Orange County schools tout success, challenges faced during COVID-19 pandemic

School Board Chair Teresa Jacobs, Superintendent Barbara Jenkins present State of the Schools address

FILE - In this Aug. 23, 2021, file photo, a student listens to the teacher's instructions at iPrep Academy on the first day of school in Miami. Tumbling COVID-19 case counts have some schools around the U.S. considering relaxing their mask rules, but deaths nationally have been ticking up over the past few weeks, some rural hospitals are showing signs of strain, and cold weather is setting in. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky, File) (Lynne Sladky, Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

ORLANDO, Fla. – Students, families, community members and district employees gathered Friday morning as Orange County Public Schools presented its 2021 State of the Schools address, marking the first time since 2019 the address had in-person guests due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

School Board Chair Teresa Jacobs and Superintendent Barbara Jenkins reflected on the 2019-2020 school year that was abruptly changed as the COVID-19 pandemic began. Events were canceled, in-person learning shifted to virtual learning and more changes hit Orange County schools, but Jenkins said the impact was felt “far beyond the classroom.”

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“It’s been a challenge, a huge challenge, during the pandemic to hire enough bus drivers and others to meet the demand. The problem is not limited to Central Florida as much of our nation is facing similar shortages,” Jenkins said.

She said the district was ahead of others and “digital learning was nothing new” for students and teachers because of the number of devices the district had along with the training teachers had received over the last five years.

The 2021 school year began at the height of the surge in cases caused by the COVID-19 delta variant, driving up hospitalizations. It also brought up questions of how school districts should begin the semester. Deputy Superintendent Maria Vazquez said the Orange County district took precautions as more students returned to the classroom, implementing social distancing guidelines, disinfecting classrooms, installed air filters and established its medical advisory committee.

“And like everyone else impacted by the pandemic, we continue to evaluate our learning and working environments. No, we haven’t had 100% agreement among our community and staff, but I wholeheartedly believe that our board, along with the superintendent and her administration, are making the best decisions possible under the constraints that we’ve been faced with,” Jacobs said.

Jenkins said the district continues to battle “the COVID slide,” which she says reflects unfinished student learning caused by the pandemic. She said the district has an increased focus on social emotional learning to offer mental health and wellness courses, created the OCPS Supports Initiative that aims to reduce gaps and provide families services based on their needs and ensure every child has a digital device for learning.

Despite the hardships faced with new challenges caused by the coronavirus, district leaders reiterated the focus of ensuring student success remained and was a continued effort for all.

Jacobs said students continue to learn in state-of-the-art facilities because of the 2014 half-penny sales tax renewal, which has allowed the district to open 59 new schools and renovate or replace 132 schools since the program began in 2002. Recently, OCPS opened two new high schools and 12 new schools are scheduled to be completed in the next five years, she said. She also said the district’s art programs had the highest percentage of student participation among the five largest districts in the state that she said was possible by the 2018 one mill property tax.

“It happens in a community that believes in its students and supports its school district. In 2020-21, that one mill generated more than $161 million. That equates to 1,165 teachers, counselors and social workers whose positions would have gone unfunded by the state, therefore vacant,” she said.

District officials explained OCPS is the fourth largest district in the state and the ninth largest in the country with more than 206,000 students and the plan is to expand even more with an additional 12 new schools scheduled to be completed in the next five years.

“Our vision is to ensure every child has a promising and successful feature,” Jenkins said.

The district said it introduced two new magnet programs, bringing its total to 40, and also started a junior reserve law enforcement program that collaborates with Valencia College of Public Safety, Orlando Police Department and the Orlando Regional Realtor Foundation. A pilot program was also introduced to three high schools — East River, Evans and Windermere — to offer block scheduling, allowing more flexibility for students and experience something similar to what’s offered in college, according to Jenkins.

About the Author:

Brenda Argueta is a digital journalist who joined in March 2021. She graduated from UCF and returned to Central Florida after working in Colorado.