OSCEOLA COUNTY, Fla. – As families prepare to send their kids back to school, Osceola County Schools Superintendent Dr. Debra Pace is trying to make the transition as smooth as possible.
“Certainly, there are challenges ahead, but I feel like we’re prepared to face them,” Pace said.
Osceola County has 65% of its population over the age of 12 vaccinated for COVID-19, making it the second-highest vaccinated county in Central Florida.
But Florida leads the nation in new coronavirus cases and is still struggling to contain the virus.
“I would encourage everyone to get their vaccine if they’re eligible to do so,” Pace said.
Pace said the district is still dealing with students who suffered academic losses from the last school year. Getting them up to speed this year is a top priority.
“On day one, August the 12th, we want to hit the ground running with where kids are and how far we need to move them to help them achieve the grade level proficiency that we want all of them to achieve,” Pace said.
Gov. Ron DeSantis recently signed an executive order “ensuring parents the freedom to choose” whether their children wear masks in schools.
The order in essence prohibits districts from implementing mask mandates, so masks are optional in Osceola County Schools. The CDC now recommends that everyone, vaccinated or not, wear masks while inside.
“I think one of the greatest challenges that we’ve experienced in dealing with the situation has been the conflicting messages that are out there from all different angles,” Pace said.
“Certainly, last year, we were able to control the spread of COVID throughout our schools,” Pace said. “I think masks did play a role in that, particularly before the vaccine became available.”
The district will continue all of the other safety protocols that were put into place for COVID-19, according to Pace.
“For example, students will be expected to wear their masks on the bus because that’s considered public transportation and we just can’t social distance on our school buses,” Pace said.
It’s not just parents and students who have concerns heading into the school year.
“Teachers, obviously are starting to express some additional concern,” Pace said. “Particularly with the changes in CDC guidance that came out. But again, we’re encouraging them to make the decision that’s best for them as they come back into our building to serve our students. Wear your mask, if that makes you feel comfortable.”
The district is also offering time off for teachers who want to get vaccinated.
They are providing up to an hour of school board leave from work, as long as they make arrangements with their supervisor in advance, Pace said.
The district will have Osceola Virtual School Program that they’ve always had, but they are not offering the third option of being digital and connected to a student’s assigned school.
For information about the virtual option, you can check the district’s website.