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

After a surreal spring and an anxious summer, it's back-to-school time, without the usual excitement.
The Times spoke with students as they prepare for the 2020-21 school year. Some of them are pictured here in photos provided by their families. Clockwise from top left, they are Avayah Sharp, Xavier Bell, Sarah Ellis, Tommy Steele, Kaden Larocca, RyLee Payne, Nicholas Alston and Christina Acosta.
The Times spoke with students as they prepare for the 2020-21 school year. Some of them are pictured here in photos provided by their families. Clockwise from top left, they are Avayah Sharp, Xavier Bell, Sarah Ellis, Tommy Steele, Kaden Larocca, RyLee Payne, Nicholas Alston and Christina Acosta. [ Family photos ]
Published Aug. 4, 2020
Updated Aug. 5, 2020

BACK TO SCHOOL 2020 | Click to scroll down for more

Return to school in person, take classes online, try homeschooling. There’s no perfect choice for going back to school during a pandemic.

With health policies and school reopening plans in constant flux, parents have been forced to weigh the risks and benefits and make difficult decisions for their families. But what do their children want?

We asked kids from around Tampa Bay how they’re feeling about the semester ahead. Here’s what they said:

Christina Acosta, 13, has chosen to start her freshman year with Pasco's virtual learning option.
Christina Acosta, 13, has chosen to start her freshman year with Pasco's virtual learning option. [ Courtesy of Claire Marie Devalle ]

Christina Acosta, 13, has decided to forego a traditional freshman year at Anclote High in favor of Pasco eSchool, the county’s virtual option. She says it was a joint decision with her mother, who is concerned about their family’s safety. Christina’s great-grandfather was recently hospitalized with COVID-19, and her grandmother has heart and lung conditions.

Christina was especially excited to try out for the track and field team. She’ll have to wait until next year.

“It’s just not worth it,” she said.

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Nicholas Alston, 15, feels confident he can fit a virtual classroom to his special needs.
Nicholas Alston, 15, feels confident he can fit a virtual classroom to his special needs. [ Courtesy of Sheena An ]

Nicholas Alston, 15, has chosen online school for his sophomore year at Focus Academy, a charter school for children with special needs in Temple Terrace. In addition to being on the autism spectrum, Nicholas suffers from ITP, an immune system disorder. He said he’s afraid to be in public until “at least next year.”

Luckily, Nicholas can quarantine in his “bachelor pad,” where he watches TV, plays video games, reads books and makes crafts. He has also continued therapy — physical, occupational, and speech — from home.

Still, Nicholas struggles with the isolation.

“If I spend too much time in my bachelor pad, I might get a lonely feeling,” he said.

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Anthony Harnen, 11, plans to attend Plato Academy in St. Petersburg in the fall as a sixth-grader.
Anthony Harnen, 11, plans to attend Plato Academy in St. Petersburg in the fall as a sixth-grader. [ Courtesy of Rosemarie Fama Harnen ]

Anthony Harnen, 11, always assumed he was going back to school in person for the fall semester. Between him and his parents, the decision was unanimous.

He has no concerns about following the new rules for in-person schooling, which will allow him to show off several cool masks. His favorite has a bag of Cheetos on it.

“I know I could get (the coronavirus), but I just feel that I’m safe,” he said.

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The best part about being homeschooled for RyLee Payne, 7, is being taught by her mom.
The best part about being homeschooled for RyLee Payne, 7, is being taught by her mom. [ Courtesy of Jacquleen Payne ]

Every day, 7-year-old RyLee Payne walked into Sunray Elementary School last year, she knew she’d likely return home with bruises and bite marks.

There was another girl in her first-grade class, RyLee said, who constantly punched and kicked the other students, making it difficult to focus on schoolwork. RyLee’s mom was considering homeschooling, and the pandemic solidified the family’s decision.

RyLee is excited for home school because “then there’s no bullies,” she said. Most of all, she can’t wait to be taught by her mom, who she says understands her better than her teachers.

“She’s the nicest teacher I’ve ever known,” RyLee said.

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Xavier Bell, 15, is worried the pandemic could affect his future in football. He opted for online learning this year.
Xavier Bell, 15, is worried the pandemic could affect his future in football. He opted for online learning this year. [ Courtesy of Annee Bell ]

As a varsity football player at Countryside High in Clearwater, 15-year-old Xavier Bell worries his choice to do eLearning –– and the uncertainty of the upcoming football season –– will affect his future in the sport.

His coaches, impressed with Xavier’s potential, moved him up to the varsity team after less than a year on the field. But high school football players typically get scouted for college teams their sophomore year, Xavier says. He’s afraid “that might not happen.”

“I always told myself this would be the season I got better as a football player,” he said.

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Alexandra Burke, 11, wanted to go back to school, but worried her peers wouldn't be as cautious as she is.
Alexandra Burke, 11, wanted to go back to school, but worried her peers wouldn't be as cautious as she is. [ Courtesy of Kathryn Burke ]

“I catch almost everything,” said Alexandra Burke. “It only takes one kid to get (the coronavirus) to have it spread.”

Alexandra suffers from congenital heart disease, which weakens her immune system. Two years ago, a bout of pneumonia put her in the hospital for three weeks.

She was set to attend Plato Academy as a sixth-grader and desperately wanted to go back. But she decided not to, worrying others aren’t following the rules. Recently, she recalled, she was horrified to see a mask dangling from the ear of a grocery store employee.

“It’s too risky,” she said. “Not everyone is careful.”

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Classmates have bullied Megan Catran for as long as she can remember, giving her another reason to take classes from home this semester.
Classmates have bullied Megan Catran for as long as she can remember, giving her another reason to take classes from home this semester. [ Courtesy of Amanda Catran ]

Megan Catran, 13, is disappointed she can’t have a regular eighth-grade experience at Challenger K-8 in Spring Hill. She has chosen online learning for the fall –– but “the only reason I’m not going back is because kids are jerks,” she said.

Megan says she’s been bullied her whole life for her size, and frequently witnessed harassment of other classmates with disabilities and special needs. Her biggest regret is that she had planned on taking two art classes this semester, which would help her when she applies for a high school art program next year.

At home, she has continued to draw on any surface she can find.

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Tommy Steele, 9, will attend Hillsborough County's Fishhawk Creek Elementary virtually this semester with his mother by his side.
Tommy Steele, 9, will attend Hillsborough County's Fishhawk Creek Elementary virtually this semester with his mother by his side. [ Courtesy of Chris Steele ]

Tommy Steele, 9, thinks tackling third grade online will be easier than in-person school. When his classes became virtual in the spring, however, he didn’t find it so easy.

Tommy has Down syndrome, which makes it difficult for him to focus on the task at hand, even in a regular classroom. At school, a full-time paraprofessional accompanies him to all of his classes.

At home, his mom will have to fulfill that role, which could mean sitting with him for the entire school day, every day.

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Sarah Ellis' mother tested positive for COVID-19 at the end of March. Her mother continues to experience its effects on her heart and immune system.
Sarah Ellis' mother tested positive for COVID-19 at the end of March. Her mother continues to experience its effects on her heart and immune system. [ Courtesy of Sarah Ellis ]

“I’ve been trying not to think about it too much,” said Sarah Ellis, 17, of her choice to take virtual classes for the upcoming semester. “I really don’t want to spend my entire senior year online.”

Sarah’s advanced classes at Hillsborough High School and her college search only contribute to her already full plate. Her mom fell sick with COVID-19 at the end of March and was in and out of the emergency room for a month. She was then diagnosed with myocarditis, inflammation of the heart caused by a virus, which resulted in chest pains, shortness of breath, and fatigue.

While Sarah finds this new idea of senior year “depressing,” she won’t risk getting her mom sick again.

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Hunter Johns, 12, wants to go back to school, but doesn't want to wear a mask to class.
Hunter Johns, 12, wants to go back to school, but doesn't want to wear a mask to class. [ Courtesy of Carla Johns ]

When asked how he’d feel about wearing a mask when he returns to school, 12-year-old Hunter Johns laughed. “The masks can burn.”

Hunter has several intellectual disabilities — including high-functioning autism, ADHD, plus sensory and emotional disorders — that made online schooling in the spring difficult. Often, he could only complete his work if his teachers talked him through it, one-on-one, over Zoom.

Entering West Hernando Middle School in-person will be a relief, but Hunter is determined to leave his mask at home. He says it’s uncomfortable, fogs up his glasses, and he “won’t suffocate (himself).”

“I’m not afraid to face sickness,” he said. “I’ve gone through a lot of sickness already. This won’t be any different.”

• • •
Layne Griffith, 17, has struggled to salvage a normal senior year. She feels she's being forced to choose between her education and her safety.
Layne Griffith, 17, has struggled to salvage a normal senior year. She feels she's being forced to choose between her education and her safety. [ Courtesy of Layne Griffith ]

Layne Griffith, 17, will be a senior this year at St. Petersburg High, where she takes rigorous courses in the school’s International Baccalaureate program. She says she needs a classroom setting to succeed academically. But for the first nine weeks, she’ll have to settle for a Zoom classroom.

The whiteboard in Layne’s bedroom is covered with dates — college application deadlines, virtual college tours, SAT and ACT schedules. Her college search looks nothing like what she expected.

All of the standardized tests she signed up to take were cancelled, and Layne is afraid her top colleges will require her to submit test scores she doesn’t have.

“I’ve worked my entire life to get to this point,” she said. “It just crumbled underneath me.”

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• • •
Kaden Larocca, 15, hopes his classes will be easier in person when he returns to Nature Coast High for 10th grade.
Kaden Larocca, 15, hopes his classes will be easier in person when he returns to Nature Coast High for 10th grade. [ Courtesy of Gerrica Peters ]

Returning to school in person is the “easiest” option for Kaden Larocca, 15, and his three younger siblings. They all preferred in-person schooling, and the family decided together to send them back for the upcoming semester.

He’ll follow any school rules about mask-wearing and social distancing, he says, but he dislikes wearing a mask because it’s uncomfortable — “and it doesn’t really help,” he said.

“The virus will run its course either way,” he said. “If it’s going to get you, it’s going to get you.”

• • •
Avayah Sharp, 8, is looking forward to seeing her teachers, in person, at Cypress Elementary.
Avayah Sharp, 8, is looking forward to seeing her teachers, in person, at Cypress Elementary. [ Courtesy of Janelle Sharp ]

Eight-year-old Avayah Sharp said taking online classes in the spring was “boring and really hard.” She’s excited to return to Cypress Elementary in New Port Richey as a third-grader.

But she’s not looking forward to wearing a mask all day, which she says makes it hard for her to breathe. “We even have to put it over our noses,” she lamented.

Still, she’s afraid of getting sick.

“I don’t want to die. Coronavirus makes you die,” she said.

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More back-to-school coverage

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

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

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.

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Tampa Bay Times coronavirus coverage