SARASOTA COUNTY (WFLA) – Monday was an exciting day for thousands of students across Sarasota County as teachers and school staff welcomed them back to campus for the first time since March.
“She was excited coming back to school because she was trapped in the house for the last five months,” said father Larry Sherman. “They’ve got their face masks and sanitizer so they are prepared,” he continued.
Several safety measures were in place district-wide to help slow the spread of COVID-19. District officials have spent months preparing for challenges that could come up with students back in school in the middle of the pandemic.
“It was kind of uneventful, like a lot of restrictions,” said Sarasota High School freshman Stephanie. “You couldn’t really mess around or anything. I felt safe. I didn’t see anyone without a mask,” she explained.
A big concern in the weeks leading up to the reopening of schools across our area — staffing shortages. It’s something Sarasota County School District leaders say they’re prepared for.
The district has a pool of around 400 substitute teachers who are trained and ready to enter classrooms across the county. In addition, there are now substitutes staged at schools district-wide, at least for the first two weeks.
“We did make a decision to hire at least one substitute for every school, whether they need that person or not. Our high schools and our bigger schools have two whether they’re needed or not just. They are there starting today and we have them there for the first two weeks at each school so the principal can make the decision to place a substitute where they need them, when they need them, and not try to call around and try to find that person, they are automatically on campus each day,” said Superintendent Dr. Brennan Asplen.
Dr. Asplen thought the extra hands on deck would be a huge help given the circumstances this school year.
As of Monday, district officials tell 8 On Your Side there are ’90 vacant teacher positions district-wide’. Staffing shortages are not a concern, according to spokesperson Kelsey Whealy. “We are pulling from our sub-pool for all positions that need to be filled,” said Whealy.
Some educators fear it is just a matter of time before that pool runs dry.
“Especially if people get sick and people are out. I wouldn’t think that there are a lot of people wanting to go into the school environment right now. Most of the substitutes I have had in the past, they are all retired teachers from somewhere else, most of mine are in their 60s and ’70s and that is a high-risk group of people,” said longtime Sarasota High School teacher Christy Karwatt.
Karwatt is one of 84 educators taking a leave of absence to start the school year — either personal or medical.
“It was kind of emotional because this is the first time in 27 years that I haven’t been in front of a classroom to greet and meet my new students,” said Karwatt. “I am also concerned about my colleagues and their safety and their health and the stress level. I know they are all under a tremendous amount of stress. I have heard from some of them today and it is very stressful. They pointed out that there is very little social distancing going on at the school, but that is not the school’s fault, that is because it is impossible to social distance in high school,” said Karwatt.
Karwatt says in addition to the health and safety of teachers and students, she worries about the quality of education students will be receiving this year.
“I think that if you just pull a sub in, they are not going to have the background knowledge, they are not going to know the school environment, they are not going to know the school culture. I think even though we are worried about the best education possible, we are just going to be getting by this year. But, everyone is doing the best they can in the district and I don’t think it is the district’s fault. I think it goes higher than that,” said Karwatt.
District officials say they’re in the final stages of putting together a data dashboard to keep track of COVID-19 cases across the district. The dashboard will show positive cases and the number of people quarantined across the district, but not which schools they’re at.
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