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Education

Schools In Orange County, Fla., Reopened In August. How's It Going?

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

President Biden says he's treating the reopening of schools during the pandemic as a national emergency. And today, the CDC is expected to offer new reopening guidance. It's a challenge when different states have different rules. Most let local school districts make their own decisions. But half a dozen states are keeping schools at least partially closed. And four states - Arkansas, Iowa, Texas and Florida - have ordered schools to open. Barbara Jenkins is the superintendent of public schools in Orange County, Fla., where more than half its roughly 200,000 students are already back in their classrooms. Jenkins is also chair-elect of the Council for the Great City Schools, and she joins us now. Good morning, Superintendent.

BARBARA JENKINS: Good morning.

PFEIFFER: Do you anticipate that getting additional guidance from the CDC will help you, complicate you or be a mixture of both?

JENKINS: There's certainly the possibility of complicating matters. I would say a mixture of both. In the state of Florida, we have pretty clear guidance from the commissioner of education and from the governor's office. And so I would be surprised if these new guidelines from the CDC have a significant impact on what we are doing here in Florida.

PFEIFFER: Anything you hope they would say that might help you or give you more backing to tell parents and teachers and students why you're doing what you're doing?

JENKINS: At this point, Sacha, we are pretty stable in acceptance of what we've had to do here in Orange County. So I'm hopeful that it won't disrupt. I would be very hopeful that our teachers union would not find cause to have additional concerns around the opening of schools. I'm hoping for calm because we we've been rolling pretty good now, and we're almost to March.

PFEIFFER: Can you anticipate anything the CDC would say that would change what you're doing right now?

JENKINS: I will tell you what I dream of - is that they would have some significant indication around teachers and school employees receiving the vaccine.

PFEIFFER: Ah.

JENKINS: That is something that we've seen a delay on or no response at the state level here in Florida. I would love to see something regarding vaccines for our employees included in those guidelines.

PFEIFFER: Do you mean whether they require teachers and staff to get vaccines?

JENKINS: I'd like them to prioritize. We've not had any prioritization that some states have had for teachers and school employees to get the vaccines, even those who have the most vulnerable health issues if they're under 65. We've had no provision to date, as some other states have had. So I'd love to see some implication, some direction that they be prioritized.

PFEIFFER: Do you think the CDC should require vaccinations for teachers and school staff?

JENKINS: I do not. I believe every citizen has to have the right to make their own decisions on whether or not they want that vaccine. We believe the science is sound, and we would encourage our employees to take the vaccine. But never would my board want it to be mandatory.

PFEIFFER: How either eager or reluctant would you say that parents, teachers, students are about getting back into classrooms for in-person learning?

JENKINS: I think we have had a pretty good adjustment. We're at about 57%, Sacha, of our students that have returned, which means over half of our teachers are back in the classrooms, as well. Others are still instructing from home. So the anxiety that we went through back in September - August, September, October - that has subsided here in Orange County. It's sort of just an accepted norm that schools are open, and our children are attending without significant issues around the virus. But I will tell you, like any other district, any other state, it was extremely trying in those beginning stages. Our board listened to hours of public testimony. And the anxiety of both parents and teachers and support employees was understandable. I absolutely supported that anxiety, but we were under mandate to open.

PFEIFFER: Oh, I believe it. My husband is a teacher, so I have a very front row view of this. And he's mostly back. He's back in the classroom four days a week. There's been a little COVID illness but not too much and mild among teachers and students. But even for kids who want to go back, teachers who want to be back, parents who want their kids out of the house, there is an undercurrent of fear that people will get sick, and somebody might die. How do you manage that fear among your parents, teachers and staff?

JENKINS: Absolutely. I agree with you. So we have a board policy around mandatory facemask. We keep pushing what the science says about keeping safe with hand washing and cleaning surfaces and implementing social distancing where possible. All of those areas we really emphasize - trying to have one way directional traffic in hallways. And the data says that we are probably - we are still under 4%, about 3.3% for positive cases. We knew there would be cases. But our community is between 8 and 14% in positive cases. And so we believe our strategies have really kept our schools as safe as possible. And we just continue to share that information. Anxiety has not gone away for everyone, though, I will tell you.

PFEIFFER: Again, because I'm married to a teacher, I've seen how much extra work this is for teachers, how challenging it is for students. How would you describe it in maybe 30 seconds what the biggest challenge has been? And how long can teachers sustain it and families sustain this?

JENKINS: The biggest challenge is for teachers to have to teach in-classroom students, as well as those students that are at home. If you've got a class that's split, that's the biggest challenge for our teachers. And they're just phenomenal. Our teachers and staff will sustain it, I believe, as long as we ask them to because it's just a way of life now. We have no choice.

PFEIFFER: Absolutely. But they are tired.

JENKINS: They are exhausted.

PFEIFFER: Orange County, Fla., school Superintendent Barbara Jenkins, thank you very much for talking with us.

JENKINS: Thank you, Sacha. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.