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Day One for online learning in Tampa Bay: Eager students, slow computers.

Teachers worked to establish routines and make sure they were connected to their kids.
Landon Rancke, left, and his big brother, Ryan Rancke work together to set up a computer for online learning. Both are students in the Pinellas County school system.
Landon Rancke, left, and his big brother, Ryan Rancke work together to set up a computer for online learning. Both are students in the Pinellas County school system. [ Courtesy of Kristin Rancke ]
Published Mar. 30, 2020|Updated Mar. 31, 2020

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TAMPA — The consensus from teachers on the opening of statewide online learning: Students are ready to work.

The technology? Not so much.

Slowdowns were reported in Pinellas, Hillsborough, Orange and Broward counties. On numerous platforms, teachers and students struggled to get connected as unprecedented numbers tested the limits of online capacity.

Questions remained about equity, with some families sharing computers and others losing contact with the teachers and schools. Those questions became even more compelling with the news at day’s end that the state’s schools, now closed because of the COVID-19 coronavirus, will remain closed two more weeks than originally planned, until May 1.

Teachers and parents said they were determined to do the best they could for their students. While Pasco’s online learning begins on Tuesday, Hillsborough and Pinellas’s plans were fully operational.

“The plus side, I love learning a lot of new technology," said Joseph Cool, a reading teacher at Webb Middle School in Town 'N Country. “I think we’re going to be able to use that in a lot of ways moving forward.” As for the problems, he tells himself, "I can’t control everything.”

With concerns about the Edsby system in Hillsborough, several teachers posted their class assignments on Sunday evening — and were glad they did.

Aubrie Orr, an English teacher at Strawberry Crest High in Dover, had an unpleasant surprise when she logged in at 3 a.m.: Two of her more rambunctious students were using the class site to post vulgar and inappropriate memes. She deleted them and reported the students to her administration.

Riverview High School teacher Valerie Chuchman at her home in Seminole Heights on the first day of eLearning for Florida students. [Courtesy of Valerie Chuchman]
Riverview High School teacher Valerie Chuchman at her home in Seminole Heights on the first day of eLearning for Florida students. [Courtesy of Valerie Chuchman]

Other teachers were pleasantly surprised at how eager students seemed to learn, although they reasoned that the kids must be bored. “Out of my first period class, everybody’s been on today,” said Valerie Chuchman, who teaches chemistry at Riverview High. But, she said, “I feel like right right now I’m tech support for 150-plus teenagers."

In Plant City, teacher Aviva Baker is concerned that not enough of her Jackson Elementary fourth-graders had computers at home, and the ability to use them. So she is handing out paper packets of work, personalized according to her students’ individual needs, from the back of her car every Monday afternoon at the school.

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Jackson Elementary School teacher Aviva Baker keeps her car stocked with children's books and other necessities as she transitions to distance learning during the COVID-19 crisis. [Courtesy of Aviva Baker]
Jackson Elementary School teacher Aviva Baker keeps her car stocked with children's books and other necessities as she transitions to distance learning during the COVID-19 crisis. [Courtesy of Aviva Baker]

From leaders in both Pinellas and Hillsborough, there were calls for everyone to be patient as they work out their technology issues.

It took St. Petersburg parent Kristin Rancke days to get the program set up on the computer that her son, Landon, a third-grader at Jamerson Elementary in St. Petersburg, borrowed from the district. On Monday, she hit a roadblock when Teams, the Microsoft platform, was slow throughout the district.

Her older son, who is in high school, had no problems. But she worries about Landon and wonders if she should have him repeat a grade. “Losing a couple months and having me, who is not trained to be a teacher, teach him … It’s definitely not the best situation,” she said.

Other families found work-arounds. Alexandra Angarano, a first grade student at St. Petersburg’s Westgate Elementary, was unable to load her work into Teams. So she did the assignment on paper, took a photo and sent an email of the image to her teacher.

“Teachers have been very responsive to our questions and concerns, and trying to keep a calm demeanor about everything,” her mother, Amelia Angarano said.

For Hillsborough, it was the second time in a week that students and teachers struggled with Edsby.

A week earlier, on March 23, the system crashed with company officials saying the cause was not over-use, but a problem with the underlying structure in which Edsby stores its data.

On Monday, the company acknowledged that, as with similar systems in other Florida districts, the high level of use is an issue.

“We took significant steps last week,” marketing vice president Dallas Kachan said in an email. “We tripled the size of Hillsborough’s database resources. We quadrupled its web engines and other back-end servers. We quintupled search resources. And we’re increasing capacity again today.”

Time management will be a challenge as online learning continues, especially if computer system delays continue to be a problem.

“I posted three things last night,” Orr said. "That’s a lot to wake up to on Monday morning.”

The new format will also test teachers’ self-discipline.

“I do feel that I’m not going to work 14 hours like I kind of did last week," Chuchman said. “I also feel like if I am getting emails and answering them instantaneously, that will be the expectation.”

Some of the teachers said they hope state leaders will ultimately take lessons from this eLearning experiment.

“When this is over, we need to have a really big conversation about the purpose of education and what our goals are for our students," Orr said. “Do we want them to be better digital citizens? Do we want them to learn for the sake of learning and improve and grow? Or are they here for the sake of bubbling in answers?”

Scott Hottenstein, who teaches civics at Rodgers Middle School in Riverview, said, “I would prefer to call it enrichment, and we should not be putting in grades."

He said he was moved after speaking with the grandmother of one of his students. She has custody of three children in the family.

“The grandmother was in tears because she doesn’t know technology," Hottenstein said. "She doesn’t know what’s going on.”

Early in the day, Hottenstein worried that as many as half of his students might drop out of reach.

At the end of the day, the news was mixed. Eighty-five percent logged into Edsby, he said.

But only about a third completed their assignments.

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