No computer at home? Tampa Bay schools have a plan for that.

Pinellas started handing out digital learning devices Tuesday as part of an effort to continue with schooling during the coronavirus pandemic. Other districts will soon follow suit.
Starr Noguera, fifth-grade reading and writing interventionist, passes out laptops and tablets to parents in the car line Tuesday at Campbell Park Elementary in St. Petersburg. Schools around the Tampa Bay area are distributing devices to students who will need one next week when online learning begins in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Starr Noguera, fifth-grade reading and writing interventionist, passes out laptops and tablets to parents in the car line Tuesday at Campbell Park Elementary in St. Petersburg. Schools around the Tampa Bay area are distributing devices to students who will need one next week when online learning begins in response to the coronavirus pandemic. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published March 24, 2020|Updated March 24, 2020

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ST. PETERSBURG — Carlisha Jackson pulled her vehicle around the Campbell Park Elementary parking lot Tuesday morning, stopping behind a line of cars.

Like other parents across Tampa Bay, the burden of remote learning, set to start in earnest next week due to school closures prompted by the coronavirus, was weighing heavy. She’s worried about working while also making sure her two kids can still learn while cooped up at home.

“I really dislike that they’re missing so much school and so much learning,” said Jackson, 30. “But I’m doing the best I can as a parent.”

State education leaders ordered all schools closed through at least April 15 to combat the spread of the virus. To keep learning going, local school districts are loaning digital devices, like laptops and tablets, to students who don’t have them at home.

Hundreds of parents lined up Tuesday for devices at schools across Pinellas County. By end of the day Wednesday, the school district expects to have handed out at least 15,000, said spokeswoman Isabel Mascareñas.

Other districts were still finalizing plans Tuesday, with Pasco County schools expected to start distributing devices Monday. The district has about 35,000 devices available to check out, and it aims to start with students who have none at home and families that have multiple children and not enough equipment for all.

Hillsborough County will be ready for students to pick up devices from their schools Wednesday, said school district spokeswoman Tanya Arja. There are about 51,000 available.

Staff have used family surveys and phone calls to determine which students need a device, and now their parents and guardians will be given appointments through Friday. They will be notified through their schools.

In Hernando County, the school district has only about 5,000 devices available for loan, said spokeswoman Karen Jordan. “Schools will be prioritizing if the need exceeds the number of available devices,” she added.

Pasco principal Jason Joens greeted almost all the families that arrived at Fivay High on Monday to pick up free bagged meals — another service offered by local school districts while campuses are closed.

Related: Coronavirus closings can cause hunger. Schools, volunteers are stepping up.

He wanted to make sure they were managing through the coronavirus crisis, and to offer words of encouragement and support. Some had had some real concerns about how their children would complete distance learning without technology to do the work.

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The district has a plan, he told them. “We have to ensure that parents and students have the devices,” Joens said. “This is not an option.”

District officials offered some details about how that will work in information that began circulating to parents late Monday. They sent emails, posted a YouTube video and issued a robo-call. A one-page explainer about how to get a computer from the district also will be available in English and Spanish at the food distribution sites.

Devices are being made available at every school in Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough counties to make pickup convenient for families. Pinellas will wrap up its distribution Wednesday. Hillsborough will finish Friday.

When Pasco starts Monday, middle and high school sites will be open from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m, with elementary schools following from 1:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. To promote social distancing, the district is asking parents not to come with entire families.

Only one person should come, said school district spokesman Steve Hegarty. At elementary and middle schools, it must be the parent or guardian on the enrollment form. High school students can check out computers themselves.

Tonya Brown, 42, also came to Campbell Park in Pinellas on Tuesday to pick up a computer for her two kids in kindergarten and third grade. They’re missing their friends while out of school, she said, and she’s worried about making rent now that the coronavirus pushed her husband out of his job as a housekeeping supervisor for the Tampa Bay Rays.

On top of that, she never graduated high school and has no clue where to begin helping her children with schoolwork, she said.

“This is hard, like, for real,” Brown said through the window of a blue SUV while waiting in line for a device. “It drains me to think about, because I’m going to work then coming home, trying to cook, clean and do this homeschool thing … It’s hard.”

Campbell Park principal Kathleen Parker said she is working to encourage her teaching staff for the unprecedented challenge ahead. She planned to hold an online meeting with them late Tuesday afternoon to answer any questions before student instruction begins.

Parker has instructed each teacher to hold “morning meetings” online with their students each day. Some, like parents and students, are nervous, she said.

“But they’re nervous at the beginning of the school year, too,” the principal said. “This is just something new to get used to.”

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