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Covid-19: A Tense Return to School for Florida Students

As Florida deals with another spike in infections – an average of 2,679 new cases of Covid-19 registered daily – the French-American School of Tampa Bay has started its third academic year. This return to the classrooms has been stressful for both teachers and parents, but a necessary step for the students.

The forty students at the French-American School of Tampa Bay had not seen their classrooms since March. After spending more than five months at home, they returned to school on August 28, catapulted into a radically different environment for five days every week. Lined up in their cars every morning, adults must confirm that their children have no symptoms of the virus. Staff then take the temperature of each student (a second check takes place after lunch) before letting them into the building. Face coverings must be worn both indoors and outside, and the students change their masks twice a day.

The French-American School of Tampa Bay was inaugurated in September 2018 and is “brand new,” says Willy LeBihan, founder and director of the private dual-language institution. “We have a select number of students and lots of space – one of the advantages of a small school that is just starting out.” Sliding walls are used to modify the classrooms and maintain social distancing between students and teachers. The school’s ventilation system has also been fitted with a more efficient air filter and equipped with ultraviolet lights, which are effective in combatting the virus.

An Ultra-Precise “Reopening Plan”

Life at the school is mapped out according to a “very strict protocol,” including when the students arrive at 8:15 a.m., when they leave at 2:45 p.m., the organization of meals in small groups (outside, weather permitting), and the use of water fountains. Parents have received a 13-page document outlining the new measures, and some families have opted to home-school their children for now. “There is no such thing as a risk-free environment,” says Willy LeBihan. “But we can keep the risk as low as possible if everyone follows the rules.”

While drawing up its “reopening plan,” the school received unexpected help from one of the parents. Francophone pulmonologist Gaëtane Michaud, who treated Covid-19 patients at the NYU Langone Health hospital in New York, was transferred to the hospital at the University of South Florida in Tampa this summer, and enrolled her two daughters at the French-American School of Tampa Bay. She agreed to lead Q&A sessions with teachers and other parents. “She warned us about the danger of carrying Covid-19 on the soles of shoes,” says the director. “As a result, students now wear slippers when they enter the school.”

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© FASTB.org

Other proactive measures include disinfecting desks, chairs, and door handles several times a day. Students are asked to wash their hands as often as possible, and sharing belongings, books, pens, and other school equipment is forbidden. Contact sports have also been removed from the physical education classes, school trips have been suspended, and each class eats lunch in different areas. What’s more, an “isolation area” has been set up in the nurse’s office in case a student becomes ill during the day. (In Pinellas County, where the school is located, more than 50 students and teachers have tested positive for Covid-19 since late August.)

(Almost) Back to Normal

Despite everything, “the students are happy to be with their friends again,” says Willy LeBihan. “Being in lockdown has a major impact on the children’s social development.” In an effort to defuse an otherwise stressful situation and facilitate interactions, the teachers all wear transparent masks. The students can recognize smiles and facial expressions, and repeat words during their language classes. Finally, to reassure parents who are unable to enter the school, teachers hold virtual office hours every week. “It puts their minds at rest,” says the director. “The parents are often more worried than their children.”

The French-American School of Tampa Bay, which welcomes students from kindergarten through to ninth grade, received its accreditation from the French Ministry for National Education in May. As the only one of its kind in West Florida, the school relies on the many Francophone and Francophile families moving to the Tampa Bay area to take advantage of the region’s economic boom. However, the pandemic has hampered the arrival of new families and stopped additional students enrolling.

“My pulmonology and intensive care unit treats people with Covid-19 in the Tampa area,” says Gaëtane Michaud. “The number of infections has been dropping since late August and is still the lowest in Florida.” Despite everything, the academic year will continue with restricted numbers — 40 students, plus certain “apprehensive” families who may decide to enroll their children mid-semester. The school’s founder — who also launched the Ecole Française du Maine with his wife — is resolutely optimistic. “The virus has rained on our parade; this is not how we hoped to celebrate our accreditation, but we won’t give up. We are tougher than that!”

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