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Tampa Bay goes back to school

Thousands of kids return to classrooms for the first time since March, but most will start the year learning from home.

With high hopes and fingers crossed, the 2020-21 academic year begins today in three Tampa Bay area school districts, and at the University of South Florida.

Schools in Pinellas and Pasco counties will reopen their campuses to students for the first time since the pandemic forced them to shut down in March. But thousands of kids will be starting the year at home, attending classes online.

In Hillsborough County, all 200,000-plus students will be attending classes virtually for the first week before many of them return to campuses on Aug. 31. That’s also the date Hernando County begins the new school year with a mix of on-campus and online courses.

All told, about 200,000 of the estimated 423,000 public school students in the region will be in actual classrooms when the academic year gets rolling.

That reflects fears by many families that reopening schools will cause a resurgence of the coronavirus, which has been on the decline in Florida. But with schools only half full, students and staff will have more space to keep their distance.

Still, district and state leaders acknowledge that the precautions schools are taking probably won’t be enough to fully contain the virus. They have said that some students and staff will need to be quarantined and that schools, or portions of schools, will need to be closed.

See the first day unfold as it happens with Tampa Bay Times journalists monitoring schools in all three counties.

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To start us off, Times columnist Stephanie Hayes has a message for students, teachers and parents: Hey, you! Yeah, you. Be patient as school starts.

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Setting the stage on Twitter:

Pinellas schools invited families to tweet their “first day of school moments.”

Hillsborough schools touted the new virus-catching filters that have already been installed in many district buildings. But one teacher wasn’t feeling the schools-are-safe narrative. She posted a photo of closely-spaced desks in her classroom.

USF president Steve Currall wants to prevent the virus outbreaks that have already caused concern on college campuses like Notre Dame and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Read his Friday tweet reminding students and everyone else that “individual actions have a larger impact, on ourselves and others.”

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Today, we also will be following the latest in the lawsuit challenging Florida’s emergency order for reopening schools. The order pressed many districts, including Hillsborough, into opening campuses sooner than they wanted to during the pandemic. Judge Charles Dodson in Tallahassee said he would rule early this week, which could mean today.

Final arguments were Friday.

Before that, the state spent a day in court defending its order with witnesses and other testimony.

The plaintiffs made their day-long pitch on Wednesday, arguing that schools should be closed until the coronavirus is more under control.

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Even reporters get those first-day jitters.

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On the weekend before the first day, Florida’s education commissioner made news. Jeff Solochek’s morning education roundup is a must-read today and every day: Corcoran riles teachers while awaiting judge’s reopening order

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In a pre-dawn interview with @Marlenesokol, Pinellas school superintendent Mike Grego acknowledges his staff is anxious but he tells them, “Let’s get back to school and let’s work together.”

He says, based on early reports, half the buses are so empty they are running with one child per seat.

If a COVID-19 case arises in school, the plan is this: “If we’re in doubt, we’re going to quarantine,” Grego said. But he added that if they find they are quarantining entire classes and then finding out that no one had COVID-19 except the initial patient, “maybe we’ll loosen that up.”

He urges everyone to manage their expectations. "The first day of school, there will be challenges. The second day of school, it will get a little bit better. Let's not try to search for perfection the first day of school."

One theme in the safety precautions is, “seating charts everywhere.” On the bus, in the cafeteria. That’s what the medical experts advised. Grego also said that doctors who have toured the schools are telling him that “this is the safest place you can be right now.”

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A student arrives by bus on the first day of school at Gulf High in New Port Richey.
A student arrives by bus on the first day of school at Gulf High in New Port Richey. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
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More from Pinellas superintendent Mike Grego:

We asked him how the district balances managing the virus with the desire to keep offering students the same classes and services as always.

Pinellas chief Mike Grego took his concerns to the state.
Pinellas chief Mike Grego took his concerns to the state.

“It’s been a balance, it truly has,” he said. But he would not want to do what some districts did outside the state, eliminating music, art and other activities because it was too difficult.

“I saw some of the greatest experiences in our jazz bands, our orchestras, our choral arrangements and I think to myself, what if we just did away with that? They were able to do it safely,” Grego said.

We asked what he would say to stressed teachers, especially those who have to teach online and in-person at the same time.

“Teachers, educators are overachievers, I love that,” he said. “But it also comes with the fact that we have to take it one day at a time, take a deep breath, this is the first day of school, we’ll get more proficient at this.”

Teachers also learned a lot from each other during the spring shut-down, he said, He wants Pinellas to be a district where every student has a digital device.

“We can’t go backwards,” he said. “We have to be more creative and innovative.”

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At Cypress Creek Middle:

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In Hillsborough, where everything is online this week ...

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Now comes word of a glitch in Hillsborough. @Marlenesokol is checking it out.

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Higher education reporter Divya Kumar found a somewhat lonely campus at USF Tampa this morning.

In normal times, this parking lot on the Tampa campus of the University of South Florida would be crowded with cars. On the first day of classes Monday, there were plenty of spaces to be had as the university reopened campuses amid the pandemic.
In normal times, this parking lot on the Tampa campus of the University of South Florida would be crowded with cars. On the first day of classes Monday, there were plenty of spaces to be had as the university reopened campuses amid the pandemic. [ DIVYA KUMAR | Times ]
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One of the ways USF is communicating to students:

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Team Tallahassee drives home their message that reopening schools is a good idea. Here’s the start of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ thread, retweeted by education commissioner Richard Corcoran.

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Hillsborough says a fix is on the way.

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After the final bell Monday at Boca Ciega High in Gulfport, 15-year-old Zharia Montgomery said she opted to return to school in person because “I’ll do better with face-to-face contact.”

Her peers wore masks all day and hallways were safe, Montgomery said.

With a large portion of students learning virtually, teachers juggled their in-person students with their at-home students with only minor technological difficulties, she said. Both groups got attention.

Although “masked and muffled,” socializing with peers was still possible, said senior, Antonio Ovcaro, 17, who moved to the United States from Macedonia just prior to the coronavirus outbreak.

“I think it’s pretty safe,” Ovcaro said.

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Tampa Bay Times coronavirus coverage

HOW CORONAVIRUS IS SPREADING IN FLORIDA: Find the latest numbers for your county, city or zip code.

FACE MASKS: Read the latest on guidelines, tips for comfort and long-term wear

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THE CORONAVIRUS SCRAPBOOK: We collected your stories, pictures, songs, recipes, journals and more to show what life has been like during the pandemic.

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