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ALACHUA COUNTY ‒ Alachua County and the Tax Collector's Office invites residents to the unveiling of their new public art installation (an alligator constructed from recycled license plates) funded through the Alachua County Public Arts Program. The unveiling is on Monday, Aug. 17, 2020, at the Tax Collector's Downtown Office (12 S.E. 1st Street, Gainesville) at 11 a.m. Light refreshments will be served. Social distancing, masks, and other COVID-19 related precautions will be observed.

A Call-to-Artists was nationally advertised for art to be commissioned, created, and installed at the Tax Collector's Office that would incorporate recycled license plates. Nine submittals were evaluated and the top three were reviewed by the Alachua County Commission, who selected Beth Ravitz in November 2019. 

This art was commissioned to celebrate the service provided to the public by the Tax Collector's Office, while repurposing license plates into an alligator, which not only symbolizes Alachua County's respect for nature and the environment, but also pays homage to the University of Florida's mascot

"We are thrilled to unveil this art for the public's enjoyment," said Alachua County Tax Collector John Power.

The mission of the Alachua County Public Arts Program is to enhance the quality of the visual environment in Alachua County, thereby adding to the quality of life and the level of citizen awareness of the importance of aesthetic experience in their everyday lives.

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GAINESVILLE – Due to unforeseen circumstances, the Interstate 75 northbound ramp on Newberry Road (State Road 26) will remain closed Monday, August 10. The ramp was originally scheduled to reopen at 6 a.m. Monday morning.

 It is now expected the ramp will reopen Tuesday morning, weather and unforeseen circumstances permitting.

 Motorists attempting to go north on I-75 will be required to first go south on I-75, exit onto Archer Road (State Road 24), and then head north on I-75.

 This closure is necessary for construction activities at the Newberry Road and I-75 interchange as crews widen the ramp to the interstate.

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ALACHUA COUNTY – With the COVID-19 pandemic not abating, there are renewed concerns with the school year starting. In Alachua County, the school board has postponed the opening of schools until Aug. 24 in the hopes that the infection rate will decline.

However, in the United States cases are not declining, yet there is a push to reopen in-person schooling. The United States accounts for 25 percent of the cases worldwide with over 4,398,994 cases and 150,774 deaths as of July28. Since July 1 there have been over 50,000 new cases per day in the U.S.

Florida has become a hot spot in the pandemic. As of July 28, there were 441,977 cases in Florida and 6,240 deaths. Over 80 percent of ICU beds are occupied throughout the state and are in use. In the past 10 days the state has seen an average of 10,000 new cases per day. On July 24, there was a high of 12,444 cases in 24 hours.

Despite the rise in cases, Florida Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran issued an Executive Order July 6 requiring all public schools, including charters, to open in August for in-person instruction five days a week for all students.

While students are not required to attend school in person, the school districts are required to make it available to them. School districts must comply if they choose to also provide an alternative form of instruction, such as the Digital Academy.

Based on the order, all school districts must offer in person education five days a week to any student who wants it. The districts can then offer online learning as an alternative as long as in-person classes are also available. If a district does not have a state approved plan or were to defy the state order and employ 100 percent online learning, they stand to lose a portion of funding.

In Alachua County it is estimated that funding will be cut by about $30 million for half a school year. Since 85 percent of the district's operating budget goes toward salaries, that would have a large impact on employees and teachers, which would also limit the number of teachers and services, thereby limiting the district's ability to operate. State law prohibits paying people if they don't work, which means paying those employees whose jobs are based on student attendance such as bus drivers would be problematic. It would also affect other programs such as limiting the ability to provide free meals to students.

Teachers in Florida are suing the State to block the order requiring schools to open next month with in-person instruction. They say, with the surge of coronavirus cases, the order violates a provision in the Florida Constitution requiring the state to ensure schools are operated safely.

The order does say the final decision on whether to reopen schools rests with local superintendents, school boards and health offices. But it suggests funding may depend on whether they comply to open schools in person. The districts that submit reopening plans approved by the state will receive full funding.

The Florida Education Association (FEA) is suing Florida Governor Ron DeSantis over his administration’s push to reopen schools next month despite surging coronavirus cases in the state. Under the new guidelines requested by the White House, the CDC has downgraded their guidelines but recommends schools follow a certain level of precautions based on the amount of community transmission in their area.

The FEA contends that ordering an unsafe return to on-site instruction at public schools is a violation of Florida’s Constitution. Two nationwide unions, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, joined an announcement of the litigation in Tallahassee. Under current conditions the State does not meet the CDC guidelines. However, the executive order stands unless overturned in court, which is unlikely to happen prior to most schools opening.

The School Board of Alachua County (SBAC) has postponed the opening of schools for two additional weeks until Aug. 24 in the hopes that the infection rate will decline. They also sent out a notice to all families with school age children to survey whether they would prefer in person classes, digital learning or the Alachua eSchool, which is also computer based.

“Our initial results showed about 41 percent chose brick and mortar in person classes, 41 percent chose the Digital Academy and about 18 percent chose Alachua eSchool. However, we had a significant number of families who either didn't choose or didn't fill out the form correctly. We are also hearing from some parents who want to change their choice, so we are asking them to work with their schools to do that,” said SBAC Public Information Officer Jackie Johnson.

“For students in the Digital Academy and brick and mortar, we will be providing free meals. We cannot provide meals to students in the Alachua eSchool. For students who choose Digital Academy or Alachua eSchool, we will provide devices and will work with families to provide Internet access. We are working with Cox, Verizon, AT&T and other providers to make that happen, and in some cases, we may be using the buses for wifi,” Johnson said.

“Based on the number of students choosing the brick and mortar option, we do think we'll be able to have more social distancing. We're instituting a number of strategies to try to promote social distancing, but of course that is a challenge in a school, a setting that is designed for social interaction,” said Johnson.

The SBAC has submitted a draft plan to the state outlining the three options they intend to provide. The plan outlines strategies that will be implemented depending on the community spread of the virus—no spread, minimal/moderate spread and significant spread. According to the Alachua County Health Department, Alachua County is currently in the minimal/moderate spread category, although that could change.

One of the key goals of the Digital Academy is to promote a more seamless transition between brick-and-mortar and online learning if the state orders all schools closed or when more students return to in-person learning later in the school year. Under the Digital Academy option, students would receive live instruction at home from their assigned teachers. Students would be expected to be engaged in digital learning following their typical school schedule—for example, 7:45 a.m. to 1:52 p.m. for most elementary schools.

The third instructional option for local families is Alachua eSchool, which allows students to learn material and complete coursework on their own schedule and pace without live lessons. Since these students are not “in school” either in person or online, they are not included in the meals programs. The eSchool has been in existence for eight years and during the last school year served about 3,000 full and part-time students.

The debate on reopening schools during the rising case numbers is raging nationwide with many educators and medical experts concerned about its outcome and the possibility of creating a breeding ground for infection.

Only time will tell whether it was a good decision or not. Additional information on all three plans can be found at https://www.sbac.edu/

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PALATKA ‒ Teachers have until Sept. 4 to apply for 2020-2021 Blue School Grant funds from the St. Johns River Water Management District

Now entering the fifth year of its Blue School Grant Program, the district is offering up to $20,000 in grants for education projects that enrich student knowledge of Florida’s water resources through hands-on learning.

“We are eager once again to support our science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) teachers as they pursue creative ways to engage students in water education,” said St. Johns River Water Management District Executive Director Dr. Ann Shortelle.

The district has funded 47 water resource education projects in the last four funding cycles.

Through the district’s Blue School Grant Program, up to $2,000 per school may be awarded to middle and high school teachers to enhance student knowledge of Florida’s water resources. Public and charter school teachers within the district’s boundaries are eligible to apply.

Grants may be awarded in three areas: freshwater resources field study, water conserving landscape projects, or water conservation community/school awareness campaigns.

Examples of previous successful grant applications include:

  • Service-learning projects where middle and high school students partnered to study water quality
  • Creation of native landscape garden with educational signage
  • Water quality comparison of stormwater ponds on campus
  • Conversion of traditional irrigation to micro-irrigation in school landscape
  • Water conservation awareness posters and video

Teachers receiving grants will be notified on Oct. 1.

Information about criteria and deadlines and the online application can be found at www.sjrwmd.com/education/blueschoolor contact Dr. Jennifer Mitchell at jmitchell@sjrwmd.com or 904-730-6283.

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NEWBERRY ‒ Newberry Mayor Jordan Marlowe and some Newberry City Commissioners have received calls asking if the City has changed its stance on wearing facemasks. As it turns out the City has not.

However, Newberry Codes Enforcement Officer Rick Wolf has been educating those business owners who have been requiring patrons, as well as their own employees, to wear masks that they are eligible to file for Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act reimbursement funds for losses suffered as a result of COVID-19.

Although Alachua County’s position on mask-wearing to help prevent the spread of the virus is mandatory, the City of Newberry and some Alachua County residents have chosen instead to go by the governor’s guidance, which is to wear a mask if a citizen is experiencing symptoms of COVID-19.

Because Newberry is strongly recommending the wearing of masks, but not mandating it, some members of the Alachua County Commission believe the City of Newberry is not eligible to apply for CARES Act reimbursement for their losses.

Marlowe pointed out that singling out one city as ineligible may be one of the reasons the Springs County movement has seen such strong momentum. “We have several business owners who have abided by the same rules as the County wishes to enforce,” said Marlowe. “There is no reason they should not be eligible for reimbursement under the CARES Act.”

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ALACHUA – What was once just a sketch on paper has become reality as Alachua’s San Felasco Parkway has opened. On Tuesday, July 28, with a large crowd in attendance, the road was officially opened with a ceremonial ribbon cutting.

Among those attending were members of the City of Alachua Commission and staff, University of Florida President Kent Fuchs, State Representatives Chuck Clemons and Clovis Watson, Jr. as well as members of the public.

Several speakers from the City of Alachua, including Mayor Gib Coerper, City Manager Adam Boukari and Public Services Director Rodolfo Valladares provided their insights into the project and the great potential the Parkway offers for bringing hi tech economic development to the area,

University of Florida President Kent Fuchs said the academic community is enthused to play a part in the future expansion of knowledge as well as helping give a start to entrepreneurs in the UF Innovation program.

This first phase of the San Felasco Parkway includes a 1.4-mile divided road with sidewalks and bike paths. The road passes though the University of Florida Foundation's 280-acre site southwest of Progress Park. Water, wastewater and electric infrastructure improvements are also included to provide “shovel ready” sites for high-tech industries to build on with all the utilities in place.

In addition to new industry, many high-tech firms that will use the parkway are already established in the area. The road is in close proximity to Copeland Park, Alachua Research Park, San Felasco Tech City and the Santa Fe College Perry Center. In addition, students from Santa Fe College and the University of Florida provide an excellent workforce pool and serve as a catalyst for innovation and further advances in their fields. Many of the tech companies in these parks were spin-offs created by University of Florida graduates or staff.

The presence of the Sid Martin Biotechnology Incubator also provides another valuable asset to grow these industries. And looking back 25 years, it was the University of Florida’s founding of the Sid Martin Biotechnology Incubator on a vacant piece of land between Alachua and Gainesville that became the impetus for what would become a world-renown biotechnology hub.

At that time, the newly constructed facility was surrounded by open fields and little else. Designed to help tech entrepreneurs and scientific startups, the incubator attracted companies that would occupy incubator space and use shared scientific equipment. As the startup companies grew and matured, they moved out of the incubator with many locating into space in Progress Park. Today, over three dozen companies employing over 1,200 are centered in Progress Park.

The first phase of the San Felasco Parkway is reality and is one of the single largest capacity and infrastructure improvement investments built in the last decade in Alachua County, with more to come. While there are no confirmed plans yet, development on the UF foundation land may include a combination business and residential community for employees in the expanding Progress Park.

As Alachua Mayor Coerper put it, “The futures so bright that I'm wearing shades”.

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HIGH SPRINGS – The City election for the City of High Springs will be held on Tuesday, Nov. 3. The purpose of the election will be to fill City Commission Seats #1 and #2 for a three-year term.

On July 23, City Clerk Jenny Parham announced that candidates successfully qualified to run for City Commission Seat #1, currently occupied by Commissioner Nancy Lavin, are Rose Ambrose, Sharon Decker and Janet Evans. Parham said Lavin originally presented qualifying paperwork, but has since withdrawn her name from running.

Candidates successfully qualified to run for City Commission Seat #2, currently occupied by Commissioner Gloria James, include James, Zachary Walters and Katherine Weitz.

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