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

Whether heading to classrooms or learning from home, concerns and questions abound.
Pasco County students and parents arrive for the first day of classes in 2019. A year later, with coronavirus cases continuing to mount in Florida, many parents are leery of returning to campuses in 2020.
Pasco County students and parents arrive for the first day of classes in 2019. A year later, with coronavirus cases continuing to mount in Florida, many parents are leery of returning to campuses in 2020. [ JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK | Times ]
Published Aug. 4, 2020
Updated Aug. 5, 2020

BACK TO SCHOOL 2020 | Click to scroll down for more

Going back to school this year has become much more complicated for parents than making sure they’ve gathered all the classroom supplies and having their children back on an early-morning wakeup routine.

They face a more elemental question of whether to send their children back to classrooms at all, or keep them home for more distance learning. Some don’t even have that choice, as they’re forced to go to work themselves and have no place else for their youngsters.

Concerns abound over each potential selection.

Face-to-face learning offers more personal interactions and other benefits, but raises worries of virus spread. Virtual learning provides the ability to keep on track with instruction without the health fears, but many found it lacking in several ways during the spring.

Here’s what some parents in Tampa Bay are saying about their options as preparations for the new school year unfold:

Earlishia Oates
Earlishia Oates [ Courtesy of Earlishia Oates ]

Earlishia Oates, an active PTA mom of two, hears both perspectives as she makes the rounds in her east Tampa community.

Many parents see their schools lacking basic supplies, such as hand soap and paper towels, in the best of times, Oates said. Even if the administration promises to buy in bulk, she said, it’s not unrealistic to think that the items needed for personal health and protection will disappear quickly.

And unlike some of the wealthier communities, the families at Sheehy Elementary and Armwood High, where her children attend, can’t afford to restock the shelves themselves. They fear that they’ll be left without the things they need to stay well.

Some also worry about the inability to keep a social distance in buses, hallways and perhaps even classrooms. It just doesn’t seem safe, said Oates, who intends to keep her children at home even though they really want to return.

Oates’ tenth-grade daughter is particularly concerned, because she doesn’t want to lose her seat in Armwood’s collegiate program, and she struggled with e-learning in the spring.

“She really doesn’t want to go through that again,” Oates said. “But she understands. It’s not safe for you to go back.”

At the same time, she noted, many parents have no real choice in the matter.

They might depend on school meals, which aren’t available except in the cafeteria when classes are in session. Many have to go to their own jobs, and wouldn’t dare to leave their children home alone.

“For the last nine weeks, I had kids sitting in my front yard tapping into my internet so they could do the work,” Oates said. “It’s going to be back to the same situation where kids have to go back to school because they don’t have the internet. ... I don’t feel like it’s fair to have the options like that.”

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Joseph and Annette Giuliani
Joseph and Annette Giuliani [ Courtesy of Annette Giuliani ]

Annette Giuliani has no such issues as she contemplates sending her 13-year-old son to eighth grade at Seven Springs Middle School in Trinity.

“He’s absolutely going back,” said Giuliani, who lives in New Port Richey. “No hesitation.”

She said she doesn’t worry about her son getting ill, though she does understand that others are concerned about virus spread. That’s why, even though she’d prefer the children not wear masks in school, Giuliani said her son will follow any requirement to do so.

But she doesn’t want him staying home.

“I know some people are all up on home schooling. I don’t think it’s good for kids,” she said.

Learning to deal with people of different backgrounds and perspectives helps children mature, Giuliani explained. Plus, distance learning seemed far inferior to regular school, in person.

“It was, for him, the lazy way out,” she said. “He needs to be more challenged. He needs that whole learning environment.”

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Bambi Jones
Bambi Jones [ Courtesy of Bambi Jones ]

Bambi Jones understands the desire to send children back to the schools. Her oldest grandson is about to start his senior year at Pinellas Park High, and she wants him to experience all the positive aspects of that key time before heading to college.

She also cares for two other grandchildren, one entering seventh and the other starting fifth grade.

But Jones frets about the coronavirus, having lost a family friend to the illness and having others in the hospital battling it. Even if the children don’t get ill themselves, she said, they could bring it home.

“Do my kids end up in foster care because I’m no longer able to care for them?” she asked, noting that she took them in to keep them out of the foster system. “God forbid. Three futures could be at risk because of this sickness. It’s a lot to contemplate.”

Even though she has a full-time job and oversees a ministry, Jones said she’s leaning toward online instruction, especially for her younger two.

“My oldest one, the senior, he wants to go back,” she said. “I told him we’ll try.”

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Veronica McDonald
Veronica McDonald [ Courtesy of Veronica McDonald ]

Veronica McDonald has three children in elementary school, and said she’d like to get behind the in-person, on-campus option for them.

“I love our teachers and I know they do really great work,” said McDonald, who lives in northern Hillsborough County and has served as PTA president for Lake Magdalene Elementary. “But I don’t think they can do adequate social distancing.”

She’s not enamored with distance learning, either, though that’s the path the family currently has picked. In the spring, McDonald said, it became clear that lessons were glossed over, and contact with teachers was too little.

“I didn’t feel like they learned very much,” she said. “I have already started looking at home schooling options.”

She said she knows of others in the same boat. They’re discussing ways to join forces to provide a different type of education that they otherwise might never have considered.

“I’m trying to make the best of a bad situation,” she said.

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Melissa Moré
Melissa Moré [ Courtesy of Melissa Moré ]

Melissa Moré said she also wishes better choices existed.

Both she and her husband work full time in health care, and neither can afford to guide their 5-year-old through kindergarten from home. Yet having seen the effects of COVID-19 up close and personal daily, Moré had worries about sending her daughter to Safety Harbor Elementary, too.

“I don’t know how schools can keep kids safe and keep teachers safe,” said Moré, who has a master’s degree in public health. “It’s not a matter of if classes will close, it’s a matter of when. There’s no doubt in my mind.”

At the very least, she said, the schools need more time to hire and prepare nurses for every building, train teachers in infection control and healthy practices, and prepare in a way so everyone feels more at ease.

“They’re not giving appropriate time to make these teachers be successful,” Moré said.

She’s toying with the idea of sending her daughter to a day care that’s looking at offering support for working parents who don’t want their children inside the schools yet. There’s less opportunity for exposure in that smaller environment, she said.

But that’s not a sure thing. School is more likely. And that raises a key question for this mom.

“Do you send your kid into a place you don’t feel is necessarily the safest solution?” she wondered. “Or do you quit your job? ... Neither of these are viable choices.”

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Francine and Serenity Riale
Francine and Serenity Riale [ Courtesy of Francine Riale ]

Francine Riale has few options, as well. A permit coordinator for a construction company, she has to go to work, and leaving daughter Serenity with grandparents or a sitter isn’t a viable long-term choice.

But Riale is less concerned about sending the seventh-grader to Gulf Coast Academy, a Hernando County charter school, than she might be if headed back to a more crowded district middle school.

The school intends to keep students separated into individual classes, with teachers circulating through, as a way to limit exposure to one another. Parents already do the cleaning and sanitizing daily as part of their volunteer support, and the school is regularly stocked with needed supplies, Riale said.

“I’m confident they’re going to take every measure to keep the students safe,” she said.

That’s a relief, she continued, because her daughter needs the in-person instruction.

“She thrives in the classroom,” Riale said. “I don’t feel she’s getting the proper education at home. ... I don’t want her to miss more school.”

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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.

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.

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Tampa Bay Times coronavirus coverage