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Have Back-To-School Questions? Superintendent Greene Has Answers.

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Sydney Boles
/
WJCT News
DCPS Superintendent Diana L. Greene answers questions ahead of the new school year.

A week before the kickoff of Jacksonville’s second pandemic school year, Duval County Public Schools (DCPS) Superintendent Diana L. Greene fielded questions that are sure to be on many parents’ minds. 

The district has been racing to handle rapidly changing conditions in the leadup to the first day of class, with the Centers for Disease Control and prevention urging everyone, including people who are vaccinated, to wear masks indoors, and with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signing an executive order blocking school districts from requiring children to wear masks. 

Greene appeared to criticize the governor in an internal letter to DCPS staff last week, where she said she would have required masks for kids were it not for the state order. 

“My issue is not with the governor,” Greene said Tuesday. “My issue is, How can we keep our students safe? If I can get our families to commit to wearing masks on busses and indoors, that is a strong strategy that we can use to support all of our students.”

In a statement before taking questions from reporters, Greene said this school year was not about getting back to normal, as she would have hoped, but rather about adjusting to a new kind of normal. 

“The ‘21-’22 school year begins with a season of changing and pivoting to adjust to a virus that has not lessened its grip on our academic mission,” she said. 

Greene addressed many of the common questions that parents and students have.

What safety precautions are in place this school year? 

Face masks are required through September 3 for DCPS employees and are strongly encouraged for students. Greene said that elementary-grade students will have their temperatures checked regularly. 

Desks are spaced 3-feet apart, and social distancing will be observed during lunch. 

“It doesn’t matter whether you’re in athletics or clubs, or performing arts: We are highly encouraging all of our secondary school students to be vaccinated, because they’re the most social individuals. They want to be social, and we want to make sure we can provide an environment that they can get back to as close to normal as possible.” 

Is remote learning available? 

Duval HomeRoom, the program that was offered last school year, is no longer available. Duval Virtual Instruction Academy, a smaller program that predated the pandemic, is available, and registration is open through August 9. 

About 1,400 students had registered for DVIA as of last week, about seven times the number that participated in the program before the pandemic, but still just about 1% of the student population. 

What if students do contract the coronavirus? 

Policies may differ for elementary schools, where the students are too young to be vaccinated, and secondary schools, where vaccination is available. 

In some cases, if COVID-19 is detected in a classroom, that classroom will go virtual for a set period of time. The district is working with the Duval County Health Department to determine when it’s necessary to close a classroom temporarily. 

“Currently the information that we received from the Department of Health is that if a student is vaccinated that they’ve been exposed to someone that has COVID-19, if they’re not experiencing any symptoms, they would allow them to return to school as long as they wear a mask for 10 days,” Greene said. “That’s the instruction we’ve received at this time, and it’s for students and employees.” 

Teachers are prepared to return to virtual school for short periods if the Department of Health recommends closing a certain classroom for quarantine. 

Beginning next week, DCPS will update its data dashboard nightly. 

Are vaccines required? 

Vaccines are not required for staff or students at DCPS, and DCPS is not tracking how many of its staff have gotten their shot. 

“This is based on the honor system,” Greene said, but she strongly encouraged vaccinations for people who are eligible. 

Are you concerned about staff shortages because of the pandemic? 

Greene said there are vacancies in teaching staff, support staff, and particularly bus drivers in the district. 

“Yes, it is a concern,” she said. “But we believe we have back-up plans to support our schools and ensure that students are receiving a high-quality education.” 

Greene said as of Tuesday, Aug. 3, 80% of the district’s schools have at least one medical provider — either a registered nurse, a licensed practical nurse, or a medical aide — in all of DCPS’ 157 schools. 

What are the policies for leave for teachers who get sick? 

“We are still working with our unions as it relates to COVID leave, so there is nothing at this time that is solidified,” Greene said. 

Will there be school dances? 

“It’s a little early. We discuss those events at semester,” Greene said. 

Do you expect many truant students this year? 

Greene said a team has been working in the community to re-enroll as many as 1,200 students who fell off the school’s radar during the last year. She added many of those students would qualify as homeless. 

“Enrollment is just the first step. Keeping them enrolled will be the big challenge.” 

What is the message to parents and teachers who are worried about safety in schools? 

“We strongly recommend that students, if they’re eligible, get vaccinated,” Greene said. “If they’re not eligible, they should wear a face covering. Our goal is to make sure that every student has an opportunity for a high-quality education, and that they can do it in an environment that feels safe, and that we’ve done everything we can to ensure their health and safety.” 

What is the message to parents who oppose masks? 

“I would say the exact same statement,” Greene said. “We are highly encouraging everyone to wear a facial covering. Our goal is to ensure that they can receive a high-quality education, and that as a school district, we are doing everything to mitigate the spread of the virus, that we’ve put everything in place that we are by law allowed to put in place, and we are committed to finding any strategy that would mitigate the virus spreading in our schools.”

What’s the overall message going into the school year? 

“We are prepared, and beginning next Tuesday, Team Duval will do everything possible, despite all the constraints and challenges we face, to provide our students with an outstanding educational experience, even in the midst of a global pandemic.” 

Contact Sydney Boles at sboles@wjct.org, or on Twitter at @sydneyboles.