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Will school be normal again in 2021-22? Tampa Bay families weigh in.

Students look forward to seeing friends and teachers once more. But effects from the pandemic will linger.
The Times spoke with families ahead of the 2021-2022 school year. Some of them are pictured here. Clockwise from top left, they are Audra Christian, Max Rouch, Lyndy and Kameron Orange, Sean Alleyne and Rachel Bender.
The Times spoke with families ahead of the 2021-2022 school year. Some of them are pictured here. Clockwise from top left, they are Audra Christian, Max Rouch, Lyndy and Kameron Orange, Sean Alleyne and Rachel Bender. [ Family photos ]
Published Jul. 30
Updated Aug. 2

BACK TO SCHOOL 2021 | Click to scroll down for more

Well over a year ago, the normal school day came to an abrupt halt.

Families were forced to weigh the risks of sending children to in-person school during the COVID-19 pandemic. Others braved the e-learning experience.

But most Florida students return to the hallways this fall. Tampa Bay school districts are mostly requiring children to physically attend, unless families opt to homeschool or try the virtual options that were in place before the pandemic.

Mask mandates have been eliminated, as have the “simultaneous” classes where teachers instructed online and in-person students at the same time. In many classes, students will receive help from tutors and classroom aides funded with federal stimulus money.

How are families feeling as the first day of the 2021-22 school year approaches? In interviews with the Tampa Bay Times, here is what some of them had to say:

Back in the classroom

Lyndy Orange, left, wants her son, Kameron, right, to experience in-person class at Midtown Academy this fall.
Lyndy Orange, left, wants her son, Kameron, right, to experience in-person class at Midtown Academy this fall. [ Courtesy of Lyndy Orange ]

Lyndy Orange sent her 10-year-old, Kameron, back to in-person school this January. She felt “100 percent nervous” letting him mingle with students while COVID-19 spread rapidly. And that feeling has not gone away.

Even armed with a cloth mask, he could contract the virus, she said.

But online classes hindered Kameron’s growth. A family member who had lost their job supervised his e-learning hours, “helped every step of the way,” Orange said. Nothing compared to the face-to-face classroom experience.

“Unless your kid is a super genius, you run the risk of them losing focus,” she added.

As a counselor at Lakewood High School, Orange watched students she worked with lose motivation and receive poor grades. Kameron will go to St. Petersburg’s Midtown Academy in August, she said, so that doesn’t happen to him.

This way, he can pay attention in class, attend field trips and join clubs.

“I want him to succeed,” Orange said.

‘Exciting, but also scary’

Rachel Bender, 17, thinks she will be one of few kids wearing masks at Northeast High School this year.
Rachel Bender, 17, thinks she will be one of few kids wearing masks at Northeast High School this year. [ Courtesy of Rachel Bender ]

For Rachel Bender, 16, learning accommodations have always been hard to come by.

She lives with Crohn’s Disease, juvenile arthritis, an adrenaline insufficiency and POTS, a condition that affects her blood flow. She can walk but regularly uses an ambulatory wheelchair.

Sometimes, Bender needs a physical copy of an assignment or extra time to finish tests. Asking for leniency felt even more difficult last year, when the rising junior attended school online.

Virtual classes at Northeast High School in St. Petersburg were chaotic and disorganized, she said, recalling teachers who could not operate the technology.

“Going back to class will be exciting, but also scary,” Bender said.

She is eager to eat lunch with friends and join in-person choir practice again. Her singing voice finally won’t be muffled behind a Zoom screen, Bender said. And acquiring accommodations could be easier when teachers see her in the room.

She expects to be one of few students choosing to wear a mask.

Last year, Bender heard stories of her peers flinging them around in the hallways, “like toys.”

‘They’ll be fine’

Seon Alleyne sent his sons, including Sean, center, back to school in May 2020. "They'll be fine," he said.
Seon Alleyne sent his sons, including Sean, center, back to school in May 2020. "They'll be fine," he said. [ Courtesy of Seon Alleyne ]

School is “not just about passing,” Seon Alleyne of Clearwater said. “It’s about giving children the training they need to succeed in the future.”

That’s why he pushed his kids — Seon Allen, 11, and Sean, 6 — back to the classroom in September after schools reopened.

“At home, the TV is right here,” he said. “What kind of learning happens in an environment like that?”

Seon had to run home a few times to grab masks Sean forgot on his way to Clearwater’s Plum Elementary School. At Oak Grove Middle School, Seon Allen played sports in physical education class, while standing three feet away from friends. “Annoying,” he said.

This school year will be more of the same, sans masks. Seon is not worried.

“My kids have always been clean,” he added. “Everyone has to wash their hands, be hygienic. They’ll be fine.”

The return of class parties

Isabelle Slaff hopes the slip-n-slide parties at Ballast Point Elementary School return in fourth grade.
Isabelle Slaff hopes the slip-n-slide parties at Ballast Point Elementary School return in fourth grade. [ DITI KOHLI | Times ]

All Isabelle Slaff had to do in third grade was wear a mask. Ballast Point Elementary in Tampa implemented social distancing and put up plexiglass barriers. The rest of the school year was no different, she said.

“By the end of the year, everyone’s masks were down anyway,” said Isabelle, 9.

The only thing she missed? Class parties.

Teachers usually throw an outdoor celebration when every student surpasses the monthly reading goal. Last year, Isabelle finished two series: Harry Potter and The Last Kid on Earth. But the class only competed in small, distanced races to commemorate the accomplishment.

In fourth grade, the party will have food again and “a slip-n-slide,” Isabelle hopes.

Ready or not, back to school

School is of little interest to Max Rouch, 16. He enjoys basketball and swimming instead.
School is of little interest to Max Rouch, 16. He enjoys basketball and swimming instead. [ Courtesy of Doren Rouch ]

Max Rouch prefers swimming and basketball to school at Woodlawn Community Academy in Clearwater. In the lockdown days, he enjoyed staying home and studying less.

So the return to school in October was more a relief for his mother than for Max, 16.

“He’s not the studious type, and he needs one-on-one attention constantly,” Doren Rouch said of her son, who has Down Syndrome. “I was sitting with him on days I was working” an at-home customer service job.

She felt comfortable sending him back to Woodlawn, where administrators took health precautions and accommodated just 120 students.

Yet as the school year nears, it’s the last thing on Max’s mind. He instead awaits his Special Olympics swim meet. Max expects to medal in backstroke or freestyle.

“Maybe both,” his mother said.

Rebounding from a ‘stolen’ year

Audra Christian and her daughter, Jane, chose Florida Virtual over public school for the upcoming year.
Audra Christian and her daughter, Jane, chose Florida Virtual over public school for the upcoming year. [ Courtesy of Audra Christian ]

Audra Christian wanted her daughter, Jane, to return to Seminole High School this year.

A Seminole resident, she supports officials’ decision to drop the mask mandate, a rule Christian rallied against for months. But Christian despises how some Tampa Bay schools are administering the COVID-19 vaccine on campus, even with parents’ permission.

“Jane’s freshman year was basically stolen from her last year,” Christian said. “I feel robbed as a parent, too.”

Still, Jane plans to attend Florida Virtual. Private tutors will come to her house a few times a week to keep her on track.

The high schooler first fell behind after attending the nine-week hybrid learning session offered in September 2020. Then, teachers concurrently taught students in class and those participating online, like Jane. Her academic year has extended into the summer to make up for the loss.

“Nothing about that learning model worked,” Christian said.

But e-learning comes with a silver lining for Jane.

“It’s allowed her to slow down her pace and think about things,” Christian said. “The wheels are turning more. It’s neat to see.”

Golf lessons, ice skating classes and youth group will replace the day-to-day interactions Jane usually enjoys at school.

‘We can’t be scared’

Karla Irias sends her kids Derek, Amia and German, left to right, to Henderson Hammock Charter School in Tampa.
Karla Irias sends her kids Derek, Amia and German, left to right, to Henderson Hammock Charter School in Tampa. [ Courtesy of Karla Irias ]

For Karla Irias, this is just “the new reality.”

“We can’t be scared,” she said.

Her niece contracted the coronavirus last year. Her baby did too.

But she sent German, 13, and Derek, 10, to school with ease. They have traveled internationally three times during the pandemic, and regularly attend baseball practice and piano lessons. In August, the duo expects to explore new classes and meet teachers at Tampa’s Henderson Hammock Charter School.

“Just like every other school year,” Irias said of 2021-22. “Except last year, of course.”

When the pandemic started in early 2020, Irias managed online learning in her household. The kids logged into class. Their mother worked remotely as a medical assistant at a pain management clinic, with an infant in tow. The family tackled “folders and folders” of homework at night.

Eventually, that system devolved into a “complete nightmare,” the Tampa resident said.

Irias happily shipped the kids back to the classroom last August and felt unburdened. “Living with COVID — we have no other choice,” she said, and shrugged.

Senior year, without COVID

Kaydence Purdy, 17, looks forward to an in-person homecoming dance, prom and graduation at Palm Harbor High School.
Kaydence Purdy, 17, looks forward to an in-person homecoming dance, prom and graduation at Palm Harbor High School. [ Courtesy of Kaydence Purdy ]

When Palm Harbor High School announced that junior prom was cancelled, Kaydence Purdy remembered her dress. Its teal ballgown bottom, its glimmering white top.

“The dress is perfect,” she said.

In place of prom, she planned a private celebration in July. Purdy invited her friends and their dates to her backyard — a far smaller venue than the Innisbrook Golf Course, but “good enough.” The group took pictures. Her mom made food.

It was a way to make the best of a bad situation, said Purdy, 17.

High schoolers “packed like sardines into the hallways” last school year, just minutes after being meticulously separated in the classroom. Lunch was cancelled. Stands at sports games were exclusively reserved for athletes’ family members. “No rowdiness or chants allowed,” she said.

A COVID-free senior year — with an in-person homecoming dance, prom and graduation — is just what Purdy needs.

“Finally, we get normalcy back,” she said.

• • •

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.

LESSONS LEARNED: The pandemic forced schools to take a more digital approach. Some of it will stay.

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.