“We are in unprecedented times in the field of education, and in our country,” Volusia County Schools Superintendent Scott Fritz said at a special virtual meeting of the Volusia County School Board March 27.
Barely four months into his tenure, Fritz, who took over the top administrative spot in the school district in December, is overseeing the vast reorganizing of the school system to respond to the COVID-19 coronavirus disease outbreak.
All 63,000-plus Volusia County public-school students returned to school — virtually, or via distributed paper packets — on March 30, as part of the district’s unprecedented “distance learning” contingency plan. That same day, the State of Florida extended closure of schools from April 15 to May 1.
So far, the Volusia County school district has distributed more than 5,000 iPads to elementary-school students without technology at home, and is rushing to convert laptops set up for Florida Standards Assessment tests for home use by middle- and high-school students. All of the assessment tests have been canceled.
The laptops are set to be given out April 6-8.
About 10 percent of Volusia students don’t have technology at home, according to a recent survey conducted by Volusia County Schools.
Simultaneously, the district has implemented a meal-distribution plan, utilizing bus drivers, who are no longer picking up groups of students every morning, to ferry free breakfast and lunch to distribution spots around the county.
Parent pickup loops have morphed into drive-thru food joints 10 a.m.-12:30 p.m. each day, as cafeteria workers and other school staff pass out the meals to parents, who must have their children present.
More than 65 percent of Volusia students are eligible for a free or reduced-price lunch, which is higher than the state average of 55 percent, according to the Florida Department of Health.
Concerns regarding feeding students in need were paramount for School Board Members Ruben Colón and Jamie Haynes, who represent the Deltona- and DeLand-area seats on the board, respectively.
“I’m still very very hung up on being able to feed kids,” Colón said at the March 27 meeting.
He pointed out that although Deltona schools like Pride Elementary and Friendship Elementary are within 4 miles of each other, they are separated by two large thoroughfares, presenting difficulties for parents.
Some 27 schools are operating as food distribution sites, out of the district total of 85 schools. Pride Elementary is a designated drop-off point; Friendship Elementary is not.
“It may be geographically OK, but it’s not feasible,” Colón said. “In a world of rainbows and unicorns, I wish that … of course, with the proper social distancing … the kids [could] actually come to school and pick up the meal that’s right up the street from their house.”
According to Chief Operating Officer Greg Akin, per federal regulations, if a school is within 2 miles of another, the school district does not have authorization to open both.
“Currently now, there is a list of schools we can’t open because we have another one open,” Akin said. “But, we will have an area set up for them to come over and get their food.”
The bus drop-off spots are aimed in part at covering that gap.
Plans for prom and graduation have also been put on hold, although no decision has been made on them so far.
As school districts across the nation pivot to online learning, two of the platforms being used — Microsoft Teams and Edgenuity — have encountered some problems related to the high volume of usage, Volusia County Schools Community Information Director Kelly Schulz said.
The local support hotline for the online instruction plans is also sometimes struggling to handle the large amount of calls it’s been getting.
During the discussion about the transition into online learning March 27, Fritz anticipated there would be complications.
“I truly expect we will have some problems. As I’ve said, we’ve never done anything like this,” Fritz said. “But I will say this: We will be a stronger school district for having gone through this. I do believe that, as awful as this pandemic is, it will certainly change education forever.”