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Hillsborough’s Davis on Day One: School is closed, but ‘learning is open.’

The new superintendent outlines plans to refine the large district’s eLearning system.
Hillsborough school superintendent Addison Davis at a news conference Monday at Sligh Middle School in Tampa. Behind him are School Board members Lynn Gray and Tamara Shamburger, and deputy superintendent Chris Farkas. [MARLENE SOKOL  |  Times]
Hillsborough school superintendent Addison Davis at a news conference Monday at Sligh Middle School in Tampa. Behind him are School Board members Lynn Gray and Tamara Shamburger, and deputy superintendent Chris Farkas. [MARLENE SOKOL | Times]

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TAMPA — More schools will become distribution points for packaged meals. All schools will be deep-cleaned. And officials will find ways to overcome transportation barriers so students can get food and learning materials.

On what was supposed to have been his first official day as acting superintendent of the Hillsborough County Schools on Monday, Addison Davis tried to calm teachers and parents after a week of mixed messages about the large district’s transition to online learning.

“We know that this is a trying time in education, one that is uncharted,” Davis said at a news conference at Sligh Middle School, where workers were preparing to distribute packaged meals to students in need. “I want everyone to understand that while our classrooms remain closed, learning is open.”

Schools are closed statewide until April 15 at the earliest to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

The original plan in Hillsborough was to use last week’s spring break to prepare for a switch to eLearning on Monday morning. Davis and spokewoman Tanya Arja both said Monday that the lessons were ready.

But, they said, concerns about equity argued in favor of a slow-down, a course they decided to take when the state Department of Education issued a timetable that called for a March 30 start.

So on Friday evening, after many teachers had spent the vacation week learning a new computer platform and planning lessons, Davis sent out a letter saying that now through Friday would be a “Set up for Success" week. Instead of the usual pressure of school and grades, the time would be used for enrichment activities while everyone became acclimated to online instruction.

"We stand ready to be prepared and we stand ready to address and remove any barriers that lead to inequities in our schools,” he said Monday.

The timing was fortuitous. Right in the middle of the news conference, parents reported that they could not log into Edsby, the online platform the district is using as its hub of communication.

In Ontario, Edsby marketing vice president Dallas Kachan said the system was inoperable for two and a half hours. Engineers investigated and found the problem was in an underlying structure in which Edsby stores its data. The problem was not a lack of bandwidth, Kachan said. “Edsby was built for scale,” he said.

Kachan added that, after some early glitches, Edsby has performed without fail in Hillsborough for the last six years. “This was not our anticipated outcome for this morning, as you can imagine,” he said.

Davis, meanwhile, outlined a number of initiatives that are under way in Hillsborough:

  • The district has more than 51,000 digital devices it can lend to students who need them. Based on a survey last week, he estimates there is a need for between 20,000 and 30,000. Principals are putting bar codes on the computers and parents will be able to sign them out at their children’s schools in a drive-through fashion, similar to the meal delivery.
  • Some students, either because they do not have computers or because they can learn more effectively using pencil and paper, will receive work packets from their schools. They will be able to retrieve them from the schools or, it is hoped, the district will arrange deliveries in communities where transportation is a challenge.
  • While 23 schools are now functioning as feeding sites, the district plans to expand that number to more than 100 in about a week.
  • Campuses are closed to visitors. Teachers can stop by only briefly to pick up classroom materials. Starting Wednesday, crews will begin to deep-clean them.

“Our job is to be the greatest extension for our learners to make sure that they are not without the essentials," Davis said. He acknowledged that many district employees gave up their spring break to prepare for the eLearning transition.

“I thank the teachers for preparing, and the staff has worked tremendously hard,” he said. “We know that was a trying time, but I am proud of the teachers who rolled their sleeves up and put their shoulders to the wheel and continue to do great things for our children every day.”

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