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Lee County Schools reviewing protocols ahead of upcoming school year

Reporter: Sydney Persing Writer: Drew Hill
Published: Updated:

The School District of Lee County has been working tirelessly to prepare for the upcoming school year. Now that the new year is just one week away, COVID-19 is not the only thing that parents and students are wary of.

There are also mental health and academic concerns to worry about. The district tackles those issues every year but with the pandemic rolling on, this year has become much more difficult.

Beth Wipf is in charge of coordinating the district’s COVID-19 guidelines. “The hardest thing has been just having to shift so often when changes occur.”

According to Wipf, in a school health clinic, even though only students 12 and older are eligible for the vaccine, COVID-19 protocols will be consistent across all grades, K-12. This means that masks are optional for students, teachers and staff.

That being said, she does want to encourage everyone to wear masks so staff can keep students in school and not home in quarantine.

Lee County Schools couldn’t force students to mask up even if they wanted to, because of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ executive order. “We do have to follow the order,” Wipf said.

On Friday, the governor signed the executive order giving parents the final say on whether or not their children should “mask up” at school.

“We know it’s a family decision and are strongly encouraging those, even if you are vaccinated, to continue to wear a mask if you are in large settings or unable to social distance,” Wipf said.

COVID-19 protocols will be reflected across all grades but so is another, more alarming trend. Reflecting a national wave, COVID-19 has created more food insecurity for students and their families.

Each school will serve breakfast and lunch free of charge but each school will decide how many students to serve at one time.

“We want to get back to normal because it’s important for the students to have that connection with her friends in school,” said Kandy Messenger, director of Food and Nutrition Services at SDLC.

Jeff Spiro is the district’s chief academic officer and said that he and his team have a plan for those students who may have struggled during at-home learning. “There certainly are concerns from parents about ‘are our schools ready?’ ‘Are the health protocols in place?’ ‘Are we ready for our kids to come back?’ And yes, we are.”

The district has a common assessment to gauge where students are “around the second or third week of school, and that will allow us to say here’s our baseline,” Spiro said.

That face-to-face connection is very important for many students in the district.

Lori Brooks is the district’s director of School Counseling and Mental Health Services and no one understands the importance of connection for students more than she does. “Parents and teachers alike are concerned about the return to school,” she said.

“Some students have been out of school for a year now or longer, and that anxiety might be a little bit more exacerbated by the return to school.”

Brooks also said that if you believe your child is struggling with mental health, make sure your child’s school counselor is aware before school starts so they can keep an eye out.

When it comes to food programs, there are also dinner and after-school snack options available at select schools, so talk to staff about where and how to find those.

If, unfortunately, a student does have to be sent home for quarantine, they will have Google Classroom to access their assignments. Each student will also receive their very own Chromebook.

“We’re still in a pandemic, the cases are continuing to rise, and we know we are going to continue to have to deal with quarantines, whether that be one or two students or a class,” said Dwayne Alton, executive director for Technology Operations.