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Millions of Florida kids will soon go to class on computers. What will they learn?

In Tampa Bay and beyond, the closing of schools due to the coronavirus is spawning a massive experiment in online learning that no one wanted.

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• • •

LAND O’LAKES — Annie and June Leonard began Tuesday with cereal and fruit, then a book about reptiles that they read together and discussed.

They moved on to yoga, then math. One cracked open a workbook while the other used an iReady computer program, and then they switched.

Sunlight poured through the dining room window, which offered a view of the backyard trampoline.

"You have to have certain rules in the classroom because if they’re all talking to each other during that time, it gets chaotic and off task,” said Westchase Elementary School kindergarten teacher Jamie Cook, mother to the 7-year-old twins.

“But if it’s just the two of them here, it’s really nice.”

Florida is set to begin a grand educational experiment that nobody wanted. Nearly 3 million children, locked out of school to avoid spreading the COVID-19 virus, will continue their studies from their homes.

From teacher-only Facebook groups to laptop distribution, educators in Tampa Bay and beyond are working furiously to prepare. Grab-and-go lunches are being handed out to keep bellies full and minds alert. Online platforms like Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Canvas and Edsby are forefront in the teacher tool box, leaving chalkboards and crayons in the distant past.

Some teachers look forward to a new degree of flexibility, but few expect it to be as idyllic as the Leonard twins’ morning in Land O’Lakes, a dress rehearsal for eLearning’s official start next week.

Library media specialist Steven Zachem passes out laptops to parents in the car line at Campbell Park Elementary in St. Petersburg on Tuesday in preparation for online learning in Pinellas County. [DIRK SHADD | Times]

Will Edsby, the platform Hillsborough County has chosen as the hub of communication, withstand the demands of such heavy use? The system crashed on March 23, the day the district had intended to start eLearning, making officials glad they had postponed it until Monday.

Teachers wonder: Is there a virtual format for occupational therapy, for mental health counseling, or to reassure a child whose parents are fighting violently? Officials in Pasco County estimate 80 percent of learning disabilities are mild to moderate and can be addressed with strategies that teachers use to reach all students.

RELATED: We’re about to turn homes into school. Here’s how experts say it’s done.

Worries abound about racial and economic equity, and how to meet the many different needs that are normally addressed today inside the schoolhouse walls.

“We lean on schools so much to be the community center,” said Kendall Nickerson, a high school government teacher with two young sons at home. “We are the ones who make sure they have the safe place.”

Beyond the sense of responsibility many teachers feel for children’s welfare, there are questions of accountability. What exactly is expected of teachers, once the school’s structure has been turned upside down? And to what extent should parents feel compelled to fill in the gap?

“Parents, know that this is not home school,” Hillsborough school superintendent Addison Davis said Monday, trying to manage expectations and concerns.

“You don’t have to identify and select textbooks. You don’t have to create robust lessons, you don’t have to teach your children. But you have to stay connected.”

While the questions confronting teachers, students and parents are similar statewide, Hillsborough has additional challenges. It is the largest district by far in Tampa Bay, serving more than 200,000 children in rural, urban and suburban neighborhoods. It has a brand-new superintendent who is still getting to know the staff and system.

Jennings Middle School teacher April Cobb at home in Tampa with her nephews, Samuel and Sergio Rivera, fourth-graders at Dr. Carter G. Woodson K-8 Leadership Academy. All three are working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic. [MARLENE SOKOL | Times]

Three Hillsborough teachers — Cook, Nickerson, and Jennings Middle School math teacher April Cobb, said they feel lucky to have the resources: A familiarity with different learning styles, libraries of child-appropriate texts and stockpiles of art supplies.

Despite those advantages, there have been moments of humility, even during a practice week that Davis dubbed “Set up for Success.”

Cobb, who is guardian to two 9-year-old nephews in north Tampa, is already finding herself tested.

“After two hours with these two, trying to get something done and they’re talking to each other,” she said, “they’re moving around, I’m like, ‘Just go sit down.’ I’m reminding them, ‘That’s why that teacher says you’re doing X, Y, Z, because you’re doing it!’”

• • •

In a world with no coronavirus, Nickerson would have been teaching A.P. government at 11 a.m. this past Tuesday at Strawberry Crest High School. Her 8-year-old son, Joshua Jr., or “J.J.,” would have been taking the Florida Standards Assessment next-door at Bailey Elementary. James, her 4-year-old, would have been in preschool.

In this world, Nickerson was in the family’s home, just up the street from Dinosaur World in Plant City, trying to keep her children productive while she navigated a whole new relationship with her students.

Monday evening, on a whim, she logged onto Edsby and asked her students if they might want to do a practice Zoom meeting. “Twenty-four kids at 9 o’clock, with literally 30 minutes notice, got on there and were video-chatting me," she said. "They got to see my kitchen. They thought that was hilarious.”

That was a light moment.

A not-so-light moment came during the hour she was given to retrieve her class materials at Strawberry Crest. It weighed on her how she might lose touch with kids who needed her, how others would have questions she could not answer about college and exams.

Was she up to this?

She is trying to be realistic about what she can offer her own sons as she awaits instruction from her teachers. So far they are reading and sampling educational software. J.J. is enamored with Adventure Academy. They built a box fort. Nickerson had J.J. replicate their school incentive system with a “store” that takes bills from a Monopoly Junior game.

J.J. requires occupational therapy for his writing, but doesn’t always get it. So Nickerson assigned him to write a letter to his best friend. He did, and she texted it to the child’s mother.

J.J. Nickerson, a third-grader at Bailey Elementary, samples an educational software program at his home in Plant City. [MARLENE SOKOL | Times]

Both boys, she said, have touches of attention deficit disorder. So does she, and she has learned how to work around their conditions.

But it doesn’t happen easily.

“You have to find what works for them,” she said. “How well can I do my job if every 15 minutes I have to come up with something new for them? God bless the teachers, and I am a teacher!“

In Cook’s case, there are expectations from parents. Westchase serves a relatively affluent Tampa suburb where parents are often deeply involved in their children’s education.

Annie and June Leonard practice yoga, which is part of their structured home learning day as the Hillsborough County school system shifts to distance learning because of the coronavirus. [MARLENE SOKOL | Times]

Is kindergarten even possible in a virtual sense?

“Most of what I do is cooperative, hands on, play based," she said. "It taps into their whole body.” She can give checklists of things to do with their children: Find five plants outside. Read your favorite Dr. Seuss book and write down 10 pairs of rhyming words.

She will use Zoom, probably, for a daily read-along and that will mostly be for a sense of community. She’s hoping she can schedule her daughters’ second-grade studies in the morning and focus on kindergarten in the afternoon, although she will be available to the kindergarten families all day.

Both Annie and June have areas where they could be stronger, and Cook is wondering if she should have them repeat a grade.

As for her students and their parents?

“We’re really trying to focus on providing them with a million optional things to engage them 18 hours a day, put them in bed exhausted,” she said. "And balance it with the parents who are working eight hours a day.”

• • •

Everywhere, experts are offering advice to teachers and parents about home learning.

School district trainings are happening non-stop. YouTube is crawling with videos.

It’s almost too much.

And as thousands of Florida teachers share tips in online forums, it is clear that some will be much better at this than others.

Earlier in the month, charter school administrator Cametra Edwards posted a Facebook Live message, warning teachers not to think they would become experts overnight in virtual education.

“Let’s not stress ourselves to death,” she said. “Let’s not do that. I see people, Lord, giving out 15 websites. Just stop. Stop.”

The teachers’ own children, so far, are taking the changes in stride.

“I actually like it, because we can still learn and I feel like my teacher’s here,” said Samuel Rivers, one of Cobb’s nephews.

Cobb asked him: “And who is your teacher?” He pointed right back to her.

Annie, the more outgoing of the Leonard twins, seemed happy as she worked on her iReady math, but aware of the separation from her schoolmates.

“April 15 is kind of a long time until I can actually see my friends,” she said.

“I have one good friend that I call my frenemy. And he’s a boy and he’s named Alex. And sometimes we have play dates together and sleepovers. Mostly my mom talks to his mom, and I talk to Alex sometimes."

J.J. Nickerson said this about home learning: "I think it’s a little more fun. Here, we have different routines.” Not to mention the incentive program. “I like the prizes here,” he said. “Because, PlayStation.”

Like the other teachers, Cobb is finding ways to divide her time. Morning is for breakfast in the family’s home near Busch Gardens, and online studies — two and a half hours, tops, she decided after consulting with one of the twins’ teachers. It’s unrealistic to expect much more, she said.

Her computer is on the dining room table. Samuel and Sergio each have an Acer laptop on a television table. She keeps an eye out for messages from her middle school students. Every once in a while there is an “argument break.” Her uncle, who lives with them, might have to pitch in.

The boys spend their down time reading, or on various art projects, so Cobb is not too concerned that they will lose ground.

She worries about other families in her community, however.

"Let’s just say, for example, parents have limited reading capability of their own,” Cobb said. "What parent wants to sit in front of their children and exhibit constant failing at something that their kids feel they should know? ... We don’t want to embarrass parents in this process.”

Not to mention the financial stress in families where resources are stretched thin.

“Just imagine if I’m a worker that worked at a grocery store or a food service place that deemed that I could still be in the drive thru,” she said. “That would make me feel less of a parent because I would have to make the decision between helping my children with their academics when time permits."

Invariably, she tells parents, “make sure you just do what’s best for your children.”

• • •

Equity concerns about online learning aren’t new. For more than a decade, the virtual movement has been met with warnings about a so-called “digital divide.” That line of argument holds that by ordering students to learn online, the public schools discriminate against communities with limited internet coverage and children whose parents can’t afford up-to-date equipment.

The U.S. Department of Education has made clear that schools must not ignore the “free and appropriate public education” guaranteed in federal law.

Still, some hurdles will remain, said Kathleen Airhart, program director for special education outcomes at the Council of Chief State School Officers.

“There’s going to be an equity gap,” she said, adding that the role of schools should be to limit those disparities as much as possible. It’s what good special education teachers do on a regular basis, she said.

Sylvia Kearney, a paraprofessional, passes out laptops to families in the car line at Campbell Park Elementary in St. Petersburg on Tuesday. The Pinellas County school district is handing out devices to students who will need them when online learning begins Monday. [DIRK SHADD | Times]

The economic gap is why Philadelphia public schools initially resisted eLearning during the coronavirus crisis even as better-funded districts nearby began loaning out laptops. Later, Philadelphia made eLearning optional, but for enrichment activities. In recent days the district said it will find a way to equip children with laptops.

Officials in Pasco acknowledged this week that they cannot meet the needs of families who have multiple children, and no computer devices. Virtual school in Pasco is expected to last as much as five hours a day, said superintendent Kurt Browning. With 35,000 devices available early in the week, he estimated large families would receive only one computer for every two children.

Hillsborough is starting with a one laptop-per-family distribution and will re-assess the situation later, said spokeswoman Tanya Arja. It has purchased some devices in addition to the 51,000 the district already had available. It expects to loan out as many as 75,000. Pinellas County schools had distributed more than 13,000 devices by Thursday.

Spectrum is making free WiFi available for two months to households that have students or teachers. But the deal is for new customers, and not those who owe money from closed accounts. And Spectrum does not cover all parts of Hillsborough County. Some families will wind up using their phones as hot spots.

Critics say it’s a big ask to loan an unfamiliar device to a student and expect the family to puzzle through its operation.

That’s why Cobb welcomed the news that Hillsborough students have a pencil-and-paper option. Once they complete their work, they can upload or text the pages to their teachers. A plan is in the works to deliver the paper work packets at certain high-need locations. “We’re trying to think of everything,” Arja said.

Even with these accommodations, Cobb is hoping school officials manage their expectations carefully.

“It would be a disservice to try to present new content to kids with the intention that they are going to truly walk away with mastery,” she said. “I just don’t think that’s realistic. Can it happen? Most definitely. It just will require teachers to be provided with the necessary training and be able to truly learn that process.

There’s a difference, she said, between being behind a screen and being with children, where you can “get a vibe” and know how a lesson is being received. Already, she can sense the loss, intangible but real.

Times staff writer Megan Reeves contributed to this report.

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