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Pasco’s school reopening plan: three options for parents

The district is the first in Tampa Bay to put forth a plan to resume classes this fall.

Pasco County parents will have three public school choices for their children when classes resume in August, district officials announced Thursday.

They could:

• Return to their campuses, where classes will be held in person.

• Enroll in all virtual courses, in which students set their own pace and contact teachers as necessary.

• Attend live classes online, following a normal school day schedule.

“We’ve tried to create the models that will respond to many, if not most, of the needs,” said Vanessa Hilton, the school district’s chief academic officer.

Parents are being asked to fill out an online form to indicate which option they want for each of their children. The district prefers that the selection be one that families will commit to for at least a semester, so principals can complete their teacher and student assignments, and their class schedules, and then prepare their procedures for daily operations.

If families do not respond, “the default will be we expect you’re going to show up at school,” district spokesman Steve Hegarty said.

He added that the district will send out several reminders to respond, and at the school level it is likely that the administration and staff will do all possible to ensure they have information from every student.

Teachers also will have the opportunity to tell the district which type of class they prefer to lead, though they will not necessarily be guaranteed their first choice. It could depend on numbers, as well as their skills in providing online, classroom or other types of instruction.

Pasco is among the first districts in Florida to set forth a specific plan for students’ school options in the aftermath of remote learning for the final quarter of the year and into the summer. Neighboring Hillsborough is still working out its own ideas, while Pinellas this week launched a survey seeking staff and parent views.

Hilton said the Pasco administration arrived at its three-pronged approach after conducting surveys, focus groups, conference calls, and a “thought exchange” that together involved thousands of parents, staff members, students and other interested residents.

Related: Pasco schools seek parent, staff input on reopening

Feedback from those sessions informed the district’s direction, superintendent Kurt Browning said.

For instance, initial conversations had the administration leaning toward alternating in-person days for students, he said. But the response clearly indicated a preference for structure and consistency, Browning said, so the team dumped the concept.

The survey data also showed parents evenly split among those who felt comfortable sending their children back to school, those who opposed the idea, and the undecideds. That helped the administration come up with its three models.

“The plan is really parent driven,” Browning said.

Details for exactly how the in-person classes will operate remain in the works. The district plans to increase its sanitizing schedule, add more hand cleaning stations and enhance its air conditioning system maintenance, among other health-related actions.

At the elementary level, schools will assign children to “cohort” groups, and keep them together throughout the day. Teachers would move among classrooms as necessary, rather than mixing the students, as a way to limit exposure to the full school. Large gathering spaces, such as cafeterias, would see new schedules to reduce the numbers in them at one time.

That way, if someone is diagnosed with COVID-19, it will be easier to isolate without sending home an entire school.

Acknowledging the bus rides would not be separated in the same way, the district will “expect” students to wear masks on the bus and until they get into their assigned classrooms, Browning said. “We’re trying to keep the cohorts safe.”

Once in the classrooms, masks are likely to be optional.

In middle and high schools, the plan depends more on everyone acting appropriately. The nature of the courses does not permit students to remain in a single classroom with the same classmates all day.

School officials are to establish hallway passing patterns that encourage health safety, perhaps setting up flows similar to following the arrows in a Publix. They also are expected to figure out how to use additional spaces for classes, so social distancing is more achievable.

The virtual option remains for students who found success with the spring distance learning and wish to continue it. As in the past, students may combine virtual and in-person classes to make up their schedule.

The middle choice, which the district is calling mySchool Online, is for the families who worry about sending their kids back to campus but didn’t like having to be their at-home “learning coach.”

“We want to give them an option that makes them feel comfortable and safe, but shift the responsibility to the teacher, where it belongs,” Hilton said.

Services for students with special needs, and for English language learners, have been harder to provide from a distance. Hilton said the district will work with families after they consult with their own physicians to provide individualized plans.

Before publicizing its approach, the administration ran it by a handful of teacher and parent leaders. The response was positive.

“It’s a good plan that will meet most people’s needs,” said Don Peace, United School Employees of Pasco president. “We’re more than willing to work with the district to meet people’s needs and do what’s best for parents, students and employees.”

Denise Nicholas, president of the County Council of PTAs, called it “wonderful” that parents will have choices about how to educate their children, “because everybody feels so differently about what is going on right now.”

“A parent couldn’t ask for anything more, other than for COVID not to be here,” she added.

Reaction to the announcement came swiftly on social media. It ran the gamut from appreciation for offering options, to laundry lists of questions that people said needed to be answered before they could make a proper selection.

Some said they were leaning toward traditional classes come Aug. 10, while others noted the uptick in COVID-19 cases and said they’d be staying home as long as possible.

Meanwhile, educators and parents from nearby counties kept a watchful eye on the conversation while awaiting answers from their own districts.

“Very interesting options,” Alison Roth, who works for Hillsborough County’s HOST program, wrote on Facebook. “Exciting to see how this works for them!”

The School Board has scheduled a workshop for 4 p.m. June 30 to go over more of the details.

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