To the parents of the Walton County School District:
As August begins and teachers are welcomed back on Monday, I would like to provide several updates regarding the re-opening of schools.
First, I hope everyone received our update that school will now start for students on August 17th. This new date allows our faculty and staff to receive additional training days as we prepare for your child’s health and safety.
Second, I want to thank everyone who completed a Student Intent Survey. To date, we have received 8,531 responses. 71% of our parents have declared their child is returning to brick and mortar schools. 14% are utilizing the Innovative Learning Digital Academy (ILDA), which allows students to stay enrolled in their regular school, and 10% of families have chosen Walton Virtual School. The intent forms also show that 99% of our parents have committed to screening their children daily for COVID-19 and that 98% of parents already have access to a thermometer. Parent feedback shows that many previous bus riders (almost 20%) have indicated they will now be car riders which will help our district minimize the number of individuals on a bus. Due to this, we believe school start and end times will mirror what has been done in the past.
Third, I want to assure everyone that our school and district staff are working harder than ever before to safely, effectively, and innovatively welcome your children back. It would be too lengthy to list every item, but the following is a quick summary of major initiatives by topic for our stakeholders:
* Safety – A Re-opening Task Force has been meeting since May to develop plans to re-open schools. Task force members include representatives from the Florida Department of Health, Walton County Emergency Management, school principals, teachers, Education Support Personnel, district staff, and WCSD parents. A Re-opening Safety Plan has been written and will be provided and explained to all employees as they return next week, and a Re-opening Frequently Asked Questions handout was posted on our website for parents.
* Facilities – Each school facility will require employees to pass a COVID-19 screener in order to enter. Safety supplies have been ordered and are arriving daily, including masks, clear face shields, and gloves. Each individual classroom will be provided with sanitization materials. Hand sanitizing stations and social distancing signage are being installed in hallways and common areas, and isolation rooms have been identified. Plant managers have been trained just this week on how to properly oversee the cleaning and disinfecting of each of our facilities.
* Transportation – Bus drivers also came in this week to learn how to sanitize their buses. Drivers were trained on how to seat students as well as how to encourage all students to wear masks.
* Communication – Updates have been made regularly to our website and social media accounts. Surveys have been conducted among various stakeholders, such as parents and employees. Our district also held a Virtual Town Hall, which was recorded and is available on our website. During the meeting, over 60 questions were answered live. A new text line (850.204.9667) has also been set up in addition to a Let’s Talk link on our webpage where questions and concerns can be submitted at any hour of the day. Over 600 questions have been answered since March with a less than 9-hour initial response time.
* Curriculum and Instruction (C & I) – Preparations are being made to train teachers on how to best assess students when they return. Teachers will be encouraged to accelerate students learning in order to gain momentum and ensure children are on grade level and beyond. A new webpage was created that explains more about our Innovative Learning Digital Academy and our Walton Virtual School. We are recording training videos as we speak to help teachers effectively deliver instruction virtually both in person and virtually. Mental health is also a focus. We have curriculum ready to help students transition back to school; teach character traits, such as personal space and responsibility; and provide support to students with traumatic situations, especially for those whose families may have been affected by the virus.
* Technology – Middle schools are preparing for a one-to-one computer initiative. Devices are also being prepped for virtual learners. Videos are also being made for teachers to show how to utilize technology resources in case students are absent and instruction can continue seamlessly.
* Human Resources – New employees were brought back this week to receive training in “The Walton County Way” which includes a focus on EPIC – Excellence, Professionalism, Innovation, and Collaboration. Specialized trainings are also being prepared and will be delivered over the next few weeks for many different employee groups from nurses to food service workers.
* Finance – After receiving additional federal funds, such as the CARES Act, finance is helping to appropriate and create opportunities to support schools, such as the hiring of additional custodians and digital learning specialists.
* Athletics and Extra Curricular Activities – Athletic directors are meeting regularly to discuss safety measures and plan appropriately for upcoming sports seasons, and groups, such as band directors, have met to discuss use of face shields and innovative ideas for instruments and concerts.
* School principals – All schools in the district are wrapping up summer school, Extended School Year, and summer SPICE programs, which represents 5% of our school population. These small groups of students, which were on campus throughout the months of June and July, have allowed school principals and their leadership teams to create school-based safety plans and procedures with their entire school population in mind. Principals are also diligently working on additional innovative ideas, such as block scheduling, special area schedules, lunch schedules, and traffic flow. Many schools will continue to share their specific safety plans at school orientations and on their school websites before August 17th.
Finally, I want you to know that I have challenged my staff daily to create a balance for you and your family. On one hand, we are focused on what has always been our number one priority - health and safety. We are learning about new topics daily, some of which we have never had to encounter at the school level, but we want and will have the best plans and procedures in place for our children and employees. On the other hand, I want to also praise my staff for helping to create a sense of normalcy for your child. As we speak, custodians are prepping classrooms, and principals are creating back to school themes. Teachers are preparing lesson plans, and mechanics are prepping school buses. We miss our students so much. We are excited and feel such a sense of urgency to not only welcome children back but to teach and continue our high expectations to be the best in the state in the most safe and healthy environment possible.
Thank you for continuing to support the Walton County School District. Your belief in our district and our employees means so much to us.
A Russell Hughes