Governor Ron DeSantis and Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran have directed Florida’s public schools to begin instruction in the fall. At The School Board of Highlands County, we have worked diligently to make sure we are ready to welcome students back in August. We were initially scheduled to begin classes on Aug. 11; however, at the most recent School Board meeting, the decision was made to delay the first day for students until Aug. 17. These additional days will give our district and school sites time to finalize preparations for reopening campuses, and complete the last steps involved with implementing our new learning models.

The Highlands County School Reopening Plan is a multifaceted approach involving health and safety precautions for students and staff, student transportation, educational options, and other elements of a typical school day. Our complete plan is available on our website, as is a condensed one-page overview.

In this month’s Superintendent’s Corner, I will cover a few of our plan’s main components. We have put procedures in place and taken extensive measures to ensure that student and staff needs are met in the safest environment possible upon their return. Additional resources have been allocated for ongoing building maintenance to ensure health and safety. A wide array of best practices have been embedded within our Reopening Plan to address the unique challenges presented as we deliver high-quality instruction to all students during COVID-19. Our plan is based on the most recent guidance from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), state agencies, and the local Health Department.

All bus riders will have temperature checks before boarding the bus. Parents of elementary students must remain with their children at the bus stop until pickup. Any student with a temperature of 100.4 or higher will not be permitted to board the bus. All students and staff on school buses must wear a face covering, and if they do not have one, a mask will be provided by the district. This is a recent revision approved by the board, as social distancing is not feasible in the school bus environment.

Prior to entering any of our campuses, all staff, students and visitors will undergo a temperature check. As with our bus riders, any person who has a temperature of 100.4 or higher will not be allowed to enter the campus.

During the school day, face coverings are required to be worn by students and staff at the middle and high school levels in the hallways during class transitions. This new measure, approved at the July 28 board meeting, is to protect students and staff in high traffic areas during class changes when social distancing is not possible. The district will provide face covering to students who are not able to bring their own.

In common areas throughout each campus, hand sanitizer and/or soap and water will be available. Restrooms will be routinely disinfected throughout the day, as will common touchpoints, such as doorknobs, computer keyboards and mice, and other routinely touched areas. We have allocated additional staff, supplies and hours to allow for this cleaning and daily deep cleaning before the start of school.

In preparation of the return to school, we have also made changes to the physical environment of each campus. All nonessential furniture has been removed from classrooms, and staff and students will practice social distancing, whenever possible, when moving about the room. Hand sanitizer and/or soap and water will be readily available to students and staff in classrooms. The sharing of textbooks, Chromebooks, and other items will be restricted or significantly limited. Between each class, students’ work areas will be disinfected before being used by the next class.

All sites will now have two separate health rooms for students and staff. One will be for the traditional health room related visits, and the other will serve as a location to isolate anyone presenting COVID-19 symptoms during the day. Additionally, we have made changes to health room layouts, and partitions are being added between cots where needed.

One of the busiest areas of any school is the cafeteria. Our Food Services Department has made several changes to meal serving procedures. Students will sit using every other seat to allow for distancing. Schools are exploring alternative locations for students to eat, such as in classrooms, and outdoor seating areas. Additionally, the school breakfast and lunch menu have been simplified to serve single service food items, and there will not be self-service bars. All cutlery will be pre-packaged and disposable trays will be used. Food service workers will wear face coverings and utilize a touchless checkout procedure to eliminate the need for students to enter their numbers manually.

We have worked closely with medical professionals and the Highlands County Health Department. Through this work, we have established protocols should any student or staff member test positive for COVID-19, or be in close contact with an individual who has tested positive. Any student/staff having a temperature of 100.4 or higher will not be able to return to school until fever-free without the use of medication for 24 hours.

If a student or staff member tests positive for COVID-19, with symptoms, they will return home for a minimum of 10 days from the time the symptoms first appeared. They may return when fever-free for at least 24 hours without the use of fever-reducing medication, and with a reduction in other symptoms and a release by a healthcare professional. For anyone testing positive for COVD-19 without symptoms, they will return home for a minimum of 10 days since being tested, and with no onset of symptoms.

Any student or staff member contacted by the Highlands County Health Department because of contact tracing with an individual who has tested positive will stay home for at least 14 calendar days. They may return to school after 14 days if symptom-free for that time.

Since our nation began the response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the situation has been continuously evolving. We truly believe we have a strong plan for a safe return to school, but we know that events can, and most certainly will, change as we move through the beginning of the year. I will continue to keep families informed of any changes, and I encourage parents to check our website and follow us on social media for updates.

Brenda Longshore is Superintendent of Schools for Highlands County.^p