Sophia Giri couldn’t wait to get back to school, real school, to play violin in the Wiregrass Ranch High School orchestra and see her friends without a computer screen between them.
But her joy, after a year and half at home, was short-lived. In a matter of days — frightened by the sight of unmasked teachers and classmates and concerned about her health and that of her mother — Sophia made the tearful decision to retreat once more to online learning.
Back came the tedium, the isolation and the feeling she can’t shake of being punished for reasons she cannot comprehend.
“I schedule for myself to wake up and I try to segment my day as I would at school,” said Sophia, 14 and an aspiring medical research scientist. “But I also do find times when I just feel unmotivated, just staring there, staring into space, just thinking, how is this happening?”
One month into a third straight school year altered by COVID-19, thousands of Tampa Bay area students and parents are experiencing a similar existence.
There is near-universal agreement that school is vital and best experienced in-person. But COVID-19 is spreading fast on campuses, far ahead of last year’s pace, with 19,160 cases reported across the four-county region as of Friday.
And Tampa Bay residents, like families across the nation, remain deeply divided over how urgently schools should respond. Should all students wear masks? Should everyone be vaccinated? Differences over these and other issues have adults screaming at their school boards, lashing out at each other and filing lawsuits.
Many parents are incredulous at what seems like a retreat from a year ago, when schools offered multiple learning platforms and touted their COVID-19 safety measures. In hindsight, some say, this would have been the better year to keep their kids home, because it feels less safe.
For those like Sophia who seek out virtual arrangements instead, the options are limited. Last year, the state allowed students to attend their regular classes online. This year, distance learners must sign up for standalone online programs not connected to their schools. That means they can lose their place in magnet and choice programs, which is another way they are punished.
Meghan Gillespie, the mother of a high school sophomore in Riverview, said she’s grateful the Hillsborough County school district imposed a masking mandate that requires a medical certificate for those who opt out.
She wishes teachers would be more diligent about enforcing the rule, she said. She wonders if they are afraid of Gov. Ron DeSantis, who issued an executive order banning such mandates. She worries when her son, Hayden, who she described as “super smart,” talks of crowded conditions at school. Last year they would keep him far away from his lab partner in science class, he told her. This year they are shoulder to shoulder.
“To an extent, I wouldn’t be sending him if I felt like there was imminent danger,” Gillespie said. “But it is something I weigh daily.”
Conditions vary from one district to another.
Hillsborough, with limited ways to opt out, has the area’s strictest policy.
The Pinellas and Pasco county school districts have encouraged masks for students and staff but resisted calls to require them.
The Hernando County School Board imposed a mask mandate, but parents can easily get their kids exempted. Opting out is harder for district employees, who must have a medical excuse.
Pinellas board member Caprice Edmond tried to start the mask mandate process on Aug. 24. Her motion — to schedule a meeting, not about the mandate itself — failed 4-3.
“They had five or six doctors speak and say how bad the hospitals are,” said St. Petersburg chemical engineer Brian Martin, the father of four children in Pinellas schools. “This is real. Masks work. Masks help. And then they had tons of not medically informed parents say crazy things that are scientifically untrue. And the board decided to side with them.”
Edmond plans to raise the issue again on Tuesday.
The main arguments against masks, articulated in speeches and emails and rallies, are familiar by now: That children need to see facial expressions; that masks can get dirty and make it hard to breathe; that parents, not schools, should decide whether kids wear them.
Leon County Circuit Judge John C. Cooper, in ruling against DeSantis’ mask mandate ban, said parental choice cannot outweigh the public health imperative to mitigate the spread of an aggressive virus.
But in Pasco and Pinellas, choice remains the default setting.
“My principal says we have to respect each other,” said 11-year-old McKenzie Martin, the oldest of the Martin children. She’s a sixth-grade student at Thurgood Marshall Fundamental Middle School who loves math, plays tennis and bakes cookies and cakes for the family. She wants to assert her independence, her parents say, but she is honoring their wishes to remain masked and limit social gatherings.
The Martins say they speak honestly with McKenzie about the science. To the younger three, who range in age from 3½ to 9, they have more age-appropriate conversations about why it is best to wear a mask to protect other children and the family.
Their mother is Dr. Meghan Martin, an emergency medicine physician at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg. She admits being more cautious than most because she sees the worst of the worst: children struggling to breathe, so many beds filled that some are sent elsewhere in the state and, lately, more “long COVID” cases that can impair a child’s quality of life and ability to learn.
In her spare time, Meghan Martin posts TikTok videos to dispel internet myths about vaccines and masking. As much as she can, she tries to give her children a normal lifestyle — outings to a neighborhood playground, a bowling night after they’ve reserved the lanes on either side of their own.
The couple has found their practices to be compatible with a family across the backyard. They took down a fence panel so the children can play together.
Seeing loose practices at the schools “makes me want to scream,” Meghan Martin said. “Because there is a preventable-ness to this disease.”
Her frustration worsened earlier this month. Shore Acres Elementary had informed the family of an “unconfirmed” case of COVID-19 on Sept. 2. The family took their son for a test, on their own initiative. There was no more word from the school, as the protocol is to wait for a confirmation from the health department before beginning a quarantine and entering the case on the public dashboard.
On the evening of Sept. 4 the Martins learned their son had COVID-19, one of 4,264 cases reported so far this year in Pinellas schools, with 54 at Shore Acres.
“We both totally feel that this is on the School Board,” said Brian Martin, who later learned that he, too, has the virus. “We did everything in our power, beyond home schooling the kids.”
Amy Morrow, a parent at North Shore Elementary, had a similar experience.
Her 8-year-old daughter, with a history of respiratory issues, came home sneezy and congested after a child who sat near her in class went out sick. Morrow administered two home tests. Both came out positive.
She said she contacted the school, thinking they would institute a quarantine or notify the other families. They told her they needed health department confirmation first, she said.
Morrow’s daughter ran a fever of 104.7 degrees, she said. Burning up and watery-eyed, the child asked Morrow if she was going to die. “I said, ‘You’re not going to,’ as I am fighting back tears and I am thinking I have no idea,” she recalled.
For Morrow, an active school volunteer, the terrifying illness followed other disappointments.
The school district pledges on its website that it will “operationalize wellness protocols” by “strongly recommending” masks indoors for staff and students. But the principal, she said, did not wear a mask to a uniform swap event.
“I was furious,” Morrow said. The principal wasn’t wearing a mask on the first day of school either, she said. And a group of parents got a chilly reception when they offered to help with mitigation strategies, such as new air filters and volunteers to supervise outdoor lunch.
Morrow and her husband were eager to send their daughter to in-person school after keeping her home much of the previous year. ”She’s very social,” she said. Another year at home “would take a toll on her. That’s why we were, oh my gosh, we have to make this decision. It was sickening.”
Pinellas school district spokesperson Isabel Mascareñas noted that staff are encouraged, but not required to wear masks. She said the district has always confirmed cases before moving ahead with quarantines and school-wide notification, a process that should only take a day or so. As the case is being confirmed, she said, the school begins the preliminary work for contact tracing.
The notice from the Shore Acres principal about the unconfirmed case went outside the usual protocol, she said. And principals are not supposed to notify parents about COVID-19 in a particular classroom, she said, because doing so could be a violation of student privacy.
In a contrast that is striking to many parents, schools offered significantly more protection from coronavirus last year. They were far less crowded, with so many children learning at home. And everyone wore masks.
Attempts were made to minimize large gatherings, such as assemblies and sporting events. Outside visitors were discouraged.
But parents complained about the restrictions. They wanted to have lunch with their children. They wanted to see them perform in the school play, compete in the science fair. They complained about the barrage of emails and texts they were receiving about cases at their schools, which has led districts to rely increasingly on web dashboards if a child is not directly affected.
They complained about the quarantines themselves, which forced healthy children to stay home for weeks at a time.
So quarantines this year are more “surgical,” a term used by DeSantis.
The Pasco district sent an email to all families on Aug. 20, declaring in bold type: Our priorities are to ensure that students who are ill are not in school, and that students who are healthy are in school.”
Parents will be informed if there is a COVID-19 case in their child’s class, the letter said. But “the students will not be required to quarantine if they are healthy with no COVID-like symptoms.”
Pat Blom, a retired teacher with two grandchildren in the Pasco schools, said, “That’s crazy. What if they’re asymptomatic?”
Exceptions are made sometimes, according to district spokesman Stephen Hegarty — for example, if the teacher and much of the class are ill.
Last year’s quarantine levels detracted too much from instruction, Hegarty said. “We are trying to strike a balance between keeping kids healthy and keeping healthy kids in school.”
Blom, with grandchildren in two other Florida districts as well, said she is terrified, and not just for her grandchildren.
“I‘m also very worried about the mental health of my children,” she said. “They are so worried about their children. They are panicked. And when you get that call that your child is quarantined, that’s a scary thing. And to even send your child to school is a scary thing.”
Sophia Giri had routines last year that helped her cope with the long hours at home, away from school.
Sometimes she would dance around the house with her mother to shake off the blues.
She had friends who also were in school-based virtual classes, the option no longer funded by the state, and they had a homework club online.
“I don’t know if you did this at my age but I kind of planned my life out,” Sophia said. “Not necessarily exactly, but just kind of thinking I’m going to high school. I want to have a nice group of friends. I want to take these classes. And then I want to try and get into these colleges. Never did I think I’d add a pandemic in there.”
Some of her middle school friendships have fallen by the wayside, she said. One close friend has maintained contact. They talk on the phone, they video chat, they shop online. “Retail therapy,” Sophia called it.
She is learning, through a video course, to play the acoustic guitar. So far she has learned how to hold the instrument and tune it. Now she is working on right-hand fingering.
It could all be a story she tells her grandchildren one day, how she learned guitar in a pandemic.