When Sarasota High School’s Deborah Kaplan teaches algebra, she likes to tell math jokes.
She knows they’re corny, but one of her favorite parts of teaching is seeing her students’ reactions to her often-punny quips. But because of COVID-19 precautions, that isn’t part of the back-to-school equation.
“I just miss seeing their faces and their smiles,” Kaplan said. “I tell the corniest, awful jokes, and I think it’d be nice to actually see their smiles and be able to give some reassuring high-fives.”
The 2020-21 school year began Monday with a slew of precautions. Aside from wearing masks, elementary children now say goodbye to their parents on the sidewalk, students of all ages are adjusting to traffic patterns in their halls, and custodians are adopting a rigorous cleaning schedule.
Meanwhile, other students wake up, walk to a computer and start their year much the way they ended the last one: online.
“Any first day of school is exciting, but in the 32 years that I’ve been in education, this is definitely an unusual start to a school year,” Superintendent Brennan Asplen said.
Monday marked the first time students had been on campus since March 11, and many students and teachers throughout the district were happy to return.
“It was hectic the first day,” Alta Vista teacher Kimberly Hall said. “But at day three, it’s better than it was at day one, and I feel tomorrow will be even better than today. I feel optimistic that we’ll get there.”
Around 25,000, or 70%, of the district’s students opted to return to brick-and-mortar schooling. Another 28%, or 9,900 students, chose the district’s remote learning option, which allows them to Zoom into classrooms to learn concurrently with their peers. The remaining 2% of students chose Florida Virtual Schooling or home-schooling.
Both Kaplan and Hall are teaching concurrent classrooms, which means they have upwards of 20 students in the classroom, and a handful on Zoom.
“We as a team decided we wanted concurrent, [and] even though it would probably be more difficult, we all felt strongly that it’s in the best interest of the students,” Hall said. “It’s been the biggest learning curve, but I was told to treat the camera as a student, and that’s helped get me in the habit of checking in with those students.”
Aside from students who chose not to return to campus, the district has about 90 vacant teacher positions. Some chose to take a leave of absence for personal or medical reasons while others chose retirement.
District officials say staffing shortages are not a concern because the district has around 400 trained substitute teachers.
Additionally, the district assigned a substitute teacher to every elementary and middle school and two at each high school for the first two weeks of classes to fill in on short notice.
“I thought it would be a great idea if we had those extra hands at every school so you don’t have to think about where you’re going to get the extra hands,” Asplen said. “They are there.”
Additionally, Asplen said the district is working with the Department of Health in Sarasota to set up three testing sites for teachers. A nurse would be at each site to give tests to teachers, which would then be processed in 24 hours.
This, Asplen said, would allow teachers to get back in the classroom quickly upon a negative test.
Finally, the district will launch a data dashboard on its website that displays cases within the district and how many students and teachers are in quarantine.
Despite all the changes, teachers are remaining hopeful. Kaplan said in the first few days, she’s seen students be respectful of the rules and still remain excited about education.
“Of course, by eighth period, we all want to rip our masks off,” Kaplan said. “And I think we’re all a little less prone to talk with the masks on, but walking around the school, it’s encouraging to see students laughing and adjusting to the new environment.”