PINELLAS COUNTY, Fla. — Monday marked the first day of school since March for students in Pinellas County.
Several teachers and students told ABC Action News they’re glad to be back despite dozens of new changes.
Eerily quiet is how one Largo Middle School leader described the start of the school year. In Pinellas County, less than 60% of students chose to come back to school campuses. The rest are starting the year virtually.
Clearwater High School Senior Nyah West says her final year of high school is off to an unusual start.
“Moving through the hallways, you just take your own little space, stay in your own little bubble, keep your mask on and go to class,” she said.
Her classmate Deniel Espada says the hardest part is not hugging his friends.
“Especially the ones I haven’t seen in 4 months since March, but it’s just better to be safe,” he explained.
Espada says it was strange walking into his first class of the day and seeing only a handful of students.
“I only had 7 people in that first class so it wasn’t like I was really worried because there was only 7 people and all the desks were spread apart so everybody was pretty safe,” he elaborated.
Leigh Clayton had the same impression at Largo middle school while she dropped off her kids. She says there were fewer kids than ever who walked or biked to campus Monday morning.
“It's very empty but I tell you my kids were super excited. They couldn’t even sleep last night excited to get back to some kind of normalcy," she said with a smile.
Stickers and signs posted throughout school campuses reminded kids to keep their distance. In larger schools, staggered bell times kept students distanced in the hallways.
Despite all the changes, teachers and students say they’re focused on making the best of this strange school year.
Clearwater High School teacher Thor Jozwiak, who also works as a football and track coach, says students are adjusting well to the changes.
"Everyone is positive. It’s super exciting. Even though there is a lot more to worry about, we’re still here and it’s going to be a great school year,” he elaborated.
Teachers spent the day reminding students of mask rules. From there, parents will be contacted on behalf of students who refuse to wear a mask on multiple occasions. Eventually, students who refuse to wear a mask could be transferred to a virtual program.
The start of school comes after several months of preparation. Last week, leaders say a team of medical professionals did a final walkthrough of the schools before students returned.
The doctors say their main focus was safety. They looked to make sure both students and staff would feel comfortable being on campus again.
According to school officials, the medical team will continue to guide the district as the school year progresses to refine the protocols as needed.
The district says although they have several safety precautions in place, it’s still possible that if there are positive COVID-19 cases, the Department of Health could order quarantines for individual students, an entire class, or an entire school.
If that happens, leaders say they’ll just switch to online learning.
“We’re going to err on the side of caution especially for the first several weeks or months so that we’re assured no virus is being spread inside of our schools,” said Superintendent Michael Grego.
He wants students to put safety first but says they should also find ways to enjoy the socialization.
"Let's have a great school year. Let's put all this, we'll pay attention to everything but you're at school not only for the social aspect of it but let's have a great school year academically, let's dive into what you're here for. Our teachers are here for you,” said Grego.