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Distance learning a heavy lift for many Florida parents. ‘Just very frustrating.’

There are some things schools can’t provide from afar — like time, knowledge and patience.
Second-grader Avayah Sharp works on a lesson with her mom, Janelle, during distance learning. It hasn't been easy, Janelle Sharp says.
Second-grader Avayah Sharp works on a lesson with her mom, Janelle, during distance learning. It hasn't been easy, Janelle Sharp says. [ Courtesy of Janelle Sharp ]
Published Apr. 9, 2020
Updated Apr. 9, 2020

Florida schools ramped up for distance learning in mere weeks, training teachers, getting devices into students' homes and figuring out a whole new way of work — all while striving to keep children fed and workers healthy.

It’s been a challenge, they say. But they’re “doing the best we can.”

So, too, are parents. But after nearly two weeks, many of them are still making clear on social media that, despite schools’ best efforts and intentions, they’re struggling.

Some families thrive on the routine of distance learning at home. Others aren’t able to participate at all.

RELATED: Lessons from one Tampa Bay “mommy school” during the work-from-home era

Then there’s the group who are making time to help their children, yet finding themselves in over their heads.

“It’s just very frustrating,” said Zachary Besso, who’s been assisting two second-graders from his Wesley Chapel home.

Besso counts himself among the lucky ones. He’s a stay at home dad, who has the ability to focus on the task at hand for his 8-year-old daughter and granddaughter, as well as the eleventh grader in the house.

The kids are motivated and willing to help one another.

But the military retiree quickly discovered that even with his means, he has hit some walls.

He observed, for instance, that his second-graders’ lessons required him to know things he had long ago forgotten. They totaled dozens of pages of reading and work that the children couldn’t easily complete on a school-provided iPad.

Besso bought a new printer with a scanner just to handle the papers passing between his kids and their teachers. He’s still not sure how to help them create and manipulate all the computer files.

The second-graders in Zachary Besso's household printed out these papers for their week of distance learning. The family bought a new printer specifically for assignments.
The second-graders in Zachary Besso's household printed out these papers for their week of distance learning. The family bought a new printer specifically for assignments. [ Courtesy of Zachary Besso ]

And while teachers reach out and have been "wonderful,” he said, the contact is not often enough. That leaves many unanswered questions for the children, who want to do even more but require guidance that a non-teacher parent can’t offer.

“If you’re an essential worker and have to work, I don’t see how you keep it up,” Besso said in an interview. “My neighbor across the street posted a Facebook video of their kids running around and screaming on Day 2.”

Besso has never met Janelle Sharp, who lives on the opposite side of Pasco County.

But in many ways, he was talking about the challenges she faces with her own second-grader.

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A full-time product manager for a major health insurance carrier, the New Port Richey mom says the move to home-based classes makes too many assumptions about parents.

“Where my frustration comes in is, a lot of people think this means the parents get to go home and since they’re home, they have this extra eight hours,” Sharp said in an interview.

“Some of us work from home full-time, and the added pressure to get the (school) work done — it blows my mind.”

Compounding the problem is the expectation that parents can do everything a teacher can do, Sharp said.

She said she printed 44 pages of work for her daughter, Avayah, in the first week of distance learning. (Yes, she acknowledged, she’s among the lucky ones who has a printer, paper and ink, and a job to afford more.)

“You can edit the pdf,” Sharp said. “But that is very difficult to do” — if your device has the capability.

If parents are busy, she continued, a second-grader can’t necessarily be counted on to check into a Zoom call and enter the meeting number, either.

Then there’s the issue of content. There’s a lot of material to cover, she said, and she has her own work to do.

“How do you annotate common core math?” she wondered. “I don’t even know common core math. This is insane.”

Add into the mix her daughter’s learning disabilities, which Sharp said she shares, and distance learning in her home has the potential for disaster. Which is the exact opposite of what she wants.

“I’m not trying to have my child fail. It’s a lot of work and there’s so many programs,” Sharp said. “We’re doing school work from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day, and by the end of the day we hate each other.”

Avayah giggled when her mom said that. She gave two thumbs down to at-home learning, saying it is harder to do than being at school.

The result for both mother and child has been an inability for either to pay total attention to their assignments.

“I’m lucky because my employer is awesome and they understand when kids scream and dogs bark. They’re okay with it,” Sharp said.

Pasco district officials have said they’re listening. Chief academic officer Vanessa Hilton said Tuesday that parent concerns are being considered, and district expectations adjusted.

“If it feels like too much for you or your students, adjust to what is manageable and we will work to support you,” the district said in a newsletter to parents.

The Hillsborough County school district sent home a similar message, saying if families felt overwhelmed, they should reach out to teachers and principals for help.

In a recent video podcast, Pinellas teachers union president Mike Gandolfo struck a similar theme. He stressed that “less is more” in these trying times, and educators should keep that in mind.

“Life is all about balance,” Gandolfo said. “We are required to give students assignments, yes. But let’s remember that they are dealing with stresses that we may not be fully aware of, as are their parents.”

For some, that added information might do the trick. For others, though, it misses the point that distance learning requires more than handing out equipment, sending out links and expecting everyone to engage.

“The school district never gave us a magic tool about how to get our kids to sit down in their own house,” Sharp said. “This is not against the schools. They’re doing everything they can. I just think this is home schooling thrown in our laps.”

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