SEBRING — Amid Florida’s high numbers of COVID-19 cases and deaths, The School Board of Highlands County pushed back the start of school by one week to Monday, Aug. 17 with teachers returning on Wednesday, Aug. 5.

According to the School District, the decision is based on input from the district’s Calendar Committee and district and school administrators.

The later start will provide additional preparation time to ensure the district is ready to meet the needs of all students in each of its three instructional models.

Also, the district states face coverings will be worn by all students and staff while on the school bus and in hallways during class changes/transitions at the middle and high school level. The district will provide masks for those who don’t have face coverings.

The district’s original 2020-21 calendar had the first day of school on Aug. 11 with teachers returning on Aug. 3.

School Board Chair Donna Howerton said, “This allows us to train faculty to better facilitate students prior to them arriving. Having our students on three different platforms of instruction is definitely new to our teachers. Also, this will allow staff to ask questions and seek the necessary answers.”

District Administrator John Varady said, “The decision to require face coverings on school buses and in secondary level hallways during class transitions was based on input from the Highlands County Health Department, our local pediatrician task force, and input from district administrators and school board members.”

Many school districts in Florida have delayed the start of their school year. In South Florida where the pandemic is especially prevalent, the Broward School District is scheduled to start the school year on Aug. 19 with online learning only.

Miami-Dade County Superintendent Robert Runcie’s plan is to also start the school year on Aug. 19 with online learning only.

The Pinellas County School Board members unanimously approved a two-week delay in the first day of school until Aug. 24, with the last day of school on June 9.

The Monroe County School District will start its school year with at least four weeks of online-only classes. The start date has not been finalized, but could be pushed back a week to Aug. 17.

The Florida Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, in an 11-page white paper sent to Gov. Ron DeSantis, pointed to “significant benefits” of children going back to school, but also said those benefits have to be weighed against the risks.

It said that in many areas of the state, “coronavirus prevalence will not decrease enough in the next four to six weeks to make the benefits of school attendance outweigh the risks.”

“While it is clearly in a child’s best interest that he/she attend classes on campus, the benefits must outweigh the medical risks to the children, teachers, school staff and families,” the white paper said. “This goal must be the most important factor. We are learning more about the coronavirus nearly every day, and these recommendations are subject to change as new information becomes available.”

State Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran this month issued an order requiring districts to reopen brick-and-mortar schools at least five days a week in August, unless state and local health officials direct otherwise.

DeSantis has focused heavily on a need for families to have choices about whether to send children back to school or to use distance learning.

For Highlands County elementary and middle school students, the district has three options: attend school with face-to-face instruction with a teacher, full-time remote online learning with the same curriculum with a Highlands County teacher, or Highlands Virtual School with the Edgenuity curriculum.

Due to the many course offerings at the high school level there are two district options: face-to-face instruction or Highlands Virtual School.

The News Service of Florida contributed to this report.