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First day of school in Tampa Bay: high hopes and concern as 2021-22 begins

Amid the delta variant’s spread, debates over masks and a push to get more people vaccinated, classes start in Hillsborough, Pasco and Hernando counties.
Sunlake High School seniors congregate on the school’s football field for Senior Sunrise and Last First Day activities during the first day of school for Pasco County Students on Tuesday, Aug. 10, 2021, in Land O’ Lakes.
Published Aug. 10, 2021|Updated Aug. 10, 2021

WEIGH IN HERE: Are you a parent or teacher? Tell us how you’re feeling about the first day of school.

Q&A: Answers to your questions about kids, school and the delta variant

A NEW START: Back to school 2021 — In Tampa Bay, classes to start with fewer restrictions

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

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Today begins the third school year affected by the coronavirus pandemic.

In Tampa Bay and across Florida, tens of thousands of students and school workers return to campus after a summer of debate over how to safely navigate the year.

How bad is the delta variant? Masks or no masks? Why aren’t more people vaccinated? These and other issues have people worried. Yet schools are reopening with fewer restrictions, and many hope for a return to normalcy.

Tampa Bay Times journalists are talking to students, parents and educators today as the school year starts in Hillsborough, Pasco and Hernando counties. (Pinellas County schools reopen on Wednesday.) Here is how it went this morning as schools opened their doors:

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11:45 a.m.: A wide range of thoughts on the first day

More first-day reaction from parents and teachers who responded this morning to a Times questionnaire:

“Actively exploring options to leave Florida for a state where masks are required and enforced. We can take the calculated risk of sending our child to school if there is a mask requirement, but we cannot trust a system that would so willfully endanger the lives of children and their families.”Jason Borucki, Lithia

“This comes down to a fundamental idea of do what’s best for you and yours. If one is willing to put themselves and others at risk, they need to know that they cannot hold others liable for their choices. Masks can help but they do not prevent children from getting quarantined.”Seth Hopkins Federman, Tampa

“(School) co-workers already sick and testing positive!”Susan Garrow, Dade City

“There is NOTHING better than the positive energy of the first day of school! This is my 18th year teaching in Pasco County, and this feeling is always fantastic!”Alex Luck Olkhovsky, Tarpon Springs

• • •

10:30 a.m.: It’s already lunch time

Masks are off for the meal, but these Rushe Middle School students put them back on for the rest of the day.

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10:15 a.m.: If things don’t go well ‘I’ll homeschool her.’

Stephanie Weaver, mom and nurse, worries about how COVID-19 will play out at Coleman Middle School in Tampa.

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9:40 a.m.: Thousands opt out of Hillsborough mask requirement

Hillsborough district spokesperson Tanya Arja says there were at least 18,000 opt-out forms on file for student masking as of 9:30 a.m. Tuesday. She’ll give us a more precise number later in the day. The district has almost 200,000 students.

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9:30 a.m.: At Dowdell Middle, a conversation about vaccination

Sesina Cummings says her son is too young to receive the coronavirus vaccine. She’s encouraging him to wear a mask and wash his hands.

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9 a.m.: Smooth sailing inside Rushe Middle School

We take a moment to note how different this is, to be actually inside a school. Last year, the media was generally not allowed in Tampa Bay area schools. This morning, at least in Pasco County, it’s a new day. @JeffSolochek visits Land O’Lakes.

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8:40 a.m.: First-day bus delays in Pasco

Transportation glitches are common on the first day. But a shortage of drivers in Pasco could be exacerbating the problem.

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8:25 a.m.: COVID on a short leash at Sulpher Springs K-8

“First case of COVID in the school, my kids are home,” parent Elleanora Faison says.

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8:17 a.m.: ‘Very scared, I’m not going to lie.’

Melissa Rodriguez, a parent at Palm River Elementary in Tampa, says she knows three people who have died of COVID-19 recently. “It’s scary because people don’t realize how serious this virus is.”

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8:01 a.m.: ‘Glad to be back’

Starting the year at Pasco County’s Sunlake High.

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7:57 a.m.: At Egypt Lake Elementary, home of the Eagles

Many masks spotted.

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7:37 a.m.: Masks on at the bus stop

Ready for school at Greco Middle.

• • •

7:15 a.m.: Stand ups with the superintendent, a first-day ritual

Hillsborough County’s Addison Davis at Sessums Elementary in Riverview.

• • •

7:05 a.m.: At Tampa’s Mabry Elementary, home of the Dolphins

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6:35 a.m.: Where to call for Pasco bus issues

The Pasco County school system recently urged families to “pack their patience” this year because a shortage of bus drivers might cause delays. Here’s where to call if you need help.

• • •

6:15 a.m.: Thoughts of COVID are hard to shake

We’ll start the day with a sampling from our back-to-school questionnaire for parents and teachers, which revealed significant angst as the year begins.

“My daughter was (looking forward to school) until the COVID numbers went through the roof. ... Yes, we wear masks indoors always and we are fully vaccinated. With freedom comes responsibility. We have a responsibility to protect public health. Wear a mask and get vaccinated or go live in a cave.” Taylor Ward, Tampa

“I am looking forward to my daughter returning to school without as harsh restrictions as were implemented last year, (but) I fear a return to overreaching restrictions given the current COVID narrative.” Ryan Socratic, Lithia

Fears “other children who aren’t masked or careful giving my daughter COVID and her bringing it home to my husband, who has a preexisting condition. ... People are being too political with all this and it’s about safety, caring about others and just being careful. I’ve lost a loved one to COVID,and maybe if the governor did he would feel differently.” Jennifer Christopher, Riverview

“Thankfully, children as a whole have been spared the worst symptoms of COVID, i.e. hospitalization and death. ... We will ensure the kids wash their hands and practice good hygiene and focus on living healthy the best we can, but we need to live our lives. My concerns are what they are every year. Are my children receiving a solid education?” Kevin Maloney, Lutz

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