What’s the plan if COVID keeps kids out of class? Parents are asking.

As the delta variant grows, Tampa Bay schools are tweaking quarantine plans and working on options for families who feel unsafe.
Tampa Bay area school districts say they are working on plans to teach students who are kept out of school because of quarantines or because they feel unsafe as the delta variant gains ground. Last year's procedures are no longer in place, and classes start early next week.
Tampa Bay area school districts say they are working on plans to teach students who are kept out of school because of quarantines or because they feel unsafe as the delta variant gains ground. Last year's procedures are no longer in place, and classes start early next week. [ Tribune News Service ]
Published Aug. 3, 2021|Updated Aug. 4, 2021

Nicole Boyle was ready to send her 8-year-old son Jakob back to Sunset Hills Elementary School in Tarpon Springs this month.

After a year away because of the pandemic, Boyle said, Jakob could benefit socially and emotionally by returning.

“But I also feel it’s unsafe for him to go back,” she said, pointing to the growing number of coronavirus cases and hospitalizations being reported in Pinellas County and across Florida. “The more I started hearing people talk about virtual, until a vaccination is available (for children under 12), I’m looking more into that.”

Related: Florida leads the nation in kids hospitalized for COVID

With the start of classes a week away, many parents are assessing how to cope with a new school year they had hoped would be closer to normal than things now appear.

Gov. Ron DeSantis has declared that school districts may not require students to wear masks. Also, the Department of Education has made clear it will not authorize funding for another year of live-remote instruction, where students who stay home can virtually attend classes based at their school.

The combination of factors has raised questions about whether to send children — particularly those who aren’t old enough to be vaccinated — back to campus. If they do return, concerns also have arisen about how to keep them learning if they’re quarantined after any exposure to the virus, a likelihood that appears to increase with the more contagious delta variant.

Related: DeSantis issues executive order to halt school mask mandates

Following health department instructions, area districts plan to send children who are not vaccinated home for up to 10 days if they have extended contact with a confirmed case of the virus. Those who are fully vaccinated will not be quarantined unless they show symptoms of the illness.

“I can’t imagine a kiddo being sent home for 10 days and being asked to learn on a computer without a teacher,” said Pasco County School Board member Megan Harding, a classroom teacher before her 2018 election.

Parent Facebook groups throughout the Tampa Bay region have buzzed in recent days with chatter about these issues. The responses from school districts remain a work in progress.

The Hillsborough County district administration, for instance, expects to take a proposal to the School Board’s next meeting regarding quarantine education.

Hillsborough does not plan to have classroom teachers lead in-person and online students at the same time, as it did last year, a practice known as “simultaneous” instruction. Students who are sent home will have to do work on their own, as if they were absent in more usual times.

But the district does expect to provide extra teacher support and some additional help in the form of full course materials online, rather than waiting for someone to send those items home.

“We are planning to offer live-remote tutoring for students who may need extra help while in quarantine,” spokesperson Erin Maloney said.

The Pasco district expects to take a similar approach.

Chief academic officer Vanessa Hilton said the district has a plan that aims to ensure that students do not fall behind if out on quarantine. Lessons will be available on Canvas, the district’s learning management system, as will access to instant tutoring.

Though teachers won’t be offering simultaneous instruction, they should be providing regular live communication with quarantined students, possibly after class ends, officials said. They would check email and voicemail regularly for questions from their students.

The Pinellas County plan includes many of the same options.

The district is taking its offerings one step further for families who decide not to risk the quarantine issue and want to keep their children home until vaccines are available.

It’s offering PVS Live!, a program that will give elementary students 2½ hours of daily live instruction in English, math and science, 60 minutes of weekly live social studies, and materials for self-directed learning in computers and physical education. It does not have live option for middle and high school students, most of whom are old enough to be vaccinated.

If they want to stay home, their choice is independent virtual courses.

The PVS Live! program is full-time and not available temporarily during quarantines. It will be operated through Pinellas Virtual School, a program that existed before the pandemic geared to students who prefer to learn independently.

Hillsborough does not have a similar option. Pasco provides some live instruction through its eSchool model, but is not setting up a separate elementary program with this type of structure.

In Pinellas, the students participating in PVS Live! will not be assigned to their usual home schools, but will not lose their seats in those schools while enrolled in Pinellas Virtual, said district spokesperson Isabel Mascareñas.

That was a concern for parents like Jonique D’Amico, whose children attend Bay Vista Fundamental, where applications typically outnumber available seats.

Related: Playing Pinellas’ school choice lottery

“I really didn’t want them to lose their spot,” said D’Amico, who filled out the virtual paperwork Monday. “I love their school.”

Truth be told, she preferred to return her two youngsters, ages 7 and 9, back to campus. But without a mask mandate in place, D’Amico said, she didn’t feel safe doing so.

“No doubt about it, they are going to learn better in the classroom,” she said. “But it is kind of their education versus their life in my eyes.”

Like Boyle, she lamented that the debate over health issues had grown so political. They found this option an acceptable one while waiting for a vaccination to better protect their children.

“Live (instruction) is much better, especially for the younger kids. The interaction is huge,” Boyle said. “We definitely want him back in school. Once he is vaccinated, we will feel much more secure.”

• • •

Sign up for the Gradebook newsletter!

Every Thursday, get the latest updates on what’s happening in Tampa Bay area schools from Times education reporter Jeffrey S. Solochek. Click here to sign up.