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What Will School Reopening Look Like? As Coronavirus Cases Rise, Tampa Bay Districts Make Plans

Hernando County Schools released a video showing social distancing in classrooms, with students wearing masks
Hernando County School District
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

In June, Governor Ron DeSantis called for K-12 schools to reopen in full this fall, but left it up to individual school boards to figure out how to do that.

In the space of a month, the landscape has changed dramatically. Coronavirus cases in Florida are surging to new heights. But that hasn’t yet stopped local school districts from rolling out draft guidance for reopening, offering a blend of in-person instruction and virtual learning options.

Many public school districts started by sending surveys to parents. And most parents across the Tampa Bay area elected for their children to return to physical school, rather than online learning.

“Almost 4,000 of you responded,” said Hernando County Schools Superintendent John Stratton in an online video.

“We read every comment, and we considered every question. While some parents expressed their concerns about sending their child back to school, 86 percent of parents who responded to the survey indicated they would prefer to return to face-to-face instruction.”

RELATED: WUSF Survey Shows Parents, Teachers Conflicted About Schools Reopening

Stratton said those comments helped a task force of parents, educators, administrators and school leaders come up with cleaning and social distancing protocols.

“Classroom layouts will looks different as every effort will be made to put as much distance as possible between students,” said a video released by Hernando County Schools that shows how seating charts will be implemented on buses, how food will be pre-packaged and placed on carts for students to pick up, and more.

Temperature checks before school could be the new norm
Credit Hernando County Schools
The Florida Channel
Temperature checks before school could be the new norm

Masks won’t be mandatory in Hernando, but staff and students will be encouraged to wear them.

“While this is a new situation for all of us, and some of us may have strong opinions, on this we all agree, nothing is more important to us than the safety of our students and staff. That is where our work began,” said Stratton.

During a recent board meeting in Pasco County, assistant superintendent Ray Gadd said a mandate could be needed, especially as coronavirus cases continue to rise.

“For us, creating order out of chaos is to take the cautious path and the cautious path is if coronavirus rates are raging, we want to have the option of requiring masks,” Gadd said.

Pasco School Board Member Kevin Sibley said allowing parents to choose online or remote learning could help achieve smaller class sizes. When teachers were surveyed, their “most important concern was the ability to social distance and (avoid) overcrowding in schools.”

Parents who want to keep their children home can choose a new form of virtual school, or e-learning - or as Pasco County calls it, My School Online.

“Pasco County’s My School Online is designed for families who wish to maintain their connection to their enrolled school but don’t yet feel comfortable sending their student or students back to school in August,” said a video on the district website.

This option allows students to follow along with a teacher and class at their school, promises real-time interaction with teachers each day, and “less demand on parents to guide student learning versus 2020’s quarter four distance learning model.”

According to Manatee County School superintendent Cynthia Saunders, choosing a remote learningoption can be temporary.

“I think some just aren’t sure yet, they aren’t comfortable yet. And I think they are hoping to see how it unfolds,” she said at a recent board meeting.

“And then when they feel that it is comfortable, they can phase them back in. So just because they choose to be online when school starts doesn’t mean they have to stay that way for the entire school year.”

Three options offered by Manatee County Schools
Credit Manatee County Schools
The Florida Channel
Three options offered by Manatee County Schools

Manatee County is offering remote learning, called e-learning Manatee, or a full time back to school option, for grades K-5. A hybrid - or mix - of in-person and online learning is offered for grades 6-12.

Another option available to all is Virtual School. It has different names in different districts. In Hillsborough it’s called Hillsborough Virtual K-12, and is a franchise of Florida Virtual School.

“While online learning is new for some, Florida Virtual School has been developing internet-based courses for students for more than 20 years,” said a video that explains this option isn’t tied to the traditional school day and has a flexible schedule.

“We never want students to say when will I use this? We create just the right amount of content students need to achieve mastery,” it said.

Hillsborough County Schools recommends Florida Virtual School for homeschool students, children in military families, amateur athletes and performers, advanced learners, and those who need to schedule their studies around work.

Superintendent Addison Davis described Hillsborough's plans last month.

Pinellas County plans to discuss school reopening on July 14.

Sarasota County Schools have released a 30-page draft guidance for reopening. It mentions closing off playground equipment, canceling field trips and assemblies, and seeking a waiver for the 20-minute recess requirement.  

During a school board meeting on Thursday, members discussed opening schools August 10 with remote options, or opening remotely at first and opening the buildings after Labor Day.

Plastic barriers that stand about two feet high have been purchased for each Sarasota County student, says interim superintendent Mitsi Corcoran
Credit Sarasota County School Board
The Florida Channel
Plastic barriers that stand about two feet high have been purchased for each Sarasota County student, says interim superintendent Mitsi Corcoran

Interim superintendent Mitsi Corcoran also showed off foldable clear plastic barriers that stand on desks, and that she said have been purchased for each student.

“So ultimately I can be a student working in my classroom, I can see my teacher, I can see the kids next to me, but I am contained so I don’t feel like they would at that point maybe necessarily have to put a mask on.”

But health department officer Chuck Henry said a lot depends on the indoor space – ventilation, how crowded it is, and whether masks are worn.

“I’ve not seen than particular product or the data on it. We have looked at a number of different studies where various barriers – plexiglass and other things are used – they can be quite effective, but it really is a case-by-case basis depending on the other dynamics in the room.”

Henry added that he is concerned about the rising number of coronavirus cases in the area.

Social distancing is “just critically important, especially right now with the amount of virus that is out in the community,” he said.

“Hopefully that will change and we will begin to turn the corner and the amount of virus will move back down, but right now we are very concerned about what is happening out there,” added Henry.

If schools have to be shut down again due to an outbreak, Sarasota’s guidance says teachers will be required to offer daily lessons online.

That way, remote learning this time around won't put as much of a burden on parents as it did in March when schools abruptly closed, Corcoran said. 

"It was a lot on the parents," she said.

"This is where we would literally have your child in a remote learning schedule, so their teacher would be teaching them from their school in the classroom by themselves, and they would 25 little faces or 18 little faces or however many little faces it is on a screen, and they would be teaching them remotely."

Some Sarasota teachers are training to be online only, while most would return to classrooms.

The Sarasota Classified/Teachers Association President Pat Gardner said many teachers are “scared to death.”

“I just feel like teachers are being put on the front line with doctors and nurses and EMT people and some police officers and they haven’t been trained how to work with contagious individuals and some of them are going to die.”

“We need to think about staff and what is happening to them. I understand our job has always been to think about students and we all think that way because that is how we have always thought, but now it means life or death.”

Whether online learning or in-person, parents will be asked to choose an option as early as this week. School is scheduled to start in early August.

Copyright 2020 WUSF Public Media - WUSF 89.7

Kerry Sheridan is a reporter and co-host of All Things Considered at WUSF Public Media.