PINELLAS COUNTY, Fla. — More than 95,400 students returned to Pinellas County for the first day of school Wednesday.
Safety was top of mind as kids went back to the classroom at a time when Florida leads the nation in COVID-19 cases.
Parents told ABC Action News they are feeling a lot of mixed emotions about the return to school. Some were excited for their students to be back in the classroom. Others worried about COVID-19 spreading with face masks strongly recommended but not required.
Unlike in Hillsborough County, parents didn’t have to sign a form explaining that their child would opt out of wearing a face covering.
Instead, district leaders stressed the importance of each family making their own decisions about face coverings.
Steve Jardieu, an Azelea Middle School parent, was still on the fence about the issue.
“I feel bad for my kids. I know it’s hot and it gets stuffy, but you want them to be safe at the same time so I’m kind of in the middle,” Jardieu said.
Ashley Fowler, a Westgate Elementary School parent, opted to have her VPK and first-grade children wear masks.
“Just because they’re under the age of 12 and they’re not able to get vaccinated yet so I wanted to keep them safe so I opted to wear the masks,” she added.
Schools also found unique ways to social distance with hundreds more kids opting for in person learning instead of virtual. Kids could opt to eat lunch outside at most schools and teachers removed a lot of furniture inside classrooms to allow for extra space.
District leaders spent the summer upgrading ventilation systems inside schools, which they hope will also reduce the spread of COVID-19.
Many of the parents ABC Action News spoke with said the decision to send their kids back was a tough one.
Danielle Jardieu’s children are in 8th and 3rd grade. They learned virtually last year but they returned to the classroom for the 2021-2022 school year.
“Now that everything is getting kind of bad again it makes you think are we going to go back to how it was last year? Makes you a little nervous,” she explained.
Uylia Hess, a Ridgecrest Elementary School parent, sent her 5th grade student back to school. Brandon, her son, also attended in person last year.
“We had a good year last year and hopefully this one we will have no trouble as well. I hope kids wear masks and use a lot of sanitizers.”
Inside a classroom at St. Petersburg High School Wednesday, we found some students opting to wear masks and others choosing not to. The students sat at long tables inside the classroom.
The pandemic has lead to other changes too. This year all students in grades 3-10 will get a laptop and there are new virtual options for parents to connect with their children’s teacher.
Pinellas County is also hoping to increase the graduation rate, which currently stands at 91%.
District leaders will be putting out a daily COVID-19 report, which will keep parents informed about any cases linked to schools.
RECOMMENDED: Check the COVID-19 cases at your child's school
In a report from the district from August 2 to August 9, school leaders traced 145 COVID cases to district employees and students with 145 employees and 58 students testing positive in the week before school went back in session.
“We did a tremendous job of not having spread in our schools last year. Our Summer Bridge program was tremendous and we didn’t have a significant spread. We’re just a microcosm of the community so it’s going to take the entire community to squash this virus and we all have to do our part,” explained Pinellas County Schools Superintendent Michael Grego.