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Tampa Bay awaits a weird first day of school. ‘Kind of scary.’

On Monday, amid a pandemic, educators will gamely begin the 2020-21 school year after a summer of discord and a scramble to get ready. Will people pull together?

In her mind’s eye, Rene Flowers is standing outside St. Petersburg’s Gibbs High School on a steamy day in August.

The marching band is playing. Cheerleaders are cheering. Alumni are applauding as fresh-scrubbed students embrace a new year of learning.

But those are mere memories as Flowers, who is concluding eight years on the Pinellas County School Board, braces for a “first day” unlike any she has seen.

Related: Area schools will look different when students return. Here’s how.

After multiple delays, the Pinellas and Pasco school districts will begin the 2020-21 academic year Monday with some students on campuses and others taking classes online, not wishing to chance a COVID-19 infection.

Hillsborough County schools will start that day, too, but with all-online classes for the first week and in-person classes added to the mix after that. School starts Aug. 31 in Hernando County.

If current trends hold, roughly 200,000 of the area’s 423,000 students will be physically in school.

“So much is on the minds of teachers, so much is on minds of students,” Flowers said. “We’ve got to sanitize, sanitize, sanitize. We’re taking away from a student looking at learning as fun, and from teachers looking as teaching being fun.”

‘‘Everything is just going to be so different.”

At a July 14 rally, Pinellas County School Board member Rene Flowers spoke in support of teachers who protested plans for a return to classrooms during the pandemic. Still, some have called her a coward for not pushing harder.
At a July 14 rally, Pinellas County School Board member Rene Flowers spoke in support of teachers who protested plans for a return to classrooms during the pandemic. Still, some have called her a coward for not pushing harder. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]

Throughout the nation, families and educators are feeling their way through a strange new world of decontamination garments and anti-mask lawsuits, contact tracing flow charts and calendars that change weekly.

Pick your favorite back-to-school ritual: The trip to Target for supplies, the boo-hoo breakfast for kindergarten parents, the neighborhood sleepover while moms fill out all that first-day paperwork.

In its place, play the video from the Manatee County School District now being lampooned on YouTube for its somber depiction of socially distanced children grabbing bagged meals, their teachers wearing lab coats, masks and face shields.

“Parents went bonkers,” said Melissa Erickson, co-founder of the advocacy group Alliance for Public Schools. “They said: ‘This is apocalyptic. This is mentally damaging.‘”

"This has been the most difficult time I have had being an advocate for public schools and helping parents,” said Melissa Erickson, executive director of the grassroots Alliance for Public Schools. Some of the letters she gets are "heartbreaking," she said. [Courtesy of Melissa Erickson]
"This has been the most difficult time I have had being an advocate for public schools and helping parents,” said Melissa Erickson, executive director of the grassroots Alliance for Public Schools. Some of the letters she gets are "heartbreaking," she said. [Courtesy of Melissa Erickson]

But this, she argues, is what school districts have said they will do to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus. For a reality check, Erickson said, “people need to inundate themselves with those videos.”

The debate over opening schools in the throes of a pandemic has stirred emotions, ripping through communities like a brush fire.

Political careers have been derailed. In Hillsborough County, none of the sitting School Board members finished first in Tuesday’s primary election.

On social media, discourse is ugly, with bloggers outing people’s membership in secret Facebook groups and one Hillsborough middle school teacher branded as a Marxist — and much worse.

Teachers are contending with fast-changing information on the most basic topics — such as how many students will show up in their classrooms, whether they’ll need to teach online and in-person students at the same time, or whether student masking is optional.

“What they tell us on Tuesday changes on Wednesday and then the new email comes out Thursday,” said Tampa middle school teacher Robert Pechacek, clarifying later that he was exaggerating — but not by much.

For parents, the confusion is especially stressful. Some signed up their children for in-person school, not fully realizing that, in the event of a COVID-19 outbreak, students might be sent home anyway. That has already happened in Martin County, where close to 300 high school and elementary students have been quarantined in the first two weeks of classes.

Erickson can’t remember a more challenging time. “The letters, the emails that I’m getting from people who think I have some kind of magic, behind-the-scenes information so they can make the decision that they have to make for their child is heartbreaking, heartbreaking for me.”

• • •

In normal times, school districts would be ushering in the new year with fanfare.

Hillsborough County’s top brass would appear at a news conference, at a school chosen for its stellar academic record or a new program.

In normal times, school district leaders celebrate the new year with events such as this chorus performance by students at Ben Hill Middle School. [Times (2017)]
In normal times, school district leaders celebrate the new year with events such as this chorus performance by students at Ben Hill Middle School. [Times (2017)]

Student ROTC officers would greet visitors at the entrance. The district’s operations chief would lightheartedly assure everyone that all the air conditioners are working — for now.

On the first day of school, Damaris Allen would take her two sons to Village Inn, a 12-year tradition. Aiden, now 16, would order chocolate chip pancakes. Emmit, 13, would go all in: eggs, bacon, hash browns, toast.

But the pandemic ended restaurant trips for the Allen family. And this year, Allen’s sons are learning at home.

“So instead of doing things like buying school clothes and school supplies that would go in backpacks, and preparing lunches and all those things, we are buying desks and setting up their space to learn in their room,” she said.

Allen, the former president of Hillsborough’s PTA council, works at home in a political job. She has allied herself with families who want schools to remain closed until the virus subsides, and she is raising her sons to consider community before their own interests.

That isn’t always easy, she said, as Aiden would love to be with his friends. Emmit, a sophomore at Plant High, would have liked to bond with fellow musicians in the band.

Other families are placing their trust in school administrators who are working long hours to implement safety protocols.

Anthony Montoto, the principal of Hillsborough’s Thonotosassa Elementary School, is sending one of his daughters to Greco Middle, where he knows and has full confidence in the principal. The other girl will go to Lewis Elementary, where their mother, Jessica Montoto, is a teacher.

His daughters miss being around their friends, he said. As for their parents: “We’re educators,” Montoto said. “We knew we were signing up for this. We’re going to be around kids with snotty noses, and things like that.”

Not that he would ever make light of the COVID-19 threat, Montoto added.

As principal, he has seen his priorities shift — from focusing on academic improvement to concentrating on safety.

He counseled a teacher who had health problems to do all of her instruction online. He has had conversations with other teachers about their concerns and is working to build trust that both sides will need in the months ahead.

He’s not sure what to expect when Hillsborough opens campuses for in-person classes, under pressure from top state officials.

“This one will be maybe different, definitely nontraditional, maybe a little uncomfortable,” Montoto said of that first day. ”There will be signage in school: ‘Walk on this side’ ... ‘Walk on that side’ ... ‘Wash your hands.’

“Think about that,” he said. For the youngest children, “that’s kind of scary to them.”

Montoto imagines those first encounters.

“I’m going to have a mask on,” he said. “A little guy has a mask on. They see me. I haven’t seen them for awhile. They’re going to run up to me and what am I going to do? I don’t know. It’s going to be very hard for me as a principal to say, ‘Don’t hug me.’”

Hillsborough County school superintendent Addison Davis installs and walkway sign at Witter Elementary School in Tampa. [Hillsborough County Public Schools]
Hillsborough County school superintendent Addison Davis installs and walkway sign at Witter Elementary School in Tampa. [Hillsborough County Public Schools]

His boss, superintendent Addison Davis, is trying to maintain a positive attitude while slogging through the endless details. He thinks teachers will still find ways to connect with students.

“We should always celebrate the beginning of the school year,” he said. “That’s when we open doors and engage children to help them find ways to fall in love with learning.”

• • •

Robert Pechacek is a military veteran, a former law enforcement officer and a nine-year teacher at Coleman Middle, one of Hillsborough County’s most prestigious schools.

Perusing Facebook recently, he happened upon an anti-masking site and pointed it out to somebody else on Facebook.

One thing led to another. Messages circulated with screenshots of Pechacek’s profile and a background photo showing a scene from the television series Breaking Bad. The show is about a high school chemistry teacher who starts cooking meth for a drug kingpin. Pechacek said he was not familiar with the show; he just thought the photo was funny because the men were wearing hazmat suits.

Middle school teacher Robert Pechacek ran unsuccessfully for Hillsborough County School Board in 2018. He was targeted on Facebook in the debate over face covering rules. [JAMES BORCHUCK 
 |  Times]
Middle school teacher Robert Pechacek ran unsuccessfully for Hillsborough County School Board in 2018. He was targeted on Facebook in the debate over face covering rules. [JAMES BORCHUCK | Times]

His critics said he was glorifying meth dealers, and was “creepy.” Soon, there were letters to the administration and the School Board declaring him a criminal who was unfit to be around children and demanding that he be fired. The Facebook posters also went after the Hillsborough teachers union and Damaris Allen, the former PTA council president.

“I am a devoted Methodist and a Christian,” said Pechacek, also a one-time candidate for School Board.

“My job of being a teacher is to make that kid a little bit better. But we’re under attack. Half the county is upset because we want their kids to wear face masks. All politics aside, all religion aside, I ask why we can’t just get through this together, as Americans have gone through tragedy before.”

He and Allen wonder: Is the vitriol one more manifestation of a loss of civility in American discourse, made worse by fear and loss related to the pandemic?

Related: Hey, you! Yeah, you. Be patient as school starts.

“It’s PTSD,” said Flowers, the Pinellas School Board member, who has endured her share of confrontations.

Flowers has been among those who have called the state heavy-handed for pushing districts to reopen campuses and using the threat of reduced funding as an incentive. Yet, in emails, people have called her a coward for not standing stronger against that pressure.

She said she knows that people are frustrated, and that they take out their frustrations on those closest to them.

One letter writer told Flowers, “When her child dies, they’ll die at my feet.” A teacher told her, “When I die, I died teaching your children.”

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