2020.”
The recipients of the Gwen Sanders-Hill Scholarship Achievement Award is given to those students who graduate with an Associate’s degree from South Florida State College and from their high school simultaneously. This year’s recipients were Zachary Alan Best, Hassan Javed, Kevin Leigh Myers Jr., William Edward Parker, Alyssa Madison Selph and Amanda Toussaint.
This year’s Senior Honor Student was Joseph Dean Goodwin.
The Citizenship Awards for 2020 went to Hassan Javed and Olivia Grace Guerndt.
The Bailey Medal was awarded to Loretta Natalia Walker and Hassan Javed.
“We are extremely proud of our graduates and cannot wait to see the amazing things they will do,” said Erwin.
In his Commencement Address, Hassan Javed recognized God, as well as the principal and administrators at APHS for all their help and support throughout their four years of high school. “Surely, God is the best of planners,” said Javed.
Javed also praised the teachers at APHS. “The cornerstones that took their time to not only teach us, but also to motivate us to keep going.”
The Florida High School Athletic Association (FHSAA) decided in a Zoom meeting on Monday, July 20 that the start date of fall sports practices would not change and would begin Monday, July 27 but that quickly changed.
Thursday night the FHSAA voted to decide, after meeting with the Sports Medicine Athletic Committee (SMAC), that the fall season would be delayed until August 24 at the earliest.
SMAC is an FHSAA committee made up of doctors, that looked over the recommendations. No matter how the FHSAA voted, it would not make everyone happy.
Highlands County schools had no intentions of starting on Monday.
“It made no sense for us to start on Monday,” said Sebring Athletic Director Jasone DeWitt. “We have been communicating with other counties and coaches. We all have to be on the same page to have a season. There is no point of us starting now and not having anyone to play against because other counties can’t start. We wanted to wait see what the counties around us decided. We have nothing set in stone and we have the luxury of extending our season if we need to through playoff time. It is all about the safety of the schools and players.”
The School Board of Highlands County is very involved in the decision-making process.
“Dr. (Brenda) Longshore is very involved and is now a Highlands County School Board member,” DeWitt said. “She will have a lot of information to go off of and will decide when it is safe to play for our county. I know no matter what decisions are made not everyone will be pleased. I think us not starting is the best decision at this time. We will continue to monitor what is going on and what is going on in the school itself. If there is an outbreak at any school, I’m sure things will change. There is flexibility so that we will not miss the full fall season like we did during the spring. There is room to adjust and start later.”
Highlands County Schools have not made a decision on whether spectators will be allowed at games or what rules will be in place if they are allowed. During player conditioning workouts, schools have a set of rules they are following.
“We have not come up with a decision on having spectators or fans coming in,” DeWitt explained. “One of the tasks force committees came up with rules for conditioning during the off-season and I think we have done really well as a county. Some of the recommendations from SMAC, we are already doing and we are ahead of the game. They recommended a waiver, which we have, they recommended temperature checks, which we do, and a few other things that we are already doing. I am very happy with what the task force committee recommended to us. Our student athletes got used to it, our coaches got used to it and it is now just the norm. It is good for the kids to have some activity and to have some normalcy to their lives. We are in a good situation right now.”
At Highlands County schools each athlete has their temperature checked upon arrival and that will be the same when they go to school to make sure they aren’t showing symptoms. If a student does have a fever or symptoms they will be sent home and advised to see a doctor. During practices athletes social distance, shared equipment is sanitized between each use and groups are no larger than 10 people and that includes the coaches. The schools are doing everything they can to follow the guidelines to keep students safe.
“There are a lot of counties that have not made it to the phase where they can condition,” said DeWitt. “I’m happy that we are able to do that. Some counties haven’t had any organized conditioning at all so we are fortunate to be able to do that. Our students are getting exercise, they are monitored by their coaches and we are fortunate on that end of it.”
Lake Placid High School is doing everything they can to protect their students and athletes.
“Right now, we are waiting and making sure we are doing everything we can to keep the kids safe,” said Lake Placid Athletic Director Jason Holden. “In education the safety of our students is the first priority. We don’t want to rush into anything before we know what is the right thing to do. We are on track with the county and the surrounding counties, we will not be behind if we start late.”
COVID-19 has turned the world upside down and everyone is adjusting to a new normal.
“Just like everything else with COVID-19, we don’t know how it will affect the sports and we hate to speculate,” said Holden. “We are going to have to modify schedules and it does create stress. I know the athletes are anxious to get going and for a lot of them it is their favorite part of school. This is hard on everyone but everyone I have talked to understands that we have to be patient.”
The Avon Park High School Athletic Director was unavailable for comment.
SEBRING — The collective eyes of Highlands County residents watched as positive coronavirus cases passed the 1,000 cases-threshold on Saturday, according to the Florida’s COVID-19 Data and Surveillance Dashboard, run by the Florida Department of Health. COVID cases increased by 50, bringing the total number of infections to 1,018, which includes four non-residents.
Coming off the heals of an all-time increase in deaths, (six new deaths on Friday’s update), county deaths remain steady at 22.
Saturday’s FDOH update shows 565 people were tested on Friday with 515 negative tests and 50 positive, or an 8.8% positivity rate. Friday’s positivity rate was 12.2%. To date, 13,905 people in the county have been tested with 12,878 negative results for an overall positivity rate of 7.32%.
Those positive for the virus range from 0-96 years old with an overall median age of 47. Saturday’s update showed a median age of 43. Women still lead the number of those infected with 530 followed by men at 479 and five whose gender was unknown.
As of 11:30 a.m. on Saturday, the Agency for the Health Care Administration reported 54 current hospitalizations from COVID-19. The AHCA update showed an adult ICU bed census at 30 beds for the county with four beds, or 11.76% availability. They did not show any pediatric ICU beds being used. The county hospital bed census was listed with a total staffed bed capacity of 264 and 60 beds or 22.73% availability.
The overall county hospitalizations lists 122 people have been hospitalized, which is 12% of all cases. The county’s percentage of hospitalizations is double that of the state’s percentage which is 6% with 23,730 hospitalizations.
The most vulnerable are the county’s senior population. The long-term care facilities are showing 127, or 13% of all cases in the county. According to FDOH, there have been 28 cases of infection in the correctional facilities in the county.
The state added an additional 12,199 positive cases of COVID-19 for a new total of 414,511, including non-residents. Florida’s death toll climbed by 124 residents for a total of 5,777 deaths. There were two additional non-resident deaths, bringing that count to 117 for a combined 5,994 deaths.
FDOH reports the state has tested 3,340,949 with 2,921,866 negative results. The statewide overall positivity rate is 12.41%.
Counties around the state that have had a quadruple number of case increases are Miami-Dade with 3,424 and Broward at 1,611.
Counties with increases of triple digit jumps are:
•Bay — 385
•Brevard – 142
•Collier — 124
•Duval — 507
•Escambia — 170
•Hillsborough — 589
•Indian River — 104
•Jackson — 241
•Lee — 246
•Manatee — 189
•Marion – 119
•Orange — 607
•Osceola — 257
•Palm Beach — 703
•Pasco — 148
•Pinellas — 258
•Polk — 288
•Sarasota — 169
•Seminole — 172
•St. Lucie — 163
•Volusia — 164
The above county increases account for 10,780 of the day’s total increase.
Nationwide, the total cases have reached 4,137,411 with 145,719 deaths attributed to COVID-19. Globally, the pandemic has seen 15,800,544 cases with 640,724 deaths associated to the virus.
SEBRING — The School Board of Highlands County will be discussing the start date for schools at its regular meeting on Tuesday.
Due to the statewide resurgence in COVID-19 cases, many school districts have pushed back the reopening of schools for the 2020-19 school year to the end of August.
Currently Highlands County public schools will reopen as scheduled on Aug. 10 with parents having online options for their children if they don’t want their children going to school for face-to-face instruction.
School Board Chair Donna Howerton said Wednesday she has been speaking with Superintendent Brenda Longshore as concerns come up.
“Do I want as many of our students and faculty back in school brick and mortar if they choose that option? Yes,” Howerton said. “At the last meeting I did share my concern with seeing other districts considering delaying the start of schools.
“I was hearing from teachers just wanting to be best prepared for their students arriving.”
Howerton said she wants the best safety for the district’s staff and students.
“I also have shared a concern with once we get started if we do have to approach quarantining and testing,” she said. “What plan there is and felt we should involve our hospitals and pediatricians for their thoughts.”
Just in getting tested in Highlands County, it’s a 7- to 10-day process for getting results back, Howerton said. “I so wish there was a faster process there.”
“I’m not saying I would not support extending the start date to just give myself a comfort level,” she said. “I have also been talking to neighboring county school board members and they are still unsure what their final decision is. Yet some have and they have extended.”
In an address to the state amid widespread controversy about reopening schools, Gov. Ron DeSantis on Wednesday offered a softer message focused on giving families and teachers the choice to return to classrooms in August as COVID-19 cases continue to surge.
DeSantis said Florida’s 67 school districts should have the option to delay the start of school “a few weeks” and should not force teachers and parents to return to school if they have underlying medical conditions or if they “just don’t feel comfortable with in-person instruction.”
The Republican governor did not mention a controversial state order that said school districts must reopen brick-and-mortar schools at least five days a week starting in August, unless local and state health officials say otherwise. But he also did not distance himself from it, like he has in recent days.
Instead, he offered an explanation about why he believes schools should reopen for the fall term.
“While the risks to students from in-person learning are low, the cost of keeping schools closed are enormous,” DeSantis said. “Let’s be honest, (distance learning) is a far cry from in-person instruction, and it places a tremendous burden on our working parents.”
In a Thursday press release, The Florida Education Association (FEA) stated it has become increasingly concerned about the dangers faced by students and educators alike who are being asked to return to school campuses while Florida is still a global hot spot of the COVID-19 pandemic.
An online survey garnered a total of 48,626 responses, which shows according to FEA:
• 76% of educators do not have faith their school can be reopened safely.
• When given the choice, fewer than 10% of educators would choose to go back to work in person this fall as scheduled, with 76% wanting either to continue exclusively virtual learning or a hybrid model of virtual and in-person‘
• Similarly, 77% of parents would prefer either to continue with distance learning or a hybrid model as opposed to returning completely to in-person this fall.
The News Service of Florida contributed to this report.