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Tampa Bay students celebrate the return to school

New routines set the tone for a unique school year.
Crossing guard Annie Person, 76, on left, talks with Rodney Vanhorn as he walks his three children to school on the first day at Lakewood Elementary, 4151 6th St S, on Monday in St. Petersburg. "I'm happy," Rodney Vanhorn said. "The first day of school is always my Christmas present." From left is Person, Vanhorn and Vanhorn's three children, fourth-grader Rodney Vanhorn III, second-grader Jalani Vanhorn, and fourth-grader Oryan Vanhorn.
Crossing guard Annie Person, 76, on left, talks with Rodney Vanhorn as he walks his three children to school on the first day at Lakewood Elementary, 4151 6th St S, on Monday in St. Petersburg. "I'm happy," Rodney Vanhorn said. "The first day of school is always my Christmas present." From left is Person, Vanhorn and Vanhorn's three children, fourth-grader Rodney Vanhorn III, second-grader Jalani Vanhorn, and fourth-grader Oryan Vanhorn. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Aug. 24, 2020

ST. PETERSBURG — Masked and trying to keep 6 feet of space between them, tens of thousands of Pinellas and Pasco County students stepped into classrooms Monday for the first time since COVID-19 shuttered Florida schools in March.

Parents found lighter-than-usual traffic, with nearly half of children taking their courses remotely.

Principals tried to foster an upbeat environment, even though no one could see them smile.

“They’re happy to be back,” said Cypress Creek High School Principal Carin Hetzler-Nettles as 1,000 of her school’s 2,300 students settled in at the Wesley Chapel school.

“They’re excited. You can see it in their smiling eyes.”

Related: School reopening lawsuit: Judge rules in favor of Florida teachers

These families opted for the rituals, routines, and guidance best provided by an in-person teacher, even through layers of protective gear.

“The online school is too complicated for me,” said Deaven Denton, 16, arriving at Tarpon Springs High School. “To learn, I need to be in the right mind-set and right environment, which is school, not really my house.”

Zharia Montgomery, 15, said she returned to Boca Ciega High School in Gulfport because “I’ll do better with face to face contact.” Classes were small enough so her teachers could give adequate attention to those learning at home as well, she said.

In St. Petersburg, Charles Kimel and Dorothy Rakes dropped an excited Jason Kimel off for third grade at Lakewood Elementary. After a long, isolated summer, Rakes said, “before we even got him up, he had his clothes on.”

Hillsborough and Hernando counties will begin in-person instruction next Monday, although all students are learning virtually this week in Hillsborough. The area’s largest district spent part of the morning fixing connectivity problems in Canvas, its new content platform.

By early afternoon, Hillsborough reported there had been 172,327 unique users, a number that included students, parents and teachers.

“To have close to 85 percent of students sign on is a really great number,” said district spokeswoman Tanya Arja. “Everybody understood the importance of this week.”

Natalya Burlakova encourages her son Ivan Zavaleta, 6, while he starts first grade virtually by eLearning in their Lithia home on Monday.
Natalya Burlakova encourages her son Ivan Zavaleta, 6, while he starts first grade virtually by eLearning in their Lithia home on Monday. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

A nonprofit organization, Florida Institute for Community Studies, helped one group of Hillsborough students begin their year of distance learning at a community center in Town ‘N Country.

Some of the children were hesitant, but they soon caught on.

“I really like e-learning because it’s the future, but it’s not the same,” said Hedgunio Arana, 12, and a seventh-grader at Davidsen Middle School.

Morgan Woods Elementary fourth-grader Christell Uria, 9, said, “It is very different compared to the school, but it’s okay.”

Related: Tampa Bay goes back to school

The return to school is happening at a fortuitous time, with local and statewide statistics signaling a slowdown in coronavirus transmissions.

Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has contended all along that children are safe and best off in school, took to Twitter with a series of messages about the reduction in diagnoses, hospitalizations and COVID-19 deaths.

Those numbers included positivity rates of 4.3 percent in Hillsborough and 2.9 percent in Pasco and Pinellas, well below the recommended 5 percent threshold.

The lurking question, however, is whether those numbers will rebound once children are back in school.

A student arrives by bus on the first day of school before the start of classes at the entrance of Gulf High School on Monday in New Port Richey.
A student arrives by bus on the first day of school before the start of classes at the entrance of Gulf High School on Monday in New Port Richey. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

“We’re as prepared as we’re going to be,” said Tim Light, principal of Cypress Creek Middle School. Students there are getting used to one-way hallways, timed bus arrivals and recorded, numbered seating for lunches to help with contact tracing, in case somebody falls ill.

Michelle Miller sent two children, Lilly and Benjamin, to Cypress Creek on Monday, even though Benjamin wondered how they will socialize with so many restrictions.

“No. 1, I work and I can’t really be there to make sure they’re getting their work done and getting their questions answered,” Michelle Miller said. “No. 2, they were ready after being home so long.”

Unlike the hastily arranged home learning of the spring, distance studies this year are structured and regimented, happening simultaneously with in-person lessons. Districts had to design them that way to ensure full funding.

But those rigid hours do not serve working parents, and some students said they just do not study well at home.

“I might sleep through a day by accident,” said Cyrus Wolf, a 16-year-old junior at St. Pete High.

Teachers, meanwhile, have mixed feelings about opening with the lingering threat of coronavirus.

Cypress Creek Middle band director Stefanie McDannald said the school has taken positive steps to keep her classes safe. These include a distanced classroom setup, special masks with slits for mouthpieces and bell covers for wind instruments.

But she remains wary. “I’ve seen schools get shut down,” she said. “I’ve read articles about it, that kids can be super spreaders, and I work with a lot of kids. But I love my job. I need to make money. So I’m here.”

Maria Smith gets a hug from former student Marquis Golden, 9, at the "Walker's Gate" after school at Campbell Park Elementary School on Monday.
Maria Smith gets a hug from former student Marquis Golden, 9, at the "Walker's Gate" after school at Campbell Park Elementary School on Monday. [ JOHN PENDYGRAFT | Times ]

History teacher Thomas Brown had fewer concerns. “I’m just excited to be face to face with the kids,” he said. “Everybody has been cooped up for a while. We’re ready to socialize again. Learning is something that has always been better face to face.”

For Pinellas Superintendent Mike Grego, this has been a time of managing expectations and reassuring the public that school is safe; that medical experts have endorsed his district’s protocols, and that the time has come to focus on learning, not disease.

When asked how he would advise parents to discuss the first day with children who might be frightened, Grego said he is thankful that kids are now accustomed to wearing masks in public places.

“Talk to your children about how their day went,” he suggested. “Talk about the exciting parts of their day. The content of their day, beyond, ‘Did anybody take their face masks off?’ Talk about the learning.”

School leaders, meanwhile, are banking on protocols to minimize the threat.

A student is pictured holding her mask as she walks to class on the first day of school of the 2020-2021 school year for Pinellas County students, at St. Petersburg High School on Monday.
A student is pictured holding her mask as she walks to class on the first day of school of the 2020-2021 school year for Pinellas County students, at St. Petersburg High School on Monday. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

Clearwater High School principal Keith Mastorides said there were isolated cases at his school over the summer, when students were on campus for band and athletics.

“But we didn’t have an outbreak,” he pointed out. “Which, I think, was huge.

“For us to think it’s not going to come on campus? We’re kidding ourselves. We just have to make sure that everybody’s doing what they’re supposed to. They’re wearing a mask. They’re keeping their distance.”

Times staff writers Juan Carlos Chavez, Jack Evans, Tracey McManus, Margo Snipe, Kathryn Varn and Natalie Weber contributed to this report.