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As quarantines mount, students, teachers struggle to keep up

Absences are shrinking school staffs, and many students stuck at home aren’t getting needed help. “We’re falling behind.”
Boca Ciega High School senior Matthew McCrary, 17, works on algebra homework for his liberal arts math class while his cat, KiKi, explores the dining room table on Monday. McCrary is concerned that his lesson plans have been interrupted because so many teachers are being quarantined.
Boca Ciega High School senior Matthew McCrary, 17, works on algebra homework for his liberal arts math class while his cat, KiKi, explores the dining room table on Monday. McCrary is concerned that his lesson plans have been interrupted because so many teachers are being quarantined. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Sep. 14

Boca Ciega High senior Matthew McCrary has a message for Pinellas County school district leaders: All the quarantines taking place are wreaking havoc on learning.

“It is very difficult,” McCrary said, offering the example of him sitting in the school auditorium four of seven periods one recent day because so many teachers were out. “We don’t get assignments and we’re falling behind.”

This was supposed to be the year when students who lost class time over the past two semesters would be helped to get back on track and move ahead academically. For many, it’s not happening.

Several factors are at play.

Related: Tampa Bay schools have more COVID, fewer protections. Many families ask why.

Positive cases of the coronavirus reached last year’s level after one month, forcing large numbers of children and teachers to stay out of school until they’re cleared to return.

Also, the state stopped paying for live remote classes, which were available a year ago, meaning students can’t tune in to lessons from home. And schools have struggled to get substitutes for quarantined teachers.

That stretches those who remain on campus to the point where they can’t always provide the instruction needed to children in their classrooms, much less those who are absent.

“We’re trying. But this is even harder than in a normal year,” said Sarah Khattabi, a teacher at John Hopkins Middle School in St. Petersburg.

Khattabi and her fellow John Hopkins teacher Tatyana Arnold said they’ve had as many as eight students missing per period on any given day. At the same time, the school has not been able to find subs for the four to five educators who have been out daily.

Parents have called requesting assignments for their children, saying they don’t want them to fall behind. But keeping up with those requests has been tough, Arnold said, because teachers’ time is spent dealing with their usual students in class, others sent to their rooms because their teachers are out, and still others they tend to when covering for absent colleagues.

Updating materials on Canvas, the district’s preferred method for keeping students up to date while on quarantine, comes “as much as possible,” Khattabi said. Often, quarantined children end up getting excused from assignments, with the expectation they’ll make it up when they return.

“It is what it is,” Arnold said. “We don’t have the support that is needed for these times.”

Stresses on the system

Parents whose children have been isolated said even in the best of circumstances, they’ve seen the stresses on the system.

Andria Peek said the teachers at her sons’ school, Double Branch Elementary in Wesley Chapel, provided “really great” communication home when her boys were quarantined after testing positive for COVID-19. One even drove assignments to their home, Peek said, and provided leniency in the time to submit the work.

Working from home while caring for two children and a husband who was also ill with COVID-19 did not leave Peek much opportunity to help with schooling. Being in and out of school doesn’t allow for continuity of learning, she said, suggesting the current situation isn’t much better than it was when the pandemic first surfaced in March 2020.

Related: Coronavirus in Tampa Bay schools: a weekly update

“The teachers really did attempt to help them not get behind,” she said. “I don’t know how it’s possible to manage all the kids in the school, plus those who are out, and take care of their own families.”

Wendy Jaeger, another Pasco County parent, said her 5-year-old son got sick with COVID-like symptoms and had to stay home from Woodland Elementary in Zephyrhills for about two weeks. She requested work for him to do, so he could stay on track.

Once he got better, though, his teacher became ill, Jaeger said, and the substitute would not accept the materials.

Jaeger said in a direct message that her son is “learning nothing” with the substitute and she’s ready to home school him for the year. “The only thing that stops me is his need to be around other children.”

Doing what you can

Madeline Hoffman, a senior at Sunlake High in Land O’Lakes, said she had trouble staying on top of classes while quarantined last year, even with online access available. This year, she said, some teachers have offered to meet remotely if necessary, and they try to keep everyone updated through Canvas.

Still, Hoffman said, things happen in the classroom that an absent student cannot access. Sometimes materials are distributed that don’t make it online, she noted.

“The teachers are doing what they can. We should limit the amount of kids who have to deal with this,” said Hoffman, who recently encouraged the Pasco County School Board to impose a mask mandate for students.

Maresi Brown said the guidelines were unclear for what her son, Henry, should do while quarantined from Boca Ciega High. As a senior in several advanced classes, Brown said, there’s not much wiggle room to make up work as graduation approaches.

“He has been contacting his friends in his classes and he emailed all his teachers,” she said. “His friends have been his biggest resource.”

One time, they called him from class, to make sure their teacher explained a complicated assignment for him.

“He’s trying to do his best to keep up,” Brown said. “There’s been no official outreach from the school. This has all been what he’s been able to do himself.”

Like others, she would not put any blame on teachers.

“It’s hard for me to ask more from the teachers,” Brown said. “I know how hard they’re working, and how poorly they’ve been resourced.”

Tough for teachers

It’s equally hard for teachers on quarantine, said Abrianna Carver, a fifth-grade teacher at North Shore Elementary in St. Petersburg. She missed the first two weeks of classes because of the coronavirus, and is still trying to regain her full health.

Carver said she found it frustrating that her students did not always get adequate classroom coverage while she was out, and worrisome that parents weren’t told why she wasn’t there.

When substitutes did come, she added, they did not necessarily follow lesson plans: “During my time away, they seem to have missed a lot.”

Carver said she is trying to get everyone, including herself, back into the swing of things. She planned to set up a personal Teams channel for her class in case the children are quarantined.

Making connections

Hillsborough County district officials have heard similar concerns over the past several weeks. Chief academic officer Terry Connor said the district encourages all teachers to have regular contact with students out on quarantine.

Terry Connor, Hillsborough County Public Schools [Times (2020)]
Terry Connor, Hillsborough County Public Schools [Times (2020)]

Yet he acknowledged the problems with finding substitutes and other difficulties described can make it tough to do. So the district is launching new online initiatives aimed directly at students who are at home, if they’re not sick and wish to stay current with their lessons.

“They have something to work on.... They don’t have a teacher to communicate with during the day,” Connor said of students on quarantine.

For prekindergarten through fifth grade, Hillsborough is establishing a group of virtual instructors who students can either call or contact online to ask questions about their class materials. They’re starting with 10 teachers, and will adjust as needed.

The teachers won’t be delivering lessons, but will be available for support.

Because middle and high schools offer many more courses, the district contracted with a company called Paper, which provides access to online tutors 24 hours a day. Once students log in and indicate which course they need help in, Connor said, they should be connected to a tutor within 30 seconds.

The district remains committed to accelerating students this year, so they pick up what they missed last year and stay abreast of their current classes. Remediation alone can’t help, Connor said, because “if you do that, you just fall further and further behind.”

Related: Florida schools stick with mask rules as court cases advance

He was hopeful the new efforts could bridge the gap.

Matthew McCrary agreed that having teachers available for students is critical. After staying home for a year, until he could become vaccinated, he saw how much better an education he can get in person.

For him, one other action would help. He said many teachers and students aren’t wearing masks at school, and perhaps they should.

“The teachers are smart enough to know they should be wearing a mask to stop the spread of the disease,” McCrary said.

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