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Hillsborough schools slow their start to virtual learning, citing need for more preparation

Online learning begins, officially, on March 30.

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TAMPA — Joining other school districts around the Tampa Bay area, the Hillsborough district will officially begin online instruction on March 30.

The district had hoped to flip the switch this Monday, when students originally were to return from Spring Break — until the coronavirus crisis shuttered schools throughout the state. Teachers spent their vacation week learning new digital platforms, preparing their own children for the new way of learning, and worrying about students who might not have proper equipment and support at home.

“I haven’t slept in days,” Jennings Middle School teacher April Cobb said during a Facebook Live show with other educators who raised questions about equity in the stop-gap system.

During a teacher training session Thursday in the district’s edsby online grading and communication system, teachers had other questions: How would online grading work in kindergarten? How were teachers expected to communicate with parents who spoke languages other than English?

Trainers were able to answer their technical questions about how to attach a file and how to enter grades from a quiz. But to some of the deeper questions, they said preparations were still under way.

The decision to wait came late in the week. According to a letter to employees from incoming Superintendent Addison Davis, the state Department of Education offered on Thursday to give school districts a week of preparation time.

Davis accepted the state’s offer for what he is calling a “Set up for Success Week."

“While I am confident that all content is prepared to launch,” Davis wrote in a letter Friday evening to employees, “we want to make certain that we spend next week providing all learners and educators with the necessary tools and information to be successful.”

Schools around Florida are closed until April 15 at the earliest, as the state seeks to slow the transmission of the deadly COVID-19 virus.

Day care centers, preschools and community resources, such as the YMCA, are also closed, which means those parents whose own businesses did not close their doors will scramble for child care.

There is also the matter of digital devices.

The district conducted two surveys, and found that 5,269 students did not have access to a device and 5,022 did not have internet or WiFi. Only a total of 75,000 responded, making it unclear if more students are without the equipment they will need.

Administrators are looking at areas in the community where the majority of families said they do not have access, district spokeswoman Tanya Arja said in an email.

“We can see pockets to focus on,” she said. Principals and technology staff will work to get devices to the students who need them, and show them how to operate them.

A notice went out Friday evening to all school families, alerting them to the changed timeline.

“Teachers will be connecting with their students online and providing exciting ways to start eLearning —while families get comfortable with our eLearning tools Edsby and Clever, set up a schedule at home with dedicated learning time and set up a place at home where students can concentrate on learning,” the notice said.

“As teachers and students feel comfortable next week, they can start to engage and work on educational content.”

Davis, in his letter to employees, said that if the teachers feel they and their students are ready, “then please feel free to engage our learners and push them to interact with virtual content. The only request that I have is to use this week as an intellectual enrichment week and that we do not assign content that will be graded, but more to start the eLearning process where available.”

He added, “Please know that I appreciate everyone’s hard work and continued flexibility as we seek to provide the greatest educational experiences for all students.”

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