Palm Beach County kids go back to school: See the excitement, nerves (and new shoes!)

·6 min read

Nearly 165,000 students were expected to attend classes across 180 Palm Beach County district-run schools Wednesday morning on the first day of school. With them, they brought expectations for the new year and challenges to overcome after two school years marred by the coronavirus pandemic.

Masks and COVID vaccinations are optional for students and staff this year, but on Wednesday morning, around one quarter of the students in class at the campuses the superintendent visited were masked up.

Superintendent Mike Burke began his tour of schools at 7 a.m. Wednesday at S.D. Spady Elementary in Delray Beach. Teachers and staff members lined a red carpet to welcome students to the campus as it celebrated its 100th year on the site just north of Atlantic Avenue.

"I get to go to a lot of schools today, and I don't think anyone can outdo this with the red carpet and the party," Burke said of the school, named after the third Black principal assigned to Delray Beach who served for 35 years, Solomon David Spady. "This is pretty awesome to be celebrating 100 years. What an impact."

Five-year-old Taylor Howard arrived on campus with perfectly clean light-up unicorn sneakers and her hair freshly done. Her parents, Terrence Howard and Lashae Sherrell, snapped photos of her in Spady's courtyard before they dropped her off at her kindergarten classroom.

Taylor said she was excited to go to school for the first time. She's been in child care before, but Wednesday was her first time on a school campus as a student. Her favorite class is science, but she's not sure what she wants to be when she grows up.

Howard and Sherrell were beaming with excitement for their daughter, but they acknowledged all the unknowns of the school year ahead.

"I'm thinking about the pandemic, whether it be COVID or monkeypox. I'm kind of nervous about health and safety and kids getting sick," Howard said. "Those are the things you can't control."

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As of noon Wednesday and despite a driver shortage, most buses had arrived on time, Burke said.

A school bus drives northbound on North Military Trail in Boca Raton during the first day of school on August 10, 2022. Earlier in the day another school bus was involved in a minor accident when it was rear end by a Chevrolet.
A school bus drives northbound on North Military Trail in Boca Raton during the first day of school on August 10, 2022. Earlier in the day another school bus was involved in a minor accident when it was rear end by a Chevrolet.

Chevy Malibu hits school bus; teens inside car go to hospital

Just after 6 a.m., a Chevrolet Malibu heading west on Sixth Avenue South in Lake Worth Beach crashed into the back of a school bus that was stopped at the Tri-Rail railroad crossing.

The bus driver did not realize the crash had occurred and dragged the car across the tracks before stopping, according to the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office. There were two teenagers in the car between the ages of 14 and 16 years old. Both were seriously injured in the crash and transported to St. Mary's Medical Center in West Palm Beach by ambulance.

One student aboard and the driver were not injured in the crash, although the glass at the back of the bus was shattered. The student's parent picked them up from the scene, according to the school district. The bus was on its way to Roosevelt Middle School.

District starts school year with no COVID reporting policies

Looming over the first day of classes is uncertainty about how the coronavirus pandemic, a staffing shortage and the Parental Rights in Education law will change school life this year.

The district has scrapped nearly all reporting mechanisms when a student or teacher tests positive for COVID-19: Schools won't report positive tests to the district, and parents won't be notified if someone in their child's class tests positive.

Delray Beach resident Kattly Nelson crosses Northwest Third Terrace with her twin 8-year-old boys, Bryan, left, and Ryan Nelson, as crossing guard Oscar Saturno holds up a stop sign to traffic during the first day of school at S.D. Spady Elementary School in Delray Beach, FL., on Wednesday, August 10, 2022.
Delray Beach resident Kattly Nelson crosses Northwest Third Terrace with her twin 8-year-old boys, Bryan, left, and Ryan Nelson, as crossing guard Oscar Saturno holds up a stop sign to traffic during the first day of school at S.D. Spady Elementary School in Delray Beach, FL., on Wednesday, August 10, 2022.

The district is also retiring its online COVID-19 dashboard, leaving parents and staff and community members in the dark regarding the number of cases in schools.

"You're not going to know until your kid tells you people are out," Kitonga Kiminyo, an infectious disease specialist in Boynton Beach, said of his concerns as his teenagers head back to school. "My kids still mask up when they go to school, and I would encourage as many children to do that as possible."

At Hidden Oaks K-8 school west of Boynton Beach, principal Shari Bremekamp welcomed students with price tags still on their backpacks and teachers excited to start the year back to campus.

Bremekamp said the most important things her staff and students needed this year were mental health resources and counselor support after two years of uncertainty due to the pandemic.

Teacher, bus driver shortage looms large over 2022-23 school year

Outside Lake Worth High School, a large portable traffic message board warned drivers to go slowly. "BACK TO SCHOOL," the sign flashed as cars turned north toward the school.

Just over a week before the start of classes, Burke had announced that the district still needed to hire 400 teachers. That blew past historical levels of understaffing at the start of the school year – the district usually needs to hire about 200 teachers.

To address the shortage of teachers, Burke said the district has tried to boost its number of substitute teachers by increasing pay and recruiting more former teachers.

Palm Beach County Schools Superintendent Mike Burke speaks to an S.D. Spady Elementary School faculty member in Delray Beach on the first day of school Wednesday.
Palm Beach County Schools Superintendent Mike Burke speaks to an S.D. Spady Elementary School faculty member in Delray Beach on the first day of school Wednesday.

Burke also said the district was short 80 bus drivers and 100 maintenance workers.

"We're struggling with some staffing shortages," he said Wednesday. "We know we're going to have to double up some routes, and that's going to be challenging."

The struggle to recruit drivers has school board members concerned about the sustainability of operating with so many openings.

"It’s a constant lack of people we need to provide for our system," Erica Whitfield said. "Bus drivers are saying, 'You have to get us more people, because we can’t keep this up.' They can’t have this many routes."

How will the district support LGBTQ+ students, stay in line with law?

The school year also marks the first that will be shaped by the newly minted Parental Rights in Education law, which went into effect July 1. The law bans instruction on gender identity or sexual orientation in grades K-3 and any instruction "not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate” in the older grades.

In Palm Beach County, the law has led to few concrete changes to campuses.

On Aug. 3, school board members approved the district’s annual strategic plan, promising to “enhance a sense of belonging, safety and acceptance for all students.” The plan also makes promises directly to LGBTQ+ students and other diverse populations.

By Friday, the district issued an updated version of its 111-page LGBTQ+ Critical Support Guide after briefly taking the guide offline for a legal review. Most of the guide appeared to have survived.

According to the district’s updated guide, the following are not considered “instruction” and are still allowed:

  • Putting family photos on a teacher’s desk.

  • Referring to a spouse’s gender.

  • Extracurricular activities such as gay-straight alliances and book fairs.

  • Responding to a student’s description of their family.

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Palm Beach Post education reporter Giuseppe Sabella contributed to this report.

Katherine Kokal is a journalist covering education at The Palm Beach Post. You can reach her at kkokal@pbpost.com. Help support our work; subscribe today!

This article originally appeared on Palm Beach Post: Inside the first day of school in Palm Beach County for 2022-23