MOORE HAVEN -- Glades County School District wants the community to know it is well-prepared for safely opening its schools next month despite Gov. Ron DeSantis’ ban prohibiting government entities (including schools) and private businesses from requiring proof of COVID-19 vaccinations from the public, employees, students, staff and faculty members.
“We know that there’s going to be challenges with COVID and this new strand but we also know that we are going to approach it with a very positive attitude and an attitude of safety,” Superintendent Dr. Alice Beth Barfield said.
Barfield is referring to the latest variant of COVID, which has contributed to the rising cases of the virus in Florida in large part due to unvaccinated individuals contracting the Delta strain, causing the school district to heavily rely on the Hendry County Department of Health for guidance.
Its COVID safety preparations have been developed with local healthcare experts and recent K-12 school CDC guidelines.
“The school district and the health department work collaboratively together with any COVID concerns and updated CDC guidance is communicated with local school districts for informed decisions to be made at a local level,” said Florida Department of Health Interim Health Officer for Hendry and Glades Counties Jennifer Hood.
Barfield said she is in daily contact with the county nurse and state officials checking on any mandate updates.
“So I try to keep abreast of all the new laws and new statutes daily and we are going to follow them fully,” she said.
While masks will not be mandated in the district, Barfield said their use will be encouraged. Daily sanitizing at the district’s schools and social distancing will also be practiced.
Most importantly, Barfield said the district will be continuing its traditional face-to-face instruction while ensuring all health and safety standards are firmly in place.
Unless staffing shortages or evidence of broader virus transmission in schools occur, the schools will remain open for in-person education unless a parent feels that particular model isn’t best for their child. In that case, staff will assist parents find alternative options.
“Academically it's proven students learn best when it’s face-to-face,” Barfield said.
Last year COVID caused learning loss meaning that the district has to make up for that interruption and to exceed this year.
“We want our students back to face-to-face in our schools where we can really move forward,” she said.
Barfield said parents have been supportive of its decisions, crediting the open communication and transparency the district has created particularly as it relates to COVID.
“We are, as a district, are truly going to focus on the communication of what happens when a classroom gets sent home due to transmission or whatever,” with emails and social media postings.
Students or staff experiencing illness symptoms should stay home and if they come down with symptoms at school will be sent home immediately and local health officials notified.
Because the district believes immunization is a parental decision rather than a school board decision for students over the age of 12 years the district will not promote or discourage vaccinations either way.
“I will say this, I am in the business of educating children. That’s what my job is,” Barfield said. “But in saying that, it’s also the highest priority to make sure that my students as well as my staff are healthy."
She said parents have been very supportive of the current decisions and that they are comfortable making their own decisions on what’s best for their families based on accurate information from the local health department provided to the school district.
Barfield became superintendent in November, 2020, when mask mandates and lockdowns due to the pandemic were taking place nation-wide. It helped prepare her for dealing with COVID for this school year. She relied on the state and county health professionals to guide her, as she is doing this academic year.
“Everything was very well thought out,” she said.
The school district will continue to rely on guidance from Florida State Department of Health regarding any exclusion from schools and how long those exclusions will be for any communicable illness, she said.
"All that’s very political right now,” she said. “I hope that lawmakers will leave politics out of this and do what’s best for kids.”