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Tampa Bay schools reopen with new rules and hope for a more normal year

The focus shifts to getting students back on track after three school years marred by the pandemic.
Kindergartner Ezekiel Shorter, 5, and his mom, Rebecca Valentin, hold hands as they arrive for the first day of school at Maximo Elementary.
Kindergartner Ezekiel Shorter, 5, and his mom, Rebecca Valentin, hold hands as they arrive for the first day of school at Maximo Elementary. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Aug. 10|Updated Aug. 10

Thousands of Tampa Bay area students return to classes Wednesday for what educators hope will be the first “normal” school year since before the pandemic.

The latest strain of COVID-19 has raised some medical caution as it spreads, but under state guidelines Florida’s schools have moved past the more vigilant protocols that marked the height of the outbreak. School districts have stopped counting cases and no longer require quarantines, and mask debates have all but vanished.

If parents want to know whether the coronavirus is rising in their child’s school, the Pinellas County district advises on its website that they can check with the local health department. If they’re seeking advice on how to cope with the illness, the Pasco County district urges students and school staff to “stay home” if they have symptoms — as would be the case for every sickness.

Hillsborough County schools are asking students and staff to isolate for five days after a positive COVID test.

Instead, school officials have focused on a myriad of other pressing issues, most prominently that of meeting students’ academic needs. After three straight school years marred by forced absences, increased disciplinary problems and related impacts, educators are intent on getting students who fell behind back on track, while also providing the mental health and social services children might require to help them reacclimate.

In Pasco, that means having principals pay more attention to teaching and learning, and less to plant operations. “It’s just a change of mindset about the way we look at our work,” superintendent Kurt Browning said.

Florida also is marking a major change in its school accountability system, with spring testing being largely replaced by frequent “progress monitoring” assessments. The goal is to keep closer tabs on students’ learning throughout the year.

All that takes place alongside new laws that give parents added say over which services their children receive from the schools. Teachers also face additional rules governing the way they provide lessons about specific topics, primarily regarding sex and race.

Such state initiatives have discouraged many educators, who say they have falsely come under fire for indiscretions such as “indoctrinating” children. Resulting resignations and retirements, combined with a lack of applicants for vacant jobs, have left schools across the region and state grappling with unfilled positions at all levels.

Beyond teachers and classroom aides, the openings include cafeteria workers, bus drivers and other workers vital to keeping the system running smoothly. Even substitute teachers are in short supply, further complicating matters.

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Despite the difficulties, returning teachers and principals said they look forward to getting back to the business at hand — making a difference in young peoples’ lives, and helping them toward a brighter future.

Kevin Hendrick, Pinellas’ new school superintendent, said he wants to emphasize the value of an in-person education so students and teachers alike are motivated to be there.

“We have to change learning in a way so we engage all of our students all of the time,” he said at a recent forum.

The work resumes today.

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