Charter school set for a return to normalcy

Megan Conroy, a kindergarten teacher, talks with 5-year-old Tanner Bliss during orientation at The Villages Charter Elementary School Primary Center.

Educators and students will find a new school and situation once The Villages Charter School returns to classrooms Thursday for the first day of school. Without masks, the Buffalo are stampeding into a new bold and normal school year. Villages High School Principal Rob Grant said he is equally “hopeful and excited for normalcy.” “Back to a regular, seven-period bell schedule and normal lunches,” Grant said, “just back to what we are doing best, which is educating kids.” Since June 1, masks have been optional for students and staff on the charter school’s campus.

About 1,050 students will be entering the high school’s halls on the first day. This will mark the start of the final year for 230 seniors and the start of a high school experience for 281 freshmen.

Grant spoke on behalf of his teachers and staff, too, in saying everyone is ready to get back to what they do best.

“Teachers are ready and glad to see their students without masks,” Grant said, “and glad to just be able to teach as they normally did.”

Grant said school staff are still focused on maintaining a clean and safe learning environment for students and reminding them of the importance of handwashing on a daily basis.

Every year, The Villages High School seeks the highest marks possible and a 100% graduation rate along with students earning their associate degrees, industrial certifications and other state exam completions.

In addition to loosened mask mandates, the state of Florida does not allow for charter schools to offer online courses and was only able to do so last year due to emergency orders as a result of the pandemic. This means all charter school students will be back in person.

Despite this optimism, there is worry among educators throughout the state as COVID-19 cases begin to rise again.

Early last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended teachers, visitors and students, regardless of vaccination status, resume wearing face coverings.

Gov. Ron DeSantis and Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran remain steadfast in pushes for a normal school year, which means one without any masks.

An April 14 memo from Corcoran to superintendents said mask coverings should remain an optional policy and “broad sweeping mandatory mask policies serve no remaining good at this point in our schools.”

At a Friday news conference in Cape Coral, DeSantis reaffirmed this sentiment.

“There will be no lockdowns, there will be no school closures, there will be no restrictions and no mandates in the state of Florida,” DeSantis said during the conference.

DeSantis pushed for parents to be able to make the choice for their children to wear masks and scrutinized the new CDC recommendations for masking of schools.

“I think that’s the fairest way to do it, to let the parents have the decision,” DeSantis said.

The charter school hasn’t indicated any changes to its original plans for the school year, which it announced at the beginning of the summer.

Also over the summer, heavy renovations were completed on the middle school.

Principal Peggy Irwin voiced great promise for the new year approaching.

“The middle school has been completely refreshed over the summer so the staff is very excited and looking forward to a fabulous start to the school year,” she said.

Approximately 820 students stretching across sixth, seventh and eighth grades will go through the new halls.

“With the exception of the fine arts wing and gym, the school has been completely renovated, which includes new flooring, painting, blinds and furniture,” Irwin said.

Irwin also expressed a bright year ahead for student and staff.

“The goal is to have a great year ensuring all students have an exciting year of learning,” Irwin said.

Staff writer Garrett Shiflet can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5367, or garrett.shiflet@thevillagesmedia.com.