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COVID clouds another first day of school in Tampa Bay

Educators hope to get through the year without disruption. “We’re smiling with our eyes ... and we are grateful to be here,” one principal says.
Davine Scott, 6, looks at the entrance to Palm River Elementary in Tampa while her mother, Melissa Rodriguez, says goodbye before she starts first grade on Tuesday.
Davine Scott, 6, looks at the entrance to Palm River Elementary in Tampa while her mother, Melissa Rodriguez, says goodbye before she starts first grade on Tuesday. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Aug. 10
Updated Aug. 11

The freckle-faced 5½-year-old could barely contain her excitement.

“No nap, no nap,” chanted Isla Gilbert as she braved the long morning walk to Temple Terrace Elementary School.

Clutching her mother’s hand, she talked about losing two teeth, recited most of the alphabet, counted to 12 and shared that “I know how to help my mom make pancakes.”

Krysta Gilbert rejoiced that, after so many play dates and activities scrubbed for COVID-19, Isla will be around children her age.

Throughout the Tampa Bay area, parents, children and teachers approached the return to school with mixed-feelings — the usual new-pencil-box joy, mixed with the trepidation that comes after two consecutive years of opening in a pandemic.

The Florida Department of Health reported 10,785 new COVID-19 infections among children under 12 between July 23 and 29. That’s an average of 1,540 new cases per day, and concern is mounting about long-term affects that could impair children’s health and even their ability to learn.

Gilbert said she was glad to see the Hillsborough County School District go as far as it could, legally, to mandate student masks. Subject to state rules, masks are required unless a parent or guardian opts out.

Others wonder if the arrangement will go far enough in preventing transmission of the virus.

“It will slow it down, but it’s not going to stop it completely,” said Greco Middle School eighth-grader Alexis Marginson as she waited for the bus with her father.

While school officials credit masking and other protocols for preventing widespread contagion in the last school year, they face numerous new hurdles this year in addition to Gov. Ron DeSantis’ July 30 order aimed at stopping mask mandates, which resulted in a hodgepodge of masking policies.

Buildings will be more crowded because schools are offering fewer online options. And the delta variant is much more contagious than last year’s coronavirus.

“It’s definitely a rollercoaster,” said Stephanie Weaver, whose daughter, Jada Davies, is in sixth grade at South Tampa’s Coleman Middle School after more than a year of remote learning. “Me being a nurse, I know what’s going on with COVID. I’m a little apprehensive sending her to school right now.”

Weaver wants her daughter to be around other students, but worries that she won’t keep her mask on all day. ”We’ll see how this week goes,” she said, preparing for the possibility that Jada will be home-schooled.

At day’s end, the district had collected 26,822 opt-out forms from a population of nearly 200,000 students. Hillsborough Virtual K-12 was still processing applications and expected to reach more than 3,000.

Some parents were adamant that their children would wear masks, regardless of the policy. “First case of COVID in the school, my kids are home,” said Elleanora Faison of Sulphur Springs. “Back on the laptop.”

Students had mixed feelings about COVID-19 and masks, even in schools with alarming statistics.

At Sunlake High in Land O’Lakes, which logged 137 cases last year, senior Gabriel Armas had a mask Tuesday but was not wearing it as he answered phones in the front office. Masks are optional in the Pasco County schools.

Sunlake High students listen as chemistry teacher Dave Maggi gives instructions on Tuesday, the first day of school in Pasco County. In the 2020-21 school year, the district reported more than 130 cases of COVID-19 at Sunlake, one of the highest numbers in the district.
Sunlake High students listen as chemistry teacher Dave Maggi gives instructions on Tuesday, the first day of school in Pasco County. In the 2020-21 school year, the district reported more than 130 cases of COVID-19 at Sunlake, one of the highest numbers in the district. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

“Up until two weeks ago, I had intended to come back without a mask,” Armas said. “Now I’ll wear a mask in class.”

Dani Stone, a Sunlake senior who did not have a mask, said, “we’ll see how the first week plays out.”

Sixth-graders, most of whom are not old enough to be vaccinated, also wanted to be careful.

“I’ve been wearing a mask so long, I got used to it,” said Rushe Middle School sixth-grader Brianna Smith, 11. “No. 1, I like it, and No. 2, my parents want me to be safe.”

Teachers welcomed the return of most students to in-person learning, although some took precautions.

Catherine Roth, an eighth-grade language arts teacher at Rushe, wore a double mask in class. She insisted her students wash their hands. She provided seats in single rows for those who wanted distance and in pairs for those ready to work collaboratively.

Fellow teacher Cindy Nobles vowed to avoid the topic of masks in class. ”I want the focus to be on academics,” she said. “I don’t want it to be a mask debate.”

Rushe principal David Salerno, meanwhile, said he wonders what will happen if widespread quarantines are required. He asked, “How can we continue the momentum of their learning when they’re not in school?”

Students arrive at Tampa's Leto High for the first day of school in Hillsborough County.
Students arrive at Tampa's Leto High for the first day of school in Hillsborough County. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

In Hillsborough, where school leaders face multiple challenges beyond the pandemic, Tuesday also marked the debut of the area’s first two state-sanctioned “schools of hope.” These are charter schools, funded with tax dollars but run by nonprofit organizations, that exist as alternatives to district schools with years of disappointing test results.

IDEA Victory in north Tampa greeted its sixth-graders with a drumline, the brainchild of principal Kendrah Underwood.

“I wanted them to feel like they were having a homecoming,” Underwood said. “Everyone’s smiling, they’re pulling out their phones. They’re basically saying that if you didn’t get a welcome like this, you’re not at the right school.”

An unidentified student on his first day of class at IDEA Victory, one of two state-sanctioned charter "schools of hope" that opened in Tampa on Tuesday. [Courtesy of IDEA Public Schools]
An unidentified student on his first day of class at IDEA Victory, one of two state-sanctioned charter "schools of hope" that opened in Tampa on Tuesday. [Courtesy of IDEA Public Schools]

Children in the younger grades were met at the door and given breakfast to eat in their classrooms. They had “culture camp” on Friday and Monday so they would be acclimated when school got under way. Principal LaToya McGhee said only two children cried. “And our team quickly swooped in to make them feel comfortable.”

The North Tampa campus and its sister IDEA Hope campus, east of Ybor City, are expected to have a combined first-year enrollment of 1,000. Underwood and McGhee said the vast majority of the teachers and students wore masks on Tuesday.

“Guess what?” Underwood said. “We’re smiling with our eyes, we’re moving with our bodies and we are grateful to be here.”

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