Charter school: later start is best option

Evie Blackburn, who will be entering sixth grade, paints a picture in an art class during Jumpstart Camp at The Villages Charter Middle School. The start of the school year has been pushed back from Aug. 6.

The Villages Charter School decided Friday to push back the start of the school year from Aug. 6 to Aug. 19, and offer an optional two-week academic and enrichment camp before the beginning of classes. The decision came after talking to local health and business leaders, as well as seeing the three districts that include parts of The Villages delay their school start, Education Director Randy McDaniel said. “We’ve been working on this for about a day now,” he said Friday. The school’s free academic and enrichment camp, called Camp Innovation, will be Aug. 3-14 for any student enrolled in kindergarten through 12th grade. Parents may pay for lunch and after-school care, but the main camp will be without charge and will allow students to ease back into the school year in smaller numbers and give the school more planning time during the pandemic, McDaniel said.

He pointed to updated CDC guidance released Thursday encouraging schools to follow a practice called “cohorting” in addition to other safety precautions, such as frequent hand-washing, social distancing and wearing masks.

In the camp, students will stay with their classmates, or cohorts, and not mingle with other classes. The practice is similar to what the school offered through Buffalo Adventures over the summer for elementary students and the weeklong Jumpstart Summer Camp for middle school students, McDaniel said.

In the summer camp, science, technology, engineering and math activities will be offered as well as fine arts activities, and English and math classes.

Students will also wear masks and the school will follow the latest CDC guidelines, he said.

Information is on the school’s website, and a parent hotline will open Monday, McDaniel said.

In the meantime, educators will try to figure out a way to arrange middle and high school classes so students to remain with their classmates all day, a practice that was already planned for elementary students.

The previous plan called for elementary students to stay with their classmates all day. They will not mingle with other classes.

Once school starts in late August, parents of most students at both the charter school and other schools in the Sumter County School District will send them back to campus as usual rather than having students learn online.

McDaniel said parents of about 75% of students chose to send their children back to class in person. The other 25% will be split between two online options.

Sumter County was still receiving and tabulating responses about which of three options they want for each of their children in the fall semester starting in August, Sumter Superintendent Richard Shirley said.

So far, he said, parents of 63% of students chose traditional instruction on campus. Another 25% will learn using TEAMSumter online through their home school and following the school bell schedule. And 12% will learn online through Sumter Virtual School, allowing students more flexible schedules.

Some charter school parents sending their children back to campus said other considerations, including their children’s mental health, outweighed their fears of the virus.

“I will be opting to send my girls to in-person instruction for as long as they will be able,” said Amy Verzaal, the mother of three charter school students in different extracurricular activities: weightlifting, band and bowling.

“These extracurricular activities are important and needed,” she said.

“I was proud of what our school was able to accomplish with the distance learning last spring,” she said. However, her daughters need the social interaction and in-person instruction and her family will continue to communicate with her parents and grandparents from a distance. She said she is confident the charter school will follow proper sanitation and other precautions just like it does during flu season.

“With what seems like a split among parents on how to proceed, there will already be fewer kids in the classrooms,” Verzaal said.

Jen Souza, the mother of three charter school students, said she was upset with Florida’s governor for not keeping schools closed, and concerned about teachers and the availability of substitute teachers.

“We already had a student from Lake County get the virus, and the entire class had to quarantine,” Souza said. .

The charter school plans to check each student’s temperature every morning before they are allowed to set foot on campus. Students must wear masks whenever they cannot stay at least 6 feet from other people.

Marion County Public Schools also offered parents similar options: traditional, MCPSonline and Marion Virtual School.

Marion plans to start classes in all three options Aug. 24, and plans a 170-day school year instead of the traditional 180-day school year.

Sumter already extended the start of the school year a week to Aug. 17 but is surveying parents, students and staff whether they would prefer to start Aug. 20 or 24. Depending on the start date, students could be in school into June.

Lake County Schools, which pushed back its start date to Aug. 24, is still surveying parents about four options they may choose: traditional; Lake Live, which will follow the regular schedule through students’ home school but online; Lake County Virtual School; or a modified day, in which students would attend classes for English language arts and math on campus two days a week and take other classes online from home the other days.

During a Facebook Live event Monday, Lake County Superintendent Diane Kornegay and Assistant Superintendent Emily Weiskopf will answer questions about the reopening of schools. The district encourages parents to submit their questions by 5 p.m. Sunday using a district form. Forms were emailed to them and are available on the district’s Facebook or Twitter pages or the district website, www.lake.k12.fl.us

McDaniel said many of Villages High School’s career academy courses — which feature hands-on experience — and some arts courses will not be online through either Buffalo eLearning or VCS Online. VHS cannot, via VCS Online, offer dual enrollment classes through Lake-Sumter State College.

For the coming school year, the charter school said on its webpage that it had purchased some internet hot spots for students choosing either online option and who don’t have reliable internet at home.

During the first week of traditional school, teachers are expected to teach students how to use classroom technology — from email etiquette to how to connect to online video conferences that schools will also use for their live, synchronous online instruction.

The charter schools are preparing to turn to such online learning for individual classes if a student tests positive for COVID-19. Districts are preparing for live online learning if Florida Health in their respective counties orders individual schools to close due to an increase in cases.

Staff writer Dayna Straehley can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5408, or dayna.straehley@thevillagesmedia.com.