COLLIER COUNTY, Fla. — Tuesday is the first day of school for students who go to Collier County Public Schools.
The Collier County Schools Superintendent, Dr. Kamela Patton, said when it comes to COVID-19, we're in a different place than we were in last year, because of everything we know about the virus.
Because of Governor DeSantis's order banning mask mandates for kids and staff in school, Dr. Patton said masks are optional for students, and they're adding additional layers of protection.
"In the elementary, students who don’t have the opportunity to be vaccinated, their lunch will be different than middle and high school. They’ll still all be sitting facing forward, we'll reduce a little bit of that space between the students, but still extra layers,” Dr. Patton said.
She said during the last half of last school year, they had 91 percent of kids back for in-person learning.
"With 91 percent back for a half of a school year, we never sent a whole class home, never sent a whole wing home, a whole building home. So I think what we do works for us locally," Dr. Patton said. "Have faith in us and what we’re doing. When we had 91 percent back and no ability to vaccinate teachers, kids, anybody, and we didn’t have those problems. We have a whole bunch of people who are already vaccinated, and I think those layers of protection we keep putting in place will make a difference."
She said if you are concerned about your kids returning to in-person learning, they have their E-Collier Academy online, available for Kindergarden through 12th Grade this year. With that, your child can go back to in-person learning at any point during the school year.
A 5th Grade teacher at Osceola Elementary School, Alyssa Toetz, said shes comfortable with an in-person class size of 18 students, and confident she'll be able to keep them safe and healthy.
"My desks are still in rows, so we are still under certain restrictions. Kids are going to line up in their same line order. They’re all gonna be sitting facing the front in the cafeteria. They have to sit by their buddy people for contact tracing, so a lot of those same precautions and parameters are still in place," Toetz said.
She said she knows those precautions are key to keeping their schools open for in-person learning, which she said is the best, most authentic way for kids to stay engaged, connected with their peers, and less attached to screens.
"We want kids to be in school so we can build that community here, so they feel they belong somewhere, and to reinforce that social interaction that’s so important for kids," Toetz said.
She said included in that social interaction is making sure kids respect each others' choices to mask up or not.
"We're welcoming everybody to school, whether they’re wearing a mask or not, and we have to respect those differences, honor those differences, have empathy for everybody," she said.
If your child is riding the bus, the Collier County Public Schools Director of Transportation, John Kastin, said kids will be able to sanitize their hands before getting on the bus, and will be given a mask if they want one.
"They'll sit in assigned seats, and we encourage that family members sit together as much as possible, as close as possible, and we try to use our spacing as much as possible to space them throughout the bus," he said.
He said depending on how many kids are on each bus route, is how much they'll be able to space them out.
Chad Oliver, the Executive Director of Communications for the school district said they're also taking other measures.
"So we’re on board one of our buses, and you can see every few windows are lowered to increase the ventilation on board,” he said.