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School year in full swing as Hillsborough, Hernando reopen campuses

New routines and computer platforms occupy students in a tentative return to normal.
 
Lining up in a socially distant manner to get through a security checkpoint: These are among the morning routines at Hillsborough High School in 2020.
Lining up in a socially distant manner to get through a security checkpoint: These are among the morning routines at Hillsborough High School in 2020. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]
Published Aug. 31, 2020|Updated Aug. 31, 2020

SEFFNER — Marissa Hernandez, 11, was nervous but happy to start the sixth grade Monday at Burnett Middle School.

“It’s so much better to be here at school than at home, tucked into your room and in front of a computer,” she said.

It’s also better for the five children in her family. “Imagine the mess in the house,” said Marissa’s mother, María de León. “I am concerned about the pandemic but there is no other way out for us. There are many of us and we have to move on with our lives.”

Marissa Hernandez, 11, pauses while speaking to a reporter outside Burnett Middle School in Seffner on Monday. Hillsborough County reopened campuses today after starting the school year online for the first week and giving students the option to continue e-learning.
Marissa Hernandez, 11, pauses while speaking to a reporter outside Burnett Middle School in Seffner on Monday. Hillsborough County reopened campuses today after starting the school year online for the first week and giving students the option to continue e-learning. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

Throughout Hillsborough County, parents and students told similar stories Monday — of tiring of the six-month pandemic that forced children to learn from home in the spring, of missing friends, of wanting to move forward.

“After being cooped up in the house too long it just doesn’t feel right to have to stay and do schoolwork there,” said Xavier Keenan, 17, a junior at Bloomingdale High.

Teenagers lined the sidewalk in front of Hillsborough High, maintaining distance as they waited to enter the security portal.

At Bloomingdale, some vowed to make the best of this school year, despite its many challenges.

“It’s a little bit different,” said Jayden Segarra, 18. “It’s not what most people dream that their senior year will be like, but it is what it is and you just have to adapt to it.”

A sign welcoming students back to Sickles High School in Citrus Park
A sign welcoming students back to Sickles High School in Citrus Park [ Hillsborough County School District ]

Outside Roosevelt Elementary in South Tampa, Joyce Taylor said it was “a relief” to deliver her 7-year-old son, Kyle, for his first day of school. She had to tell him not to hug his teachers. But he got to kiss the family dog goodbye.

While Hillsborough students started their studies online on Aug. 24, it was the first day of the school year for Hernando County’s 22,000 students.

The small district reported problems early in the day with Microsoft Teams, the platform used by its online students. A glitch in the system affected students’ ability log on, and as of mid-morning, teachers were communicating with their students by email.

Parents groused on social media. On Facebook, Kimi Reah, the parent of two middle school students, told them, “Sometimes things happen. ... Have your kid open a book and read until things get back up.”

Both districts, in opening their doors, met a state-imposed deadline set by an emergency reopening order that is now being challenged in state court. The Florida Education Association contends the order is unconstitutional because the state Constitution guarantees safe schools, and schools are not safe because of the coronavirus.

Twins Jazmyn and Jackson Cande, 14, arrive for the first day of school at Hillsborough High on Monday.
Twins Jazmyn and Jackson Cande, 14, arrive for the first day of school at Hillsborough High on Monday. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

But COVID-19 contagion numbers have been falling in Florida, to 5.5 percent among Florida residents and 13.5 percent for all who are tested, giving some measure of comfort to those who chose in-person schooling. By Education commissioner Richard Corcoran’s latest estimates, about 60 percent of Florida’s school children are returning to in-person schools.

In Hillsborough, that number was 54 percent out of 203,595, with 14.5 percent of the students in charter schools.

As some parents see it, school is safer than almost any other place where their children could spend their time. And, they said, the learning conditions are far better than what they can offer at home.

“At home, children lose their attention very quickly and we have to be attentive every minute,” said Herlinda Ruballos, whose daughter, Katherine López, is in the eight grade at Burnett. And the family had technical problems with computer learning. “It’s not for us,” Ruballos said.

The question no one can answer, at this early stage, is whether the COVID-19 numbers will trend upwards, now that some 200,000 students are spending their days inside Tampa Bay area schools.

The Hillsborough district unveiled an online COVID-19 tracker Monday to report the cases, school by school. A dashboard already exists in Pasco, and other districts are releasing the numbers upon request.

Trent Kanpd, 13, walks to Burnett Middle School in Seffner on Monday.
Trent Kanpd, 13, walks to Burnett Middle School in Seffner on Monday. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

Last week, when Pasco and Pinellas students returned to school, there were 19 reported cases among staff and students. Classrooms were quarantined in six Pinellas schools.

Hillsborough and Pasco on Monday also announced new plans to make testing more easily available for staff.

Through an arrangement with Tampa General Hospital, employees who are on the district’s Humana insurance plan can get free tests at Tampa General’s Fast Track urgent care centers.

In Pasco, there are plans to roll out a rapid testing program for staff and students, deputy superintendent Ray Gadd said. Three of the district’s health and wellness centers — one each in west, central and east Pasco — will serve as testing sites. The service is expected to begin after Labor Day.

Gov. Ron DeSantis, in an education round table discussion, continued to downplay the possible harm that might come to students and school staff. “We’re having great outcomes,” he said.

DeSantis is calling for differentiated COVID-19 reporting that will distinguish between patients who suffer ill effects and those who are asymptomatic. He would not want to see asymptomatic carriers “putting their life on hold,” he said.

In Tallahassee, the teachers organization said it will continue to press on with its lawsuit, and fight any attempts to stifle the release of information about COVID-19.

“Schools already are struggling with COVID-19, and families need transparent information about what’s going on,” Florida Education Association vice president Andrew Spar said. “The governor talks about choice, but real choice requires complete information.”

Staff writers Jeffrey S. Solochek and Natalie Weber contributed to this report.