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Online or in-person school? Tampa Bay districts give families more leeway.

Students need not commit one way or the other for second semester, and change requests will be handled at individual schools.
 
Rachel Sippel, left, and her daughter Rain Otero, 16, center, arrive at the drop off circle on the first day of school before the start of classes at Gulf High in August. The year started with school districts pushing families to formally commit to online or in-person classes, but those rules have been relaxed for second semester.
Rachel Sippel, left, and her daughter Rain Otero, 16, center, arrive at the drop off circle on the first day of school before the start of classes at Gulf High in August. The year started with school districts pushing families to formally commit to online or in-person classes, but those rules have been relaxed for second semester. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Dec. 4, 2020

Tampa Bay area school districts will be taking a more relaxed approach next semester when it comes to deciding whether a student learns in person or remotely.

Unlike in the fall, districts won’t be asking families to make long-term commitments to their schooling choices for the spring term that begins in mid-January. One consideration is the expectation that coronavirus cases might multiply over the next two months, prompting many families to change their plans.

Still, district officials say they would like students who wish to change their model for the third quarter to let their schools know so proper preparations can be made. Now that the state has issued its order allowing online instruction to continue, with funding, officials aim to get schedules in place as quickly as possible.

“Sooner is better than later,” said Hillsborough school spokeswoman Tanya Arja. “We’re trying to make sure our teachers and staff have time to plan.”

Related: Florida makes it official: Remote learning will continue next semester

Hillsborough is conducting a survey to get parents thinking about what option they prefer for their children. It launched before Thanksgiving break, and was recirculated again afterward in hopes of improving the response rate.

It’s not a declaration of intent or a guarantee, Arja said. Rather, it’s a gauge for the district, and a signal to individual schools on whether children are expected to return to in-person classes.

In the first round of the survey, about 9,500 students indicated they intended to go back to campus for second semester.

Other districts aren’t going that far.

Pasco and Pinellas counties decided not to ask for any parent responses, set any deadlines or make any opt-in or opt-out requirements. Instead, they have told families to communicate directly with their schools if they want to shift, regardless of time frame.

School-level officials can better determine where space is available, and how to adjust course schedules and teacher assignments for each individual request, Pinellas district spokeswoman Isabel Mascareñas said.

Changes for second semester are well under way in Pasco schools, with the next session just weeks away, spokesman Steve Hegarty said. A few hundred students have asked to transition from virtual classes to their schools, he said, and more are expected.

Part of the reason the districts haven’t asked for commitments is because they understand that family preferences might change, particularly if the coronavirus pandemic worsens over winter break. Arja said that concern played into Hillsborough’s rationale to allow for more fluid movement back and forth.

At the same time, the districts’ approaches meet state expectations regarding school choices during the pandemic. In the first semester, some schools in Florida were criticized for limiting the windows in which students could switch between in-person and online classes.

The state’s new emergency order says districts may not restrict when such changes can be made, or require more than a week’s notice to make a change, calling such actions “presumptively unreasonable.”

Regardless of where students attend, the state is expecting their schools to take extra steps to identify anyone who is falling behind and provide “intensive interventions” to get them back on track. Districts are writing their spring action plans to meet the state’s Dec. 15 deadline.

One thing they already have in place is ongoing monitoring of student progress using tests in reading and math. The districts plan to continue those regularly to help evaluate children’s achievement levels.

At the same time, though, the Hillsborough district has decided to cancel several other semester tests. It will not require exams in courses that do not have state mandates attached, although children may sit for them if the results might help improve their grade.

Superintendent Addison Davis explained in a recent email to teachers that the move arose over concerns about testing security, as well as consideration that many students had schedule changes mid-semester that might make the tests inaccurate gauges of their performance.

Pinellas and Pasco schools have not canceled exams at this point.