On Thursday, June 11th, Governor Ron DeSantis announced the Florida Department of Education Reopening Florida’s Schools plan. This plan presents a step-by-step approach to creating safe spaces for teaching and learning as schools across the state work to close achievement gaps created by the school closure. We will utilize this plan as we move through our planning process.

Even before the release of the governor’s plan, our reopening task force teams had been working diligently to create a safe and practical comprehensive plan for reopening school in Highlands County on Aug. 11.

To ensure a healthy start to the year, we have allocated resources and added hours to the workday for our custodial staff to allow for daily deep cleaning of schools. We are also collaborating with local Health Department officials to provide guidance on best practices for creating and maintaining a safe and healthy learning and work environment for students and staff.

I have spent a great deal of time speaking with parents in the community, and last week I hosted a series of town hall meetings. I heard a clear and consistent message that parents want educational options for their children.

With direction from the governor’s plan for reopening schools and input from the community and parents, we have what we now feel is the best road map for moving forward. I released this plan last week so that parents are aware of their options and so that families and staff can make their plans for fall.

In our first option, students in elementary, middle and high school return to school campuses for face-to-face instruction. While this option provides a return to a traditional school structure, there will be major differences in the day.

Before the start of each day, students will have their temperatures taken as they arrive at school or board the school bus. We ask that parents with elementary school students remain at the bus stop until their child is cleared to board. Any child with a temperature of 100.4 or higher will not be allowed to attend school. Staff and visitors will also have temperature checks as they enter the campus.

We have recently purchased no-touch thermometers and will provide them to all campuses. During the day, we will maintain social distancing whenever feasible, and we welcome but do not require the wearing of masks throughout the day. We will encourage thorough hand washing and will provide hand sanitizer throughout campus. Schools will be deep cleaned before the start of each day, and high contact areas will be sanitized throughout the school day. Meal service will vary at the elementary and secondary levels, but each system will be designed to ensure a safe environment for the students and our food service staff.

Our second option is a return to school in a full-time Remote Online Learning model. This option is open to elementary and middle school students.

In this model, students receive virtual instruction from a school-based Highlands County teacher during daily scheduled times. This model closely resembles a regular school day with class periods beginning and ending at designated times. We will provide Chromebooks to all students participating in this model and ongoing technical support as we did during the school closure this spring.

During the campus closure, we heard from many families that their children performed well in the virtual setting with more flexible pacing and course format. Our third option provides this format and is open to elementary, middle and high school students.

Highlands Virtual School (HVS) is an entirely online Highlands County school. Highly qualified Highlands County instructors teach all HVS classes. Though designed as an online environment for students, teachers are housed at our HVS campus. They are available to meet face-to-face with students and families to provide additional support. Students have the flexibility to work at their own pace and on a schedule best fitting their family’s needs; however, the teachers are just a call or email away. We will provide Chromebooks to all students choosing this model as well as provide ongoing technical support.

To prepare for resource and staff allocations, we need help from parents. We are launching a website on Monday, June 29, with more details about our educational models. I am asking parents to thoroughly review their options, and choose the one that best meets the needs of their child(ren). The selection process will be a simple online form found on our SBHC website, and parents will make a selection for each child they have enrolled in school. To help us plan accordingly, we are asking that choices be made by July 10. Bus registration forms will also be online and available to access on the 29th. We urge parents to reach out to us for more information, if needed.

I will keep the community updated on our progress as we move forward. As communities across the nation begin to open, we know the critical role that schools play in providing a strong education to children as well as allowing parents and caregivers to maintain their place in the workforce. My faith in our community’s strength has never wavered, and I know that by working together, we will be ready to welcome students through our doors on Aug. 11.

Dr. Brenda Longshore is Superintendent of Schools for Highlands County.