WIMAUMA — In his first week of school, 5-year-old Dominic Cuahutenango drew tiny circles around letters of the alphabet, experimented with colors and learned the names of animals and plants.
He and his seven classmates have returned to class, three months after schools were closed across Florida to help stop the spread of COVID-19.
Families everywhere are feeling the urgency of getting back to campus. But the need is especially pressing for Dominic and the 48 students in kindergarten through fourth grade at Redlands Christian Migrant Association Academy, a charter school in Wimauma.
Like most people living in largely Hispanic Wimauma, their families work in agriculture. They must report to their jobs during the pandemic or they have no money. They have peace of mind now, knowing they can leave their children for a while — and at a place where they’ll be learning again.
School isn’t the same, though. Everywhere are signs of the restrictions required to help limit the spread of COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus. The setup provides an early look at how schools statewide might set up classrooms for young children might be adapted statewide.
Desks are spaced several feet apart, a mask covers half the face and must be worn all day. At least the uniform provides continuity — dark pants and a bright red shirt.
It’s a challenge for teachers and students, said kindergarten instructor Tara Hernandez. Still, change has always been part of education.
“We do the best we can," Hernandez said. "They are children, don’t forget, and every day they learn something new.”
The 48 students are divided into six classrooms of eight. Each classroom has one teacher. Each teacher is responsible for enforcing COVID-19 restrictions.
The summer program started last week and runs through July 31, from 7:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. five days a week. Five school buses pick up students at different points in the Wimauma area. No more than 15 students are allowed on each bus.
Before students board, a school employee takes their temperature. If the thermometer reads higher than 98.7, the student must return home.
In addition to the 48 K-4 students, a separate class of five sixth-graders is studying a six-week seventh-grade curriculum under the tutelage of two instructors.
The staff enforces physical distancing at all times and keeps a record of the health and temperature of each child and employee at the start of each day. There’s another check at the end of the day.
Students receive breakfast, two snacks, and a lunch, all delivered to the classrooms. Students use learning materials assigned just to them, never sharing. Hula hoops around each desk mark the boundaries of a student’s personal space.
Keep up with Tampa Bay’s top headlines
Subscribe to our free DayStarter newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
Mark Haggett sees the setup as a model for other schools, proof that classes can function smoothly while observing social distancing.
“The most important thing is the safety of our students and our teachers,” said Haggett, 53, a top administrator in Wimauma for schools run by the nonprofit Redlands Christian Migrant Association. “This program is running for 39 days and we have to be successful.”
When the day starts, teachers are waiting in their classrooms. Before students enter, their shoes are disinfected. Then comes breakfast.
All 20 staff members have their temperatures taken upon arrival and answer a series of questions. Have you had a sore throat? Do you have a cough? Have you been in contact with sick people? Those who come in contact with children don face masks and gloves.
“We are meticulous,” Haggett said. “Yesterday, for example, we had three students at 99 so we sent them back with their parents.”
Students can only leave class under supervision.
“The recess time is very structured. One teacher is using sidewalk chalks to mark distances. I have another teacher who takes the kids outside so they can play with hula hoops while keeping the social distance."
The academy also launched a virtual learning program Wednesday , available to all 220 of its students from first through eighth grades. The school gave them laptops when the school closed in March and arranged free internet service from Spectrum during April and May. Now, they connect using portable hot spots provided by the school.
On Mondays and Thursdays, the school also distributes donated food to its families at school bus stops.
“If it weren’t for the support of this school, we would be living in a very difficult situation,” said Olivia Dorantes, 31, a farmworker and immigrant from Mexico who has four children, 5-14. “They are in charge of educating and taking care of our children while we work and get ahead. For me they are my angels.”
• • •
Tampa Bay Times coronavirus coverage
GET THE DAYSTARTER MORNING UPDATE: Sign up to receive the most up-to-date information.
SO YOU WANT TO LEAVE YOUR HOUSE? Read these 10 tips first
UNEMPLOYMENT Q&A: We answer your questions about Florida unemployment benefits
LISTEN TO THE CORONAVIRUS PODCAST: New episodes every week, including interviews with experts and reporters
HAVE A TIP?: Send us confidential news tips
We’re working hard to bring you the latest news on the coronavirus in Florida. This effort takes a lot of resources to gather and update. If you haven’t already subscribed, please consider buying a print or digital subscription.