Polk Begins 2022-23 School Year Today Amid Teacher Shortage

More than 110,000 students and 13,000 employees returned to more than 150 Polk County public schools Wednesday morning for the first day of the 2022-2023 school year.

Taylor Anderson, her daughter Alana Anderson, 7, and Alana’s aunt Breanna Smith stopped in front of a “Happy First Day, Lions!” sign at Philip O’Brien Elementary School for a quick photo.

When asked what she was most excited about on her first day of second grade, Alana said, “All of the things!” adding that her favorite subject is science.

Picture-taking time for Alana Anderson, 7, on her first day of second grade at Philip O’Brien Elementary School.

At Philip O’Brien Elementary School, crossing guard Jackie Smith was also having his first day, blowing his whistle and holding up a stop sign to allow children and parents to safely cross East Lime Street at Tyler Avenue, including Leilani Santiago, 7, Loreila Santiago, 6, Liori Santiago, 4, and their mother Glorivee Acevedo.

School crossing guard Jackie Smith helps a family across East Lime Street.

Teacher Vacancies

Like many school districts throughout Florida and the nation, Polk County Public Schools has many teacher vacancies as the 2022-2023 school year begins.

“We have 216 teacher vacancies at this moment, which is roughly equivalent to the same amount at this point last year,” PCPS spokesman Kyle Kennedy said Tuesday. “We will continue to recruit throughout the year and make adjustments as necessary.”

The PCPS’ career webpage shows a total of 600 openings for everything from administrative assistants and counselors to varying exceptionality teachers and technician architectural draftsmen.

School Board member Lisa Miller said Superintendent Frederick Heid assigned district staff to fill in in classrooms that didn’t have teachers.

Heid started his early morning at Elbert Elementary School in Winter Haven, manning the front office, answering phones and helping parents in the office with first-day questions.

“Great reminder of what our front office staff do each day!” Heid wrote on Twitter before heading to McLaughlin Middle-Senior High School in Lake Wales for a media availability.

Weapons Checks

Some changes were made to school safety protocols this year at middle and high schools. School personnel will regularly conduct random searches of students for weapons and other dangerous items prohibited by the PCPS Code of Conduct. According to the district:

  • All screenings will be done randomly.
  • Schools will vary the screening location on campus, the time when the screening takes place and the frequency of a screening. For instance, a school might select every fifth student who enters the main building upon arrival in the morning.
  • School and district staff will conduct the screenings.
  • Law enforcement will not conduct the screenings, but they will be present should dangerous or illegal items be found.
  • Screening involves the use of a metal detector wand.
  • Bags and purses are also subject to screening.
  • Schools will send out an automated telephone call to let families know when a random screening was conducted on campus.
  • Students cannot refuse to be screened; refusal may result in disciplinary action.

According to a Ledger report, 32 weapons were found on campuses last school year, including guns and knives – up from 18 the year before.

“We are also taking another important step to stop students from making threats of violence against classmates, teachers, staff or schools in general,” a recent district press release stated. “We will be using stricter penalties to deter students from making careless threats that create unnecessary fear and anxiety, as well as waste the time of our school staff and law enforcement officers. Any student who makes such threats – whether verbal, written or posted on social media — will face stricter disciplinary action. Threats will immediately lead to suspension, and students could also face expulsion from school and placement in an alternative education program.”

District officials also said they will continue to work closely with law enforcement to investigate every incident, which could lead to criminal charges.

“We must take every threat seriously — it doesn’t matter if a student is joking or simply making an outburst,” district officials said. “Please speak with your children and reinforce that this type of behavior is unacceptable, and carries serious consequences.”

Bus Call Center

The district’s school bus call center is open again this year to help parents navigate bus assignments, stop times and locations, transportation eligibility, and inevitable delays during the first few weeks of school.

Parents who have bus-related questions and concerns may call 863-534-7300 until Friday, Aug. 26. The temporary call center will be staffed on weekdays from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Families can also check Parent Portal for student busing information.

PCPS and other school districts are also facing an ongoing shortage of drivers, which creates additional workload for existing employees.

Any delays longer than 30 minutes are posted to polkschoolsfl.com/busdelays. Parents may also call 863-534-7300 throughout the school year to reach a dispatcher.

Continued COVID Protocols

Like other large organizations, PCPS also continues to deal with COVID-19.

Anyone with COVID or COVID-like symptoms must stay home and return when one of three requirements is met:

  • Five days pass from symptom onset, person is fever-free 24 hours without medicine, and symptoms are improving OR
  • They receive a negative test, and they have no symptoms OR
  • They have a doctor’s note to return

This year, anyone considered to be a “close contact” is allowed to continue to go to work/school as long as they are symptom-free and do not test positive, should they choose to get tested.

The school district has:

  • Installed air purification devices in all classrooms and offices
  • Placed hand sanitizer in classrooms and sanitizer stations in buildings
  • Cleaning schedules for all high-touch areas throughout the day

It also:

  • Is installing ultraviolet (UV) filtration systems (this began in pre-k and elementary classrooms this summer)
  • Is installing touchless water fountains
  • Continues to reinforce the importance of personal hygiene (covering mouth when coughing/sneezing, proper hand washing, etc.)

Kimberly C. Moore is an award-winning reporter and a Lakeland native.  She can be reached at [email protected] or 863-272-9250.

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