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Many kids will be learning remotely again. What we learned last spring.

Schools have changed their approach to distance classes for the 2020-21 school year after listening to students, parents and teachers.

BACK TO SCHOOL 2020 | Click to scroll down for more

Janelle Sharp looks back at a springtime spent juggling her job and helping her second-grader learn from home with a mixture of amazement and satisfaction.

At first overwhelmed with the task, Sharp says the effort became easier as time passed and everyone — students, parents and teachers — grew more accustomed to the situation that was thrust on them amid the growing COVID-19 pandemic.

“At the beginning, I think we all panicked,” the west Pasco County mom said. “It was still indeed the most challenging time in our lives.”

But people recognized many of the shortcomings, Sharp suggested, and learned how to make the model better. Those lessons have become critical as schools prepare to resume classes with thousands of students opting to continue attending from home while waiting for the virus to abate.

For Sharp, who plans to send her daughter back to in-person classes, the importance of having more regularly scheduled live sessions with teachers became clear. That didn’t happen often enough during the final quarter, she said, leaving parents to try to teach their children about topics they barely knew, if and when they had the time.

“That would relieve so much stress for the parents,” she said.

That message was one of many that came through to educators as they prepared new online approaches for the new academic year.

As Pinellas County educators noted in a recent summit on the subject, digital learning requires “structured lessons and mindset shifts.”

“Teachers described their move to digital learning as requiring a wide range of strategies that demands highly structured lesson plans and ongoing experimentation in keeping students engaged,” the administration wrote in one of its key takeaways from the initiative.

Pinellas schools began moving toward more live lessons, including one-on-one conferences, during summer courses aimed at helping children catch up on any missed material. The Hillsborough and Pasco districts also plan to offer first-semester options that include that type of model, in which students follow a regular school day schedule from home.

At the same time, schools discovered they must do a better job of communicating with parents about their role in the process, said Pasco eSchool principal JoAnne Glenn.

“We needed to better articulate the roles and responsibilities ahead of time,” said Glenn, who is helping her district organize its remote learning program.

Many parents became engrossed in their children’s lessons to an unnecessary level, she suggested. Often, they did not let their children work through problems with teachers, who were distant.

“It is best during certain times in learning for parents and adults to step back, and let children try, let instructors see the unedited attempt to see where they need help,” Glenn said.

The classroom community needs to exist, as Pinellas teachers said they found, with students, teachers and families playing important but different roles.

Princess Wainwright, a fifth-grade teacher at Lacoochee Elementary School, said teachers need to keep in mind that parents and students might be frustrated for any number of reasons.

“People are faced with stresses outside of school,” said Wainwright, adding that as a single parent of four, she gets it.

That in mind, she said, a critical lesson of distance learning for teachers is to remain flexible and compassionate, while still insisting that children make sufficient academic progress.

Tyliyah Tolbert, left, waits as office clerk Destiny Marshall sets up a laptop for her at Campbell Park Elementary in St. Petersburg during one of many device distributions conducted by local schools in the spring. With many students opting to continue learning online during the pandemic, Pinellas County has ordered an additional 42,000 laptops for the 2020-21 school year. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Some parents might not be able to attend a midday conference, but can take a call at night. Some students might grow anxious speaking in a video discussion, but shine when they communicate in other ways. Teachers have to work with it.

“We have strong relationships in the classrooms. We have to leverage that,” Wainwright said, noting that the more approachable she was, the more willing students were to log on for class and parents were to contact her for help.

Among the other lessons learned:

• Families need more technical support. “Though most students had ready access to smartphones and regularly engaged with video games and social media, they had little practice and deftness in creating and sharing documents, organizing files, and executing standard keyboarding skills,” the Pinellas district observed.

• School districts need to arrange for better internet access. Area districts have purchased personal Wi-Fi hotspots and provided community sites to get online. Pinellas schools took the added step of buying more than 42,000 new laptops for student use at home. Hillsborough and Pinellas counties also changed learning management systems to ones they said would be better for students to receive and submit assignments.

• Educators need to keep closer tabs on students are doing. It’s one thing to hand out assignments. It’s another to make sure they’re meaningfully done. With families struggling to get into the system, schools found it challenging to pick milestones that everyone could meet, Glenn said. Starting together in a new academic year, with new ways to monitor progress, that should be easier to accomplish now.

• • •

More back-to-school coverage

WHAT TO EXPECT: Back to school in Tampa Bay: Big plans, many unknowns

NEW CONCERNS: Tampa Bay parents ‘make the best of a bad situation’ as school year nears

FREE ADVICE: Nine tips for starting school during a pandemic

SAVING MONEY: Florida’s back-to-school sales tax holiday starts Friday. Here’s what’s covered.

BY THE NUMBERS: Tampa Bay school districts at a glance for 2020-21

CLOSE QUARTERS: Masks will be vital on school buses, where distancing is difficult

STAYING SAFE: Eluding the virus while at school: a Q&A with health experts

STRESS REDUCTION: Talk openly to your kids about school and the pandemic, experts say

STUDENT VOICES: Online or on-campus? What Tampa Bay kids are saying about school and the virus.

TAKING STOCK: Events to help your kids get ready for school

HOT ITEM: Face masks are on everyone’s back-to-school supplies list

EATING RIGHT: Need ideas for healthy school lunches? A nutrition expert weighs in.

• • •

Tampa Bay Times coronavirus coverage

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