Back to school in Tampa Bay: big plans, many unknowns

A host of variables will determine how this goes: what parents decide, how students react, where the virus goes next.
Students follow teacher Jessica Nelson on the first day of a pre-kindergarten program in June at Mitchell Elementary in Tampa. The kids wore masks, practiced social distancing and had their temperatures checked during something of a test drive for the fall semester.
Students follow teacher Jessica Nelson on the first day of a pre-kindergarten program in June at Mitchell Elementary in Tampa. The kids wore masks, practiced social distancing and had their temperatures checked during something of a test drive for the fall semester. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]
Published Aug. 5, 2020|Updated Aug. 5, 2020

BACK TO SCHOOL 2020 | Click to scroll down for more

As schools prepare to open their doors to students, it is almost easier to state what is not known, than what is.

No one knows how hard or easy it will be to get children of all ages to wear face coverings all day.

No one can state with certainty how many children will ride the bus, how many parents will send children to school with fevers, or how many teachers will despair of the conditions, and leave in the early months of the school year.

Administrators throughout the Tampa Bay area have worked hard on detailed reopening plans that describe reconfigured classroom desks, one-way traffic in the hallways, aggressive cleaning and lunchtime routines designed to minimize contact.

But ask any superintendent and they will tell you that social distancing is not possible in most public schools. And if you consult with any high school teacher, you’ll be told that not every student will comply with the masking rules.

And so what can parents expect at the end of August, when Hillsborough, Pasco, Pinellas and Hernando plan to reopen their schools?

Much of it is guesswork. But here is what has been designed:


One by one, the school districts have heeded the direction from health care experts who say face coverings are the best and most economical protection against transmission of the new coronavirus, which causes COVID-19.

Some districts are supplying children with a limited number of reusable masks while others relying on parents to provide them, but stocking up for those families who cannot afford them. To avoid the contamination that would happen if children share masks, Pinellas is asking parents to write the children’s names on their masks with an indelible marker.

As the mask issue has become political in the U.S., schools are bracing for a certain amount of noncompliance. Administrators have made it clear they do not want to be “mask police,” as Pasco superintendent Kurt Browning put it.

But Browning, himself a COVID-19 survivor, said he recognizes that mask wearers protect others in the school building more than themselves. For that reason, he said, Pasco will employ a series of steps when a child will not wear a mask, including conversations with the parents.

If all else fails, he said, the student will be referred to online classes outside the school. Most other districts have taken similar positions.

Schooling options

All four Tampa Bay area districts are offering variations on the same menu of choices for returning students: Traditional school inside the buildings; distance learning at home that is tied to the child’s school, including a daily bell schedule; and virtual schools that operate as franchises of the Orlando-based Florida Virtual School.

Traditional school is likely to look different than it did in the past, with tightly controlled movements between classes and — here’s good news — bathrooms that are well-stocked with soap and paper towels.

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Remember classroom bookshelves and activity tables? There will be less space devoted to those furnishings, as schools will space desks as far as possible, aiming for the 6-feet-apart recommendation from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A sample configuration of desks in the reopened Pinellas County Schools
A sample configuration of desks in the reopened Pinellas County Schools [ Pinellas County Schools ]

However, a full 6-foot difference won’t be possible in many classrooms, which is why students will be wearing masks.

Parents might wonder: Why can’t they spread out the children if as many as half will be learning from home?

The answer: Schools receive funding from the state based on enrollment, and some teachers will be deployed in the virtual schools. Expect class sizes to remain more or less the way they always have been; your child’s school just might have three second-grade classes instead of five.

Parent surveys show that about half are opting for their kids to return to campuses. However, those numbers don’t tell the whole story, and here is why: In cases where parents do not answer the surveys, districts sometimes place their children in traditional school by default. The final numbers may not be known until it’s closer to the first day of school.

E-learning, or e-school, depending on your district’s terminology, is the second alternative. This type of instruction could attract as many as 30 percent of all students.

However, as nobody knows what will happen when the school reopens, it is easy to imagine a scenario in which the coronavirus spreads and state officials close all schools again, as they did in March. All districts, therefore, are considering the possibility that traditional school students will become e-learners.

Another important note: No one expects e-learning to be as it was in March, when teachers and students were thrust into it with scant training or preparation.

Teachers have been trained in new content delivery platforms. For example, Hillsborough teachers will use Canvas instead of Edsby, which the district found unreliable.

And attendance will be handled differently.

During the spring shut-down, students could sometimes be counted as “present” just for logging into their computer systems once during the week. There was little to no guidance as to when students needed to do their work, and some shirked their assignments without serious consequences.

This time, educators are designing daily schedules for e-learning. Students are not expected to spend the entire day at the computer; time is built in for independent reading and math, lunch and even recess.

Some activities will link the students with their classmates in the physical school. Others will not. But they will remain attached to their schools in a way that prepares them for a smooth return when the coronavirus crisis subsides.

Hillsborough County's virtual school has taken on a new name and logo as the district seeks to serve students who will prefer a home setting due to COVID-19.
Hillsborough County's virtual school has taken on a new name and logo as the district seeks to serve students who will prefer a home setting due to COVID-19. [ Hillsborough County School District ]

Virtual school is an option for students who can work more independently. All four districts already operate these schools, in franchise relationships with the Orlando-based Florida Virtual.

In virtual school, the teacher gives out a week’s worth of assignments and, again, most of the work is done independently. There are group video sessions in which the students can ask questions and interact with one another. But, if a student wants to do school work at night or on weekends, this is a better option than e-learning.

In rough numbers, this will be the destination for 10 to 20 percent of area children. Not all will be enrolled in their district’s virtual schools. There also are virtual charter schools that have been enrolling students since the pandemic began.

Charter schools are offering traditional and e-learning options for their own longtime students as well.

Also standard in most local school districts: Staff will submit to temperature checks as they arrive. But students will not, for these two reasons: First, children typically are asymptomatic when they have COVID-19, which means the temperature check would not be very helpful. And school administrators do not want to create situations that crowd children together at the entrances, something that could spread the virus.

The plan for when someone becomes ill

Area schools are hiring more nurses and establishing multiple nurses’ offices, typically one for children who are healthy, but were injured, and another for those with symptoms of COVID-19.

They have pledged to be responsive when a student or staff member is confirmed to have the disease, and work with their county health departments to conduct contact tracing. The details of the contact tracing process are still being finalized, making it impossible to say with certainty whether an entire class will be referred for testing and self-isolation, or just the students sitting closest to the child who was ill.

One detail that is controversial in Hillsborough: After self-isolation, children will be admitted back to school without the need for a negative COVID-19 test. The plan is to trust the student and parent when they say the child has been symptom-free for 10 days, and maintained a temperature below 100.4 degrees for three days — without the use of a fever reducer.

Will parents always be honest?

No one knows that either.

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More back-to-school coverage

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

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

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Tampa Bay Times coronavirus coverage