What the pandemic taught us about kids, schools and online learning

Gone for 2021-22 will be the much-reviled “simultaneous teaching” approach. But look for schools to add more devices, training and internet access.
Evena Seneque, a lead fourth-grade math teacher, answers questions from online students who were attending her lesson via Zoom during class on Nov. 20, 2020 at Innovations Preparatory Academy in Wesley Chapel.
Evena Seneque, a lead fourth-grade math teacher, answers questions from online students who were attending her lesson via Zoom during class on Nov. 20, 2020 at Innovations Preparatory Academy in Wesley Chapel. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published July 29, 2021|Updated Aug. 2, 2021

BACK TO SCHOOL 2021 | Click to scroll down for more

Five quarters of pandemic learning had students and teachers across the Tampa Bay region relying on technology more than ever.

Whether attending in person or from home, children found themselves increasingly exposed to paperless classes, distance conversations and cloud-based lessons, among other approaches. Some of the initiatives arose out of necessity, and aren’t expected to continue as campuses return to a more “normal” way of operations.

The simultaneous instruction of online and in-person students, for example, is one such concept that stretched many educators and students to the breaking point and is fading away.

But several other innovations appear likely to have some staying power. And educators are working to improve upon those as they move ahead.

One such idea saw many teachers preparing recorded lessons for students to watch at home, in anticipation of the next day’s class.

“I think you’re going to see more of that,” said Keith Mastorides, who became the Pinellas County school district’s director of instructional technology this summer after more than a decade as Clearwater High principal.

“The more time you can work with your kids one on one and have those collaborative discussions, the better,” Mastorides said, adding that the model allows for more in-depth dialogue and exploration of questions.

It’s not an entirely new concept. Some educators “flipped” their classes years ago, to keep the learning more fresh while in school. The pandemic prompted more of them to try it, as a way to provide all students equal access to the materials regardless of where they sat.

In adopting such an approach, schools found it critical to have everyone understand how to best use online systems. That meant getting devices into the hands of children who needed them, as well as robust access to internet service.

Schools provided those as much as possible last year, and many have plans to expand availability of equipment moving forward. They also expected to offer more specific training in the intricacies of the programs such as Teams and Canvas, so everyone could benefit from the tools.

Knowing how to prepare and upload assignments, complete and submit them online, are among the skills that help put the technology in its proper place.

“That is something we definitely want to keep,” said Mastorides. “My teachers were very open to the idea of allowing that blended classroom, as long as they had the support.”

For some students, the pandemic demonstrated that virtual classes can be a viable option. For many, online learning became more bearable because it accompanied a traditional schedule that included live teaching and interaction with other children.

Florida stopped funding that “e-learning” model for the next school year, though, and most districts have abandoned it. That leaves the more independent virtual approach intact.

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Some students who want to continue learning virtually aren’t completely ready to fly solo, though. Schools are looking at ways to help them, tapping into the more successful lessons they learned during the pandemic.

Although early enrollment figures for virtual schools aren’t as high as during the height of the coronavirus scare, they’re significantly larger than pre-pandemic levels. Pasco eSchool, for instance, expects about 1,200 full-time students this fall — up from the usual 200 to 300 but still lower than the 2,800 it opened with last year at this time.

Principal JoAnne Glenn said she planned to provide those students with more support services to match those offered in traditional in-person schooling, as a way to promote greater success.

That effort will include more structure available within the day, including some live lessons, as well as added specialists for exceptional student education and the English-language learning program. The school has not historically provided a full slate of services for students learning the language, Glenn said, which made virtual courses overwhelming to many.

The program gained strength in the ELL community during the pandemic, though, and the school is responding, she said.

Pasco eSchool also is setting up more staff to meet students’ immediate needs, and will provide lessons in such skills as time management and goal setting — some of the concepts that often stood in students’ way of on-time completion. It also will begin a homeroom structure as another way to give students more personalized access to educators besides phone calls that follow each self-paced unit.

“We’ll be able to respond faster,” Glenn said.

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More back-to-school coverage

A NEW START: Masks will be voluntary and activities will return, but the pandemic is still with us.

GETTING A SHOT: Most area school districts send a strong message to get vaccinated against the coronavirus.

HOW WE’RE FEELING: Tampa Bay parents and kids talk about the school year ahead.

DISCOUNT DAYS: This year’s back-to-school tax “holiday” lasts 10 days.

MEET THE PRINCIPALS: Many area schools will start the year with new leaders.

GETTING READY: From supply giveaways to festivals, a look at back-to-school events around the area.

SIGNING UP: Registering a child for school for the first time can involve many steps. What you need to know.

MARK THE DATE: Highlights of the 2021-22 school year in Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco and Hernando counties.

BY THE NUMBERS: Tampa Bay’s four public school districts at a glance.