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Hillsborough’s youngest students experience back-to-school in the COVID era

Masks and temperature checks are as normal as their ABCs.
Mitchell Elementary School nurse Pattye Haslup takes temperatures of students as they are dropped off at the Tampa school Monday for the first day of the pre-kindergarten program. COVID-19 protocols at the school included having all students wear masks, have their temperatures taken and social distancing.
Mitchell Elementary School nurse Pattye Haslup takes temperatures of students as they are dropped off at the Tampa school Monday for the first day of the pre-kindergarten program. COVID-19 protocols at the school included having all students wear masks, have their temperatures taken and social distancing. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]
Published Jun. 22, 2020
Updated Jun. 22, 2020

TAMPA — A big white pick-up truck rolled up on S Gomez Avenue, driven by a man in his 30s wearing a surgical mask.

A child in the truck also was wearing a mask, and soon the adults from Mitchell Elementary School were on him: the nurse taking his temperature through the window, the teachers and principal telling him how happy they were to see him.

He wasn’t the first preschool child to arrive Monday. About three more already were in the cafeteria.

But the moment still had a “let’s get this right” feel about it, as the tiny child was helped out of the large vehicle with his backpack and lunch box and past the table in the breezeway with the masks and hand sanitizer.

Jessica Nelson, a pre-kindergarten and kindergarten teacher at Mitchell Elementary School in Tampa, helps a pre-kindergarten student apply hand sanitizer before entering the school on Monday. Monday was the first day for the pre-kindergarten program with COVID-19 protocols at the school. All students wore masks, had their temperatures taken and social distanced.
Jessica Nelson, a pre-kindergarten and kindergarten teacher at Mitchell Elementary School in Tampa, helps a pre-kindergarten student apply hand sanitizer before entering the school on Monday. Monday was the first day for the pre-kindergarten program with COVID-19 protocols at the school. All students wore masks, had their temperatures taken and social distanced. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]

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School leaders everywhere are agonizing over how to bring children back into their buildings as the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 continues to spread, as aggressively as anywhere in Hillsborough County.

Can educators keep the schools clean enough, the children separate enough, the conditions safe enough so as not to sicken staff, students or the community?

They are taking the first steps this week in Hillsborough.

“It all depends on having a plan, tweaking the plan, and then we have more conversations,” said Mitchell Principal Renee Best, who has gone over dozens of scenarios in her mind. “And we communicate — over-communicate — with our families.”

Monday’s opening in about a dozen elementary schools was something of a dry run for the rush of more than 220,000 students expected on Aug. 10.

That is, if they all come back.

Close to half of Hillsborough parents who responded to a district survey said they are nervous about sending their children back to school, which means district leaders will need to find ways to address their concerns and build their confidence.

A School Board workshop is planned for Tuesday at 9 a.m. to discuss the particulars of superintendent Addison Davis’s reopening plan.

Preschool is considered an important strategy to improve literacy, and Hillsborough is trying to reverse years of disappointing reading levels.

“It’s not just early learning,” said Louis Murphy, the district’s director of early childhood education, who was at Mitchell on Monday. “All learning is critical. But we have to balance education with continuing to put safety first.”

Before school even began, families were invited to Zoom meetings where children could see what their teachers looked like in masks.

An email went out over the weekend, after Mayor Jane Castor issued an order requiring nearly everyone to wear masks in buildings outside their homes within the city limits.

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RELATED: Tampa mask order goes into effect

If a child at Mitchell did not have a mask, the teachers would provide one. Mothers were allowed to put the children’s masks on in the cars.

No parents were allowed into the school. Everybody got a temperature check.

“I’m going to point this at your forehead, you won’t feel anything,” nurse Pattye Haslup told the children. At one point, Haslup was dispatched to check the custodians’ temperatures, as well.

 Pre-kindergarten students wait to be taken to class at Mitchell Elementary School in Tampa on Monday. Monday was the first day for the pre-kindergarten program with COVID-19 protocols at the school. All students wore masks, had their temperatures taken and social distanced.
Pre-kindergarten students wait to be taken to class at Mitchell Elementary School in Tampa on Monday. Monday was the first day for the pre-kindergarten program with COVID-19 protocols at the school. All students wore masks, had their temperatures taken and social distanced. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]

Staff walked the children to the cafeteria, where they waited for their schoolmates to arrive, to minimize movement from room to room.

They sat four to a table, with “X” marks designating their spots. They played with little plastic figurines that would be sanitized after they left the room.

One child cried, as happens whenever it is the first day of preschool. A teacher calmed him down.

Then, small group by small group, they were taken to their classrooms.

Jessica Nelson, a pre-kindergarten and kindergarten teacher at Mitchell Elementary School in Tampa, leads a group of pre-kindergarten students to their classroom on Monday. Monday was the first day for the pre-kindergarten program with COVID-19 protocols at the school. All students wore masks, had their temperatures taken and social distanced.
Jessica Nelson, a pre-kindergarten and kindergarten teacher at Mitchell Elementary School in Tampa, leads a group of pre-kindergarten students to their classroom on Monday. Monday was the first day for the pre-kindergarten program with COVID-19 protocols at the school. All students wore masks, had their temperatures taken and social distanced. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]

In a matter of days, they will dive into the serious business of letter sounds, numerical concepts and reading.

Murphy’s expectations for Monday: “The first day, customarily is when they get to know each other and get to know the teacher.”

In masks?

“We are all thinking the same thing,” he said. “We’ll adjust.”