JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The first day of school is in the books for most students in Northeast Florida. More than 150,000 kids went back to school Monday in Duval and St. Johns counties.
While there was a lot of excitement, the first day of school was also bittersweet for parents like Nicole Velazquez.
“I’m about to cry. I’m going to blame it on being pregnant. But I’m about to cry," said Velazquez, whose daughter, Eva, entered the Voluntary Prekindergarten Education Program Monday, marking her first official day at Hogan-Spring Glen Elementary. "I'm scared, of course, sending her to school. It's scary. We thought about homeschooling her, but we decided we'll let her try, try it out."
Duval County has made several changes to enhance safety and the learning experience for students.
As students and parents walked through the door Monday morning, they may have noticed changes. For added security, each school in the district is using ID readers to check each visitor's background and print them a badge identifying the purpose of their visit. Those changes allow school officials to know who is in the building at all times.
"We have made sure that all of our buildings have a buzzer system. And so parents need to make sure that, one, when they buzz in that they have their driver’s license on them,” Duval County Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Diana Greene said. "Because we now have a new visitor check-in system, so that our schools are able to take a driver's license and run it through a system to ensure the people we are letting on our campus don’t have criminal records that say they cannot be around students. We’re just making sure that (at) every point that we can ensure one more level of safety and security for our students (and) we’re going to move forward.”
It's a careful and exciting start to the beginning of a new year that students and parents like Ebony Murray are looking forward to.
“The security is definitely necessary in the world that we’re living in today. You can never be too careful,” Murray said.
The district is expanding its focus on mental health through what it’s calling Wellness Wednesdays. All students will have access to mental health counseling.
“Wellness Wednesday came about through the commissioner's state board rule that all secondary students -- these are students in grades sixth through 12 -- have five hours of mental health training," Greene explained. "We used our early release Wednesdays -- we have them once a month -- and we’re calling them Wellness Wednesdays. And our district is creating lessons and resources for our teachers to provide that support for students. Our goal is that students will be able to support one another as well as know where they can get free resources of immediate support for themselves.”
Students will get a 30-minute mental and emotional wellness lesson tailored to grade level. With Katrina Taylor and Heather Crowley, the director of health of physical education, overseeing the initiative, the topics will range from what resources are available to how to identify signs and symptoms and also how to talk to a peer.
“Everyone works harder when they feel like they are an important part of the team or they are cared about, so that’s what we want our students to know, what we want our teachers to know, what we want our parents to know, is that we are all in this together,” Crowley explained.
The school district will also make sure all students have access to a mental health therapist. Additional social-emotional learning will continue to be embedded into the district's curriculum.
The new texting law is another change that will impact drivers in a school zone this year.
Starting Oct. 1, all schools zones will be hands-free. That means officers will issue a fine if you are talking or texting on a handheld phone while driving through a school zone.
Drivers will need to prepare for more traffic, kids walking to and from school and school buses back on the road.
In 2018, there were more than 3,100 school bus crashes statewide in Florida, with more than 130,000 kids younger than 17 years old involved in a crash.
With that being said, drivers need to be alert. If you see a bus, you must stop if the bus has its red lights flashing and the "stop" arm extended. Drivers must stop on a two-lane or multi-lane paved road.
Half-cent sales tax
In the meantime, educators continue to fight to get money to fix what are literally crumbling schools and build new ones.
The school board and City Council are fighting over when a half-cent sales tax should be put on the ballot -- this year or next -- to raise the money to pay to fix those problems.
Greene appeared on "The Morning Show" and said getting the money to fix those problems sooner than later is one of her most immediate challenges.
“We just informed our board that we have HVAC systems that are going down,” Greene said. “We’re in this sort of heatwave, and when our air conditioners have to really work overtime, it’s putting a huge strain. But we are very fortunate to have an outstanding maintenance department. They are working 24/7 to ensure that Monday morning all of our schools will be up and ready to go.”
Greene added that when air conditioners don’t work it affects the students' ability to learn and the teachers' ability to effectively do their jobs.
“It affects students, whether the classroom is overly uncomfortable,” Greene said. “The students are more focused on how to remain cool and so are teachers and support staff. It is a situation that can’t be overlooked or just thought of as, ‘Well, when I was in school, I didn’t have any air conditioning.’ We’re just in a very different time.”