Sumter schools move To reopen by August

Sixth-grader Lydia Fernung, left, 12, and her sister, third-grader Brecklin Huffman, 8, do schoolwork during online instruction. The Villages Charter School plans to resume classes in-person starting in August.

Gov. Ron DeSantis unveiled recommendations Thursday “to fully reopen” Florida schools in August. Leaders of The Villages Charter School and Sumter County School District said they have drafted plans to do just what he recommends. “We’ve been waiting for this document to come out,” said Randy McDaniel, education director for The Villages Charter School, which enrolls children whose parents work for or in The Villages. “We really want to have school in-person. That’s what our goal is.” He said he and his administrators still were reading the governor’s 143-page plan late Thursday afternoon after the school offices usually close. “They want schools open but they want it to be a local decision,” McDaniel said, adding that he agrees because circumstances are not the same across the whole state. “We have a plan to reopen that is different than past years.”

He said the charter school will follow safety guidelines, such as more hand-washing and sanitizing. Students might wear masks in some situations.

The school also will be prepared to implement distance learning online if the situation changes, but the plan is to open as close to normal as possible. There “may be an event or two” that will be modified, McDaniel said.

Sumter County School District Superintendent Richard Shirley said he will ask the school board Tuesday to approve a plan for summer-school classes on campus starting in July. He already prepared a draft plan to give to the board to reopen schools in August. He plans to ask the board in July to approve a completed plan to reopen schools.

Shirley said the district also is preparing some contingency plans. Plan A would start school just like always, although with some safety precautions, such as no-touch thermometers and spraying classrooms at the end of each day and buses after each route. Bagged lunches would be served in classrooms, a recommendation of the governor, for at least the first couple of weeks.

“We’ll try it and see how it goes,” Shirley said.

Plan B would be distance learning if the district is forced to go back to that as it was in March. But this time, the district will be much better prepared, he said.

The district also has been working on contingency plans in case there is an outbreak of a few cases at one school that would prompt the Florida Department of Health in Sumter County to order that school, but not the whole district, to shut down.

The district has been surveying parents to ask about their concerns and whether they want students to resume classes in person, through distance learning or a hybrid approach, perhaps alternating students on campus with those working online.

“I believe the majority of our parents and community want us to open up school, albeit with added safety precautions, reasonable social distancing, cleaning enhancements, close health monitoring, etc.,” Shirley said.

DeSantis also announced a $64 million plan using money from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security, or CARES, Act to help close the achievement gap between low-achieving, usually poor and minority students, and their wealthier, and mostly white, peers. Although Florida’s achievement gap has been closing as low-achieving students have made greater improvements, the school closures likely exacerbated them, DeSantis said.

The money will pay for four- to five-week summer programs on campus for kindergartners through fifth-graders whose teachers recommend them based on substantial deficiency in reading ability.

“Our goal is to have 90% of students proficient in reading by 2024,” DeSantis said. “The investments we make this summer and for the upcoming school year will aid us in reaching that goal.

Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran said compassion and grace will be critical to reopening schools.

 “We realize that, to fully reopen Florida, we must do our due diligence and instill confidence in families, which allows them to return to school campuses safely and ready to succeed,” he said.

He said data shows that schools can reopen safely.

 “Additionally, we must, and will, attack the achievement gap by offering summer programs and engaging in significant academic interventions to ensure all children receive a world-class education,” he said.

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

The Associated Press also contributed to this report.