Jefferson Somerset Academy
He spent the summer preparing for the new school year in very different ways compared to years past. Not only was he hiring new staff, examining curricula, overseeing normal summer maintenance and managing Florida Department of Education (FLDOE) reporting and compliance—with his two young children on campus all summer—he was laser-focused on opening school safely for Jefferson County students August 31.
“It’s always about academics,” says Oliver. “But this year, our top priority is keeping everyone safe and healthy. Without that, the other things won’t matter.”
Oliver, 41, and an educator since 2003, along with wife Courtney Oliver, Assistant Principal for Somerset Elementary and Andre Gainey, Assistant Principal for Somerset Middle and High Schools, spent the summer drafting opening plans for FLDOE approval, working alongside the school’s facilities staff placing social distancing desk markers on classroom floors, painting directional pedestrian lines on walkways, cleaning out storage areas and moving extra classroom furniture in to the cafeteria and tackling cleanup in the media center, which was the staging area at the start of the year for curriculum sets and technology devices for all grade levels. Furniture was moved out of classrooms to allow safe desk spacing and smaller student groups, and classes are limited to a number that enables social distancing per the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines, though many classes have fewer students than guidelines allow in the on-site, traditional instructional model. Most classes cap student numbers at around 12, but this varies depending on room size.
The alternative mode of instruction Somerset offers is Remote Live Instruction (RLI), which 35% of students chose at the start of the year. RLI is different from virtual self-paced learning: with RLI, students use Zoom videoconferencing to enter their classes at a specified time to participate in group activities with their peers and classroom teachers, and they must be online with cameras, audio activated and wearing school uniform shirts. Teachers work simultaneously with students present in class and learning through RLI.
For students without computers at home, the school provided laptops for all who needed them, and families with more than one Somerset student received a laptop for each child. Staff handed out materials and devices in drive-through lines before the start of school. There were glitches—originally the school furnished iPads, which turned out to be incompatible for current instructional needs—so all devices were recalled and replaced, and the Zoom site crashed when schools across the globe opened up all at once. It was extra work and frustration, for sure, but Somerset administration’s motto is “Whatever it Takes”, and it is evident teachers and staff keep this tagline in mind in their service to students of Jefferson County.
“I just returned from a visit to Miami and Broward schools. I honestly can say that the reason that our school has had such a successful opening is directly because of our amazing teachers and staff that have continued to follow the protocols we established back in July,” Oliver says. “The people who serve our students are the heart and soul of our school community. I am beyond honored to lead such an amazing team. Nobody has done this as well as our team.”
Principal Oliver took other key actions to ensure a safe school opening:
• Mandatory masks worn at all times. No person enters the school without one, and non-compliance is swiftly addressed. Students are given “mask breaks” outside each day.
• Hall monitors stationed in each building, called pavilions on the Somerset campus, who clean between restroom use and continually disinfect doorknobs and other common space fixtures throughout the day.
• Purchased a state-of-the-art screening system placed in the main entry. The system, which cost several thousand dollars and is staffed by a security guard, digitally tracks masks on faces and temperatures of each body entering the school.
• Installed a Needlepoint Bipolar Ionization (NPBI) air filtration system in eight classroom pavilions, the gym and cafeteria at a cost of $55,000, skipping the portables, which have individual systems that do not share air with other rooms or buildings. The system—chosen by high-visibility clients such as Harvard University, the Tampa Bay Lightning Arena and the White House, according to the company’s web site—changes the makeup of pathogenic particles, causing them to glom together in larger masses that are then easily filtered out. Investing in cleaning the circulating air seemed a better use of resources, said Oliver, when compared to the hundreds of thousands of dollars other school districts spent to install plexiglass shields around each desk. One South Florida district spent $750,000 on shields, which are not hermetic seals and permit air flow to move around the plexiglass.
• Cohort student groups do not change classes, and students are not permitted to congregate in hallways or outside. They remain in classes where teachers come to them, and lunch is delivered to each room. This avoids groups of students moving through the campus and mixing with other classes at cafeteria lunch tables.
• Volunteers are not permitted on campus, and parents are discouraged from showing up without scheduling in advance. Many visitors are asked to wait in their vehicles if they can be accommodated this way.
• Teachers must submit up-to-date seating charts and students adhere to assigned seating. This facilitates contact tracing in case a positive COVID case is identified.
• Cleaning staff disinfects classrooms and other spaces at the end of each day.
Families are now contacting the school to change the instructional mode for their students. Internet service can be spotty in Jefferson County (giving families laptops doesn’t solve the nationwide problem of broadband access in rural areas), a concern Oliver took up with Verizon in his request that the company update local cell towers. And, many families realize the best learning environment for their students is in the classroom, with peers and teacher proximity. Somerset Academy set the start of the new semester in January 2021 as the official instructional mode change period but with overwhelming change requests from families who want to make the switch now, school administration has started wait lists for classroom seats and recently—in an innovative move—created a large overflow area where students can learn via RLI on campus with more reliable internet service and ample social distancing.
Oliver admits it hasn’t been easy, but he and staff have risen to each challenge, worked through it, and learned from it. He has made some hard decisions, following CDC guidelines and his own conscience to keep his Somerset family safe, including tracking a COVID exposure and mandating quarantine of the football team, which also affected the most recent opponent, North Florida Christian. That was hard for the team, hard on seniors, he says, and a difficult call for Somerset’s athletic director to make to the other school.
His sadness and frustration came through in a staff email. “Over 80 people have been quarantined because of one family choosing to not follow the guidelines,” the principal wrote.
Now, several months into the pandemic, Oliver isn’t letting staff or students grow lax in these COVID times. In another message to staff, he stressed that his duty—an appropriate term, coming from a former Army combat engineer—is to ensure safety guidelines are followed to keep Jefferson Somerset students, staff and their families safe and healthy.
“Until this pandemic is over, teaching is secondary to school safety. This is our sad reality. I am so very proud of our students and staff for working so hard to keep the school safe. We have witnessed so many positive moments here. Proper protocols actually have stopped many people from being exposed and sent home to quarantine,” he wrote. “Please, do not fear doing the right thing. You must enforce all of the guidelines, and all of the time, if we are to get through this without a massive shut down.”
His diligence and positive results have not gone unnoticed; Oliver made a recent trip to South Florida to advise other schools in preparing for opening on-site instruction. Many districts began the year with remote learning alone and are now returning to traditional brick and mortar classes, and having already worked through the planning, implementation and correction phases, his input is invaluable in these unprecedented times.
Principal Oliver’s concern for Jefferson County students guides every initiative, not only during the uncertainty of this pandemic, but from the very beginning in earlier, more normal days. Somerset invested millions of dollars in improvements campus-wide at his direction, from refurbishing buildings to installing state of the art systems for special programs, to landscaping,to pouring new basketball courts, to installing visually inviting, inspiring design elements throughout all pavilions. The campus was deteriorating when Somerset arrived, he says, with graffiti marring buildings and structures deteriorating from lack of adequate care.
“Students should feel respected. They should feel they are worthy of a clean, safe, beautiful learning space, and they deserve that,” he says. “We invested in this campus because these kids are worth it.”
Oliver usually ends the school day with a broadcast announcement of positivity and gratitude, his last connection with students before sending them home for the day. When a sudden cold front came through recently and the mercury dropped drastically within just a few hours, his cool dad voice came over the intercom minutes before students headed to the bus loop and parent pick-up areas.
“Tigers, it will be cold tomorrow morning, so wear a jacket. I am really proud of you all, and I love you guys,” he said.
The next morning staff greeted sleepy-faced students yawning and grabbing to-go breakfasts and heading to class, most heeding the fatherly message, bundled up against the unseasonably cold North Florida morning.