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Hillsborough educators are “writing the playbook” as remote learning gets under way

In unique times, the school system tries to continue business as normal.

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TAMPA — Sitting far apart with a custodian wiping the lectern after each guest speaker, the Hillsborough County School Board took a stab at business as usual in extraordinary times.

Members talked about when the high school seniors will graduate and how struggling readers can be prevented from falling farther behind. They approved a bond refinancing deal. They praised Superintendent Addison Davis and those teachers, administrators, custodians and bus drivers who are still on the job.

And they puzzled their way through the logistical headaches of teaching 220,000 students remotely.

“We have trained close to 2,000 educators in the last four days,” Davis said, introducing several pages of statistics about meals delivered, computers loaned to families, and calls to the district’s mental health hotline.

But, he said more than once, “we are writing the playbook today.”

A few important announcements were made, not all of them related to the COVID-19 crisis that closed the schools statewide until at least May 1.

Davis is calling for a task force to re-examine the district’s student code of conduct. He is determined to get the district in a better situation with its technology.

As for high school graduations, which are scheduled to begin in mid-May, a group is looking at at least half a dozen options.

There was news about the free breakfast and lunch delivery program, which had required parents to bring their children along. The district is working out a procedure that will allow parents to pick the food up without bringing their children.

Some of the biggest immediate hurdles to distance learning involve technology. Families are sharing computers, their own and those borrowed from the district. Many homes have no access to the Internet. Some parents do not feel comfortable with the technology, and their children are too young to figure it out themselves.

And there are slowdowns because of excessive demand on Edsby, the main communication platform.

For some of these problems, there are work-arounds. Davis is considering grade-level “waves,” or a staggered schedule that would have only some ages using the system at certain parts of the day. The district is exploring the use of portable hot-spots in certain parts of town.

Board members suggested summer school, keeping in mind that reading levels will drop for children who already were testing well below grade level.

Member Karen Perez described the frustration of Spanish-speaking parents, and Davis said he wants to see all communications go out in Spanish as well as English.

And there was discussion about the stress on all parents. “I want to be very clear that we don’t expect our homes to be turned into schools, and our parents into teachers,” said member Tamara Shamburger.

The two-hour conversation reflected the push and pull between the impulse to give students everything they were receiving before the coronavirus crisis — from counseling and therapy to accelerated, college-level curriculum — and the reality that children are not in school, at least not in the truest sense. Some have less than optimal resources at home. The world around them is going through a frightening health event. And many of their teachers are also juggling children and family obligations.

The meeting, sparse in appearance because it was designed to admit fewer than 10 individuals in the room at one time, was punctuated with statements of gratitude and congratulations.

“I don’t think we can thank you all enough,” member Cindy Stuart told teachers and other staff, speaking through a video link, before she asked Davis about part-time support employees, workers over 65, and whether the board should agree to meet only once in April.

They did.

Davis assured Stuart that workers over 65 will not jeopardize their jobs by following physicians’ advice to stay home. But he could make no assurance for the hourly employees.

There was discussion about attendance, and how it can and should be monitored.

This is not a time to take attendance first thing every morning, Davis said, as "a learner may not be able to get on a device.” What matters, he said, is that they make their presence known, through Edsby or another platform, and turn in their assignments some time during the week. “For me, that’s enough and sufficient to count them for that week,” he said.

In the event that students drop completely out of communication, he said, the school will have a social worker check up on them. The silver lining, he said, is that by this time of year, teachers know their students well enough to be able to judge who will need special assistance, tutoring or intervention.

While many exams have been cancelled or altered, including the springtime Florida Standards Assessment, Davis reminded the board that every student is expected to receive a final report card grade.

Knowing that parents will invariably contact board members with their questions, he promised to communicate clearly with them as the situation changes.