Coronavirus has halted much of life in Gulf County, a sleepy community on the Panhandle’s Gulf Coast, but one thing keeps making the rounds: the big yellow bus.
Sandy Quinn drove Monday past snapped pine trees and reconstructed and torn down houses that serve as reminders that, even as a global pandemic has hit, the region is still recovering from Hurricane Michael.
Quinn, a County Commissioner who moonlights as a bus driver, beeped the horn and students eagerly ran or biked up to the bus stop, knowing their lunch for the day had arrived.
“The biggest mission for us is feeding these kids. Education plans will come together, but an empty stomach is a real thing,” said Jim Norton, superintendent of the Gulf County schools, where 65% of students are eligible for free or reduced-price meals.
It takes a small army of staff members to prepare and deliver roughly 1,000 free meals to students by bus every weekday. But the task is worth the hassle because it gives students “a sense of normalcy,” Norton said.
Since Hurricane Michael barreled through the region in October 2018, school districts in the Panhandle have slowly worked to return to normal after seeing thousands of displaced families and scores of students in dire need of mental health and financial help.
When the coronavirus pandemic began hammering the state last month, it meant schools in one of the poorest stretches of Florida would be juggling two crises, instead of one.
“The hurricane prepared us for crazy situations, so I think that if people in Bay County are not flexible by now, they never will be,” Bay County Superintendent William Husfelt said. “We’ve endured a lot during the last year and a half and we are going to get through this again.”
Norton, of neighboring Gulf County, also was optimistic and said “Michael was a real-life rehearsal” for any type of crisis.
Gov. Ron DeSantis last week ordered all Florida students to continue distance learning for the rest of the school year to avoid spreading COVID-19, the deadly respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus. That came after districts began the shift to online instruction in March.
The shift has highlighted economic gaps in Gulf, Bay and Jackson counties, three communities hit hard by Hurricane Michael, and have prompted school leaders to bolster lunch programs and buy more equipment to ensure students have access to high-speed internet.
“A very high percentage of our students in some areas of our county are economically challenged, so Wi-Fi connection has been a challenge,” Husfelt said.
Roughly 3,000 Bay County students, from kindergarten to high school, live in homeless shelters, trailers provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency after Hurricane Michael or some other type of unstable housing situation, Husfelt said. He said that amounts to roughly 12% of the district’s student population.
To ensure all students have the equipment they need to learn remotely for the rest of the school year, the district has bought 600 Wi-Fi hotspots, Husfelt said. As of Tuesday, 479 of the devices had been distributed to students and the rest are expected to be handed out this week, said Tamra Hogue, Bay County’s supervisor of instructional technology and media services.
Hogue said the district is also expecting 3,000 laptops from the Florida Department of Education, which this month announced it would distribute more than 32,000 computers to 34 school districts throughout the state.
In Gulf County, students are relying on the state’s aid to bridge the technology gap. Roughly 50 percent of the district’s 1,977 students do not have access to high-speed internet, Norton said. He said the district is working with state officials to get the issue addressed.
“We’re definitely having some difficulties, but we are still making contact with them and we are still communicating with them,” Port St. Joe Elementary School Principal Joni Mock said.
Mock said participation has been overwhelming among her students.
“I feel like we have 100% participation, but every week the teachers will tell me if there is someone they cannot get ahold of a parent for whatever reason and I will be making visits to those parents, but it has only been like one or two,” she said.
Further north in rural Jackson County, where 40% of the 6,648 public school students do not have reliable access to the internet at home, the district is finding creative ways to ensure students can connect to online classes.
“We are very rural, and once you get out of the city limits, the internet is real, real sketchy,” Jackson County Superintendent Larry Moore said.
Moore said the district is installing Wi-Fi on school buses and parking the vehicles in certain parts of the county to reach students who are having trouble connecting to the internet.
District staff members also have changed Wi-Fi access points on school campuses to allow parents and students to drive up to their schools and connect to the internet from parking lots or benches outside buildings, Moore said. The district has also requested 2,800 laptops from the state.
As the district works to bridge the technology gap, it will continue doing a “blended approach to distance learning,” with online classes and hard-copy education packages, Moore said.
During the campus closures, districts in the region have also launched different efforts — featuring school buses — to ensure school children continue to receive food.
In Gulf County, the district plans to hand out 1,000 free meals every day to children through May 21. Combined, the cost of bus fuel and ingredients to prepare meals like ham wraps or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, is estimated to cost the district about $500,000, Norton said
“We are going to lose money because we are taking it out of the district’s savings. But this is done out of necessity,” Norton said. “We are confident the meals that we are doing are a big part of the students’ day.”
Jackson and Bay counties are also delivering meals to students on bus routes.
In Jackson County, where students district-wide are eligible for free or reduced-price meals, the district is delivering a week’s worth of meals to students once a week.
“The week before last, we served almost 58,000 meals in one day and we served 14 meals to each student,” Moore said. “It’s hard to comprehend, but those are the numbers.”