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If coronavirus closes Florida schools, how will kids learn?

Districts are preparing to provide online lessons to keep classes on track.

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The spread of the coronavirus has Florida school leaders increasingly skittish.

Fearful their campuses could become incubators for the illness, superintendents, principals and others are taking precautions that range from adding soap dispensers to canceling field trips.

They’re also preparing for something more drastic — possible campus shutdowns.

It’s already happened in Sarasota, where one school closed March 1 for a sanitizing cleanse after a student had been exposed. In Washington state, a Seattle-area district announced March 4 it would shutter all its schools for up to two weeks as the virus touched a growing number of students and staff.

Research has shown that while short breaks have limited impact on student performance, extended school closures can have a negative effect. So districts are laying the groundwork to keep teaching even if kids aren’t physically in the classrooms.

E-learning days — something the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests preparing for — are getting a close look.

“We have some teachers who do this every day. We have the model,” said Kevin Hendrick, associate superintendent for Pinellas County Schools. “It’s just a matter of taking it out to the masses.”

David Hua. [Ball State University]

But they must be cautious, suggested Ball State University associate professor of computer technology David Hua, who has studied the model in Indiana. Because while e-learning can be effective if used properly, Hua said via email, it requires different skills that many teachers have not mastered.

“It’s not as simple as giving students worksheets to take home and calling it education,” he said.

One day of such instruction wouldn’t hurt much in the grand scheme of things, Hua continued. Without adequate preparation, though, “I don’t believe school districts should adopt an e-learning policy as a quick fix to deal with the current threat of coronavirus.”

As Hendrick noted, virtual education is nothing new in Florida. The state has required districts to provide that option to students as young as 5 for several years.

As a result, most already have in place some type of curriculum, communication system and infrastructure to deliver the material.

Pinellas, for one, has all students using Office 365 with access to Microsoft Teams for online conversations. It provides a single sign-on for all district digital materials and authorized websites, and partnerships with Spectrum, Sprint and other companies to get devices and wireless internet into the hands of all who need it.

Many kids and their teachers use these items daily in their learning.

But such systems have been used for personal choice more than necessity. When Pasco County’s Wiregrass Ranch High proposed having students take classes from home in 2014 to ease a crowding crisis, the idea was so unpopular that it never happened.

So, few districts are well versed in how to reach and teach entire schools in that manner.

The closest they’ve come is after hurricanes.

Miami-Dade County schools did it for two weeks following Hurricane Irma, and “we have honed it ever since,” superintendent Alberto Carvalho said. In the past two months, he said, the focus has been on preparing for a coronavirus pandemic.

The approach includes three key elements, Carvalho said: content, devices and internet access.

The district has collected all three over several years, he said, in sufficient quantity to ensure that students can easily access their lessons and submit their work from home. The district’s online system includes personalized, adaptive materials based on each student’s individual log-in.

Alberto Carvalho, superintendent of Miami-Dade County public schools, says the district has been honing its e-learning plans for years. [Associated Press (2009)]

It does not require teachers and is student-driven, Carvalho said. But the district is negotiating with the teachers union to have consulting educators available to answer questions and technology experts on call to help students who struggle with the machinery.

“If we have to shut down classes, schools or entire areas, we can provide continuity of learning,” he said, adding that the district’s full plan — including all the necessary forms — would be given to other districts on request.

Hillsborough County schools acting superintendent Addison Davis welcomed that offer.

His district, though also large and urban, is not as far along in the planning, he said, and “We really want to get this right.”

The leadership team expects to use the district’s online communication system to push out assignments and receive responses, Davis said, and staff is exploring the possibilities of uploading video lessons to share widely with students. They also are working to identify whether teachers would be available to provide live lessons, including the use of YouTube and the district’s television station.

Students already can access their textbooks online, and send messages to teachers through the Edsby system. Hillsborough Virtual School also might play a role in the response.

The district further is discussing partnerships with Spectrum to get Wi-Fi hot spots into areas with the most spotty internet service, as well as how to distribute devices to students who don’t have one. Davis noted that the biggest concern locally and nationally with e-learning is the equity of access to everything required to make it work.

Troubles assuring that level of service led the state of Massachusetts to end its digital learning day policies after the current academic year closes.

“If this comes to a point where we are experiencing this type of situation, we will cover every avenue for (accessibility) for our children,” Davis said.

If all else fails, students would simply make up work upon their return, he added.

All this talk has caught the attention of companies that sell online education.

Some of them, such as Tynker and K12, have reached out to districts to offer their services — free for now, with the hook of future premium service. Experts have cautioned against jumping into expensive deals for something that might never happen.

The Pasco school district, which has its own popular online school, says it has no such intention. It’s been preparing a system to ensure devices get to students as needed, and to communicate lessons and expectations to everyone throughout the district.

Students already are entered into the district database and would be able to access materials through systems such as Canvas and MyStudent.

Teachers wouldn’t be expected to be online offering live lessons — at least not at first — but they would be holding “class hours” when students could contact them with questions. While some teachers already have lots of videos and vibrant class websites, more work would be needed to get everyone up to speed in the event of a lengthy closure.

Still, if necessary, the district could be ready with 48 hours notice to fully cover the core subject areas at all grade levels, said JoAnne Glenn, Pasco eSchool principal.

As districts look longer term to using such an approach for other emergencies, they’re also discussing how the state might help.

About a dozen other states have rules to ensure the digital learning days reach enough students to count toward require annual instructional hours. Glenn said Pasco is among a group of counties talking with the Florida Department of Education about doing the same.

Education commissioner Richard Corcoran noted the state already has laws dealing with testing requirements for schools that miss multiple days because of emergencies. He added that the state is working with Miami-Dade superintendent Carvalho and others to inventory their devices, curriculum and delivery services.

“If and when that time comes I think we are well poised to educate ... kids without losing hours,” Corcoran said.

Districts are striving to make sure. Although lengthy spells of online learning aren’t always effective — so much depends on the quality of the lesson and the determination of the student — they’re considered better than nothing at all.

That in mind, Pinellas schools have short- and long-term plans, associate superintendent Hendrick said. The first few days would be more like virtual school, mostly student driven, while a longer spell would include more interactivity.

That would give everyone time to get instructions and materials, he said, and figure out exactly what’s going on.

Everyone should be ready, Hendrick said. “But, obviously, we hope we don’t have to go anywhere close to it.”

Staff writer Emily Mahoney contributed to this story. Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at jsolochek@tampabay.com.

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Tampa Bay Times coronavirus guide

Q&A: What you need to know after Florida’s first positive coronavirus cases.

PROTECT YOURSELF: Household cleaners can kill the virus on most surfaces, including your phone screen.

BE PREPARED: Guidelines for essentials to keep in your home should you have to stay inside.

FACE MASKS: They offer some protection, but studies debate their effectiveness.

WORKPLACE RISK: A list of five things employers could be doing to help curb the spread of the disease.

READER BEWARE: Look out for bad information as false claims are spreading online.

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