Okeechobee schools fight against “covid fatigue”

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OKEECHOBEE — When students first returned to school in Okeechobee in 2020, parents had three options to choose from. Students could choose to attend school in a traditional face-to-face setting, follow along live with their classes online in an option called Okeechobee Sync, or attend virtual school.

Now, in the second semester, the school district no longer offers the second option, Okeechobee Sync. Dylan Tedders, Assistant Superintendent for Administrative Services in the Okeechobee School district, estimates that 80-90% of students are back to face-to-face instruction across the county.

“One of the big things in the executive order that came from the Commissioner of Education was to urge students that were not successful at home to come back,” said Tedders. “There were students that did not have success with the virtual or blended option.”

One of the ways the district has tried to make parents feel more at ease with their children returning to in-person instruction is making information on every positive case and exclusion in the school district known to the public. Early in the first semester the Okeechobee County School District developed a COVID-19 dashboard that was available on their website as a way for parents to track cases in the system week to week.

“We kept track of everyday of the number of incidents we had at each school,” said Tedders” We would know how many were positive and how many were impacted. Our director of human resources, Joesph Stanley, began investigating starting a dashboard with the information we were already collecting. Now if you have access to the internet, then you have access to that data and it’s updated daily.”

One of the early problems the district had to contend with as the school year began was contact tracing. If a student had tested positive, how would you track who they had possibly interacted with throughout their day at school? And how much interaction would qualify as close enough to warrant an exclusion?

“That was a challenge in the first semester,” explained Tedders. “Just trying to get the tracing right. Making sure that teachers had seating charts for their classes, knowing which visitors came in, and how long those visitors were actually in the room. When you think about a school site you have teacher aides that might be in and out of the classroom all period, ESE support staff in and out of classrooms multiple periods per day. It’s a lot to track. Certain times seating charts on buses were a challenge because a kid would not be riding one day, then riding the next. So if you’re trying to contact trace an incident from last week you have to go to the video and see who was around them that day. Because if you just did a blanket exclusion based on the seating chart you might be excludeding someone who wasn’t even there that day.”

“Those were all challenges,” continued Tedders. “And they still are. Obviously we got better at it as we went along.”

Now headed into the second semester, one of the big challenges facing the district is “covid fatigue”. With people growing tired of the routine and disruption to everyday life.

“We’re going back to our administrators and teachers letting them know that nothing as changed from our expectations from the fall,” Tedders said. “We’re still going to be wiping desks, expecting hand sanitizer to be used and everything else. We don’t want to create panic, but we want to create urgency.”

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