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In-person or virtual school: What did Tampa Bay families choose?

From elected officials to sports figures to your neighbors, a collection of families explain the decisions they made.
Students arrive by bus at a drop off circle on the first day of school before the start of classes at the entrance of Gulf High School on Monday, Aug. 24, 2020, in New Port Richey.
Students arrive by bus at a drop off circle on the first day of school before the start of classes at the entrance of Gulf High School on Monday, Aug. 24, 2020, in New Port Richey. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Aug. 29, 2020
Updated Aug. 29, 2020

After the coronavirus pandemic forced students to learn from home last spring, it quickly became clear that educators needed to come up with another plan for the fall semester.

Over the summer, as they watched and compared notes, one district after another came around to the same general idea: Give families a choice between online learning and regular school. It was only the latest wrinkle in a year of surreal circumstances.

We asked Tampa Bay families how they approached this decision for the 2020-21 school year, which started last week in Pinellas and Pasco counties. Students in Hillsborough and Hernando counties return to campuses Monday.

Some of the names will be familiar, others new to you. Either way, they’re your neighbors. Here’s what they had to say:

Julia Sarmiento-Cohen

Ruskin

From left, Julian Feliz, Sofia Cohen, Julia Sarmiento-Cohen and Matthew Cohen pose with their dog, Tinkerbell.
From left, Julian Feliz, Sofia Cohen, Julia Sarmiento-Cohen and Matthew Cohen pose with their dog, Tinkerbell. [ Courtesy of Julia Sarmiento-Cohen ]

Children: Sofia, 7, Julian, 11

Fall 2020 plans: Online school. Sofia will be in second grade at Apollo Beach Elementary and Julian will be in sixth grade at Sumner High middle school center — both attending remotely.

“We had a scare with COVID-19,” explained Sarmiento-Cohen, a social emotional learning coordinator for Hillsborough public schools. Her 72-year-old mother got the disease in June and was placed on a ventilator. Sarmiento-Cohen and her husband got it, too, so the kids went to stay with separate families for more than a month. Her mother survived, but the experience was a blow. They left the schooling decision up to Sofia and Julian, but told them they couldn’t see their grandmother if they went to in-person classes. “Without hesitation, they said they would stay home ‘so we can be with Abuela,’” Sarmiento-Cohen said.

• • •

Thaddeus Bullard

Tampa

Thaddeus Bullard, center, poses with sons Titus, left, and T.J. this summer in Tampa.
Thaddeus Bullard, center, poses with sons Titus, left, and T.J. this summer in Tampa. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]

Children: Titus, a freshman, and T.J., a junior

Fall 2020 plans: In-person school at Berkeley Preparatory School in Tampa.

Bullard, also known as pro wrestler Titus O’Neil, said he feels Berkeley has a strong plan in place and his kids prefer face-to-face learning. “I’m concerned with the pandemic, but I’ve also seen numerous other events happen, including two political conventions, voting, and restaurants opening to serve food to patrons indoors, and there has been a decrease in positive tests,” he said. “You know, nothing is guaranteed. ... I think we should all just continue to do what we’ve been doing: washing our hands, wearing a mask in public and social distancing, when applicable.”

• • •

Allison Miller

St. Petersburg

Annie Miller, 5, a kindergartener at Shorecrest Preparatory School, with her mother, Allison Miller, an attorney at the Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender’s Office, and Norman the guinea pig.
Annie Miller, 5, a kindergartener at Shorecrest Preparatory School, with her mother, Allison Miller, an attorney at the Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender’s Office, and Norman the guinea pig. [ Courtesy of Allison Miller ]

Child: Annie, 5

Fall 2020 plans: In-person school at Shorecrest Preparatory School in St. Petersburg.

”I feel like kindergarten is such a critical age in early childhood development,” said Miller, a senior assistant public defender at the Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender’s Office. “Someone needs to teach that child to read and write, and I don’t know that I have the qualifications to do it. ... I’m not naive to say there’s no way at school that she could get exposed to COVID, but I felt very confident in everything the school is doing.”

• • •

Stacy White

Valrico

Hillsborough County Commissioner Stacy White, center, is surrounded by his family (clockwise): wife, Barbie; son, Austin; and daughters Savannah and Megan.
Hillsborough County Commissioner Stacy White, center, is surrounded by his family (clockwise): wife, Barbie; son, Austin; and daughters Savannah and Megan. [ Courtesy of Stacy White ]

Children: Austin, 15, is a high school sophomore. Savannah and Megan are in college.

Fall 2020 plans: In-person for Austin.

”He’s a mature kid and we allowed him to drive that decision,” said White, a Hillsborough County commissioner. “He wants to have that in-person education experience with his teachers. He wants to see his friends and other staff on campus, and he’s ready to get out there and start living his life again.‘‘

• • •

Natalya Burlakova

Lithia

Natalya Burlakova watches the screen while Ivan Zavaleta, 6, reacts to something he learned after reading "First Day Jitters" virtually with his classmates and teacher on Monday, the first day of school in Hillsborough County.
Natalya Burlakova watches the screen while Ivan Zavaleta, 6, reacts to something he learned after reading "First Day Jitters" virtually with his classmates and teacher on Monday, the first day of school in Hillsborough County. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

Children: Nikolai, 4, and Ivan, 6

Fall 2020 plans: Ivan will attend first grade in person at FishHawk Creek Elementary in Lithia. This past week, like thousands of other Hillsborough County students, he started the year online.

After moving to Tampa Bay recently from Fairfax County, Va., Burlakova found herself heavily involved during the first week of online learning and thinks some kids are too young for it. She and her husband, Fernando Zavaleta, “support students going back physically to the classroom and learning from professionally trained individuals who know what they are doing,” she said. “Yes, we want to support teachers, but we aren’t equipped to do it as teachers do. On top of that, the human interaction is key to socially develop human beings.”

• • •

Rodney Vanhorn

St. Petersburg

Rodney Vanhorn says in-person schooling was the best option for his daughter and two sons.
Rodney Vanhorn says in-person schooling was the best option for his daughter and two sons. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Children: Second-grader Jalani, and fourth-grade twins Oryan and Rodney III

Fall 2020 plans: In-person school at Lakewood Elementary in St. Petersburg.

From left, Rodney Vanhorn III, his sister, Jalani, and his twin brother, Oryan, pause Monday before starting the school year at Lakewood Elementary.
From left, Rodney Vanhorn III, his sister, Jalani, and his twin brother, Oryan, pause Monday before starting the school year at Lakewood Elementary. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

The first day back is always “my Christmas present,” quipped Rodney Vanhorn, who took the day off his sanitation job to walk his kids to Lakewood Elementary on Monday, the start of classes in Pinellas County. He hoped that precautions like sanitation stations, required masks and social distancing would keep them safe. The decision had everything to do with getting his kids face-to-face with their teachers, he said. “We can teach them so much, but (the schools are) equipped with more than me.”

• • •

Mike Moore

Wesley Chapel

Pasco Commission Chairman Mike Moore and his family. In front, from left: wife, Lauren; daughters Amberlee and Aubrey; and son, Aiden.
Pasco Commission Chairman Mike Moore and his family. In front, from left: wife, Lauren; daughters Amberlee and Aubrey; and son, Aiden. [ Courtesy of Mike Moore ]

Children: Amberlee, 11, Aiden, 14, and Aubrey, 17

Fall 2020 plans: In-person school for the younger two, a sixth-grader and a high school freshman. Virtual learning for the oldest, a high school senior dual-enrolled at Pasco Hernando State College.

”We had a conversation with them and asked them what they preferred,” said Moore, chairman of the Pasco County Commission. “Honestly, in our minds, my wife and I felt like we wanted them to go back, but at the same time, we also let them make the ultimate decision. If they weren’t comfortable, we weren’t going to force them to go back, but they were comfortable to go back and so far, so good.‘'

• • •

Bill Carlson

Tampa

Tampa City Council member Bill Carlson with his sons, from left: Trey, Jacob and Jon Luke.
Tampa City Council member Bill Carlson with his sons, from left: Trey, Jacob and Jon Luke. [ Courtesy of Bill Carlson ]

Children: Jon Luke, 10, Jacob, 11, Trey, 18

Fall 2020 plans: Trey just started in-person classes at Florida State University. His brothers attend Tampa schools virtually.

Carlson, a Tampa City Council member, said the virtual learning has gone well so far and his boys still have had a chance to socialize. ”The biggest challenge, whether you’re doing virtual school or not, is keeping them off Fortnite,” he said, referring to the popular online video game.

• • •

Sean Becker

Clearwater

Child: Sutton, second grade

Fall 2020 plans: In-person school.

The Beckers first opted for virtual classes, but later decided to send Sutton to her school’s campus after Pinellas County’s coronavirus numbers improved. Plus their schedules didn’t fit with Pinellas’ “very regimented” schedule for online learners, said Becker, who is president of the Clearwater Firefighters Association. “Class sizes are down and social distancing is in place, so we felt comfortable sending her back.”

• • •

Ken Welch

St. Petersburg

Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch
Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch

Child: Kenya, 18

Fall 2020 plans: Kenya just started her freshman year online at Florida A&M University.

“We agreed as a family that was the safer option in light of COVID, and we are thankful that FAMU administration provided that option,” said Welch, the longtime Pinellas County commissioner, who sees his daughter returning to campus next fall, assuming a vaccine is available. He said she received her high school diploma and associate’s degree at the same time. “Even if she didn’t have a head start, her health is our priority.”

• • •

James Wilder Jr.

Tampa

James Wilder Jr. holds his daughter, Nala, while he was in training camp with the Buffalo Bills in 2016.
James Wilder Jr. holds his daughter, Nala, while he was in training camp with the Buffalo Bills in 2016. [ BILL WIPPERT | Associated Press (2016) ]

Child: Nala, third grade

Fall 2020 plans: Online (for now)

“I’m going to see how it goes for about a week or so before allowing her to return, just to make sure everything is handled correctly first instead of finding out the hard way,” said Wilder, the former star running back at Plant High and Florida State who is CEO and head trainer at Wilder Sports Academy. “She’s in a great school,” he said of Nala. “I have great confidence things will be handled correctly.”

• • •

Anthony Becht

Wesley Chapel

Former Buccaneers tight end Anthony Becht, right, says he and wife, DeeAnn, center, are allowing their daughter, Olivia, and son, Rocco, to attend in-person classes at their high schools this year. [Courtesy of Anthony Becht]
Former Buccaneers tight end Anthony Becht, right, says he and wife, DeeAnn, center, are allowing their daughter, Olivia, and son, Rocco, to attend in-person classes at their high schools this year. [Courtesy of Anthony Becht]

Children: Olivia, 15, and Rocco, 16

Fall 2020 plans: In-person school. This past week, Rocco returned for his junior year at Wiregrass Ranch High in Pasco County and Olivia started her sophomore year online at Freedom High. She returns to campus Monday, like thousands of other Hillsborough County students.

“There’s risk obviously with everything,” said Becht, a former NFL tight end and ESPN analyst, who, with his wife, talked to their kids about making sure they followed health protocols at school. Olivia and Rocco wanted to be back with their friends, Becht said. Plus, “they obviously like the fact that being in front of a teacher and learning live is a good option for them, and we’re all (on board) with that.”

• • •

Jane Castor

Tampa

From left, Tampa Mayor Jane Castor smiles with her partner, Ana Cruz, and her sons Seely and Sergei Bevan during Castor's oath of office ceremony at Armature Works in Tampa. Federal Judge Mary Scriven looks on. [Times (2019)]
From left, Tampa Mayor Jane Castor smiles with her partner, Ana Cruz, and her sons Seely and Sergei Bevan during Castor's oath of office ceremony at Armature Works in Tampa. Federal Judge Mary Scriven looks on. [Times (2019)]

Children: Sergei and Seely, both 21.

Fall 2020 plans: Castor’s sons are attending state universities.

The Tampa mayor said she is confident that, as adults, Sergei and Seely will stay safe while going to school. “I often say, ’My in-house tech team left and went off to college.’ So I have no doubt they will thrive, learning both virtually or in-person.”

• • •

Stephanie Meyer

Seminole

Stephanie Meyer, a teacher at Keswick Christian School, is a candidate for the District 1 seat on the Pinellas County School Board. [Courtesy of Stephanie Meyer]
Stephanie Meyer, a teacher at Keswick Christian School, is a candidate for the District 1 seat on the Pinellas County School Board. [Courtesy of Stephanie Meyer]

Children: A daughter, 8, and a son, 12

Fall 2020 plans: In-person school at Keswick Christian School.

Meyer, a teacher at Keswick and a candidate for the Pinellas County School Board’s District 1 seat, said virtual schooling in the spring did not go well for either child. “Despite all the best efforts of the teachers and myself and my husband, l really didn’t think they were getting the type of education they needed,” she said. “Especially my daughter, who is only in third grade. She really needs that interaction with the teacher.”

• • •

Laura Hine

St. Petersburg

Laura Hine, executive director of the James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art, with her sons, Stuart, left, and Garrett. Hine also is a candidate for the Pinellas County School Board's District 1 seat.
Laura Hine, executive director of the James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art, with her sons, Stuart, left, and Garrett. Hine also is a candidate for the Pinellas County School Board's District 1 seat. [ Courtesy of Laura Hine ]

Children: Garrett, first grade, and Stuart, fourth grade

Fall 2020 plans: Online school at North Shore Elementary.

With Pinellas County’s online option, kids are still connected to their regular school, said Hine, director of the James Museum of Western & Wildlife Art and a candidate for the Pinellas County School Board District 1 seat. “We chose it over face-to face, purely because of the way the (COVID-19) numbers were going this summer, and thinking of health options in our own family and friends and grandparents, and also knowing it would lessen the number of students in the school. By our two doing this, there are actually two less bodies in the school for families who really need it.”

• • •

Kaneshia Williams

New Tampa

Kaneshia Williams, a resource teacher with Hillsborough County Public Schools, poses with her children. From left, they are Christina Pendleton, Joshua Crews and Michael Brown.
Kaneshia Williams, a resource teacher with Hillsborough County Public Schools, poses with her children. From left, they are Christina Pendleton, Joshua Crews and Michael Brown. [ Courtesy of Kaneshia Williams ]

Children: Christina, 13, Michael, 15, and Joshua, 17

Fall 2020 plans: In-person school. Christina will go to Turner-Bartels K-8 and the boys to Pepin Academies.

As a resource teacher with Hillsborough’s transformation school project, Williams moves from school to school, so the family’s decision was clear. “I have no other choice,” she said. “Life has to go on.” She also had to consider the emotional and educational needs of her sons, who are on the autism spectrum. “It boils down to what they need and it’s just a risk you have to take,” Williams said. “If something happens, we’ll cross that bridge. As far as the needs of their education and getting the best instruction, that just wasn’t happening with e-learning.”

• • •

Melissa Snively

Lithia

Hillsborough County School Board Chairwoman Melissa Snively, second from left, poses with her family. Behind her, from left, are son William, husband David Snively and son Robert. Next to her is daughter Sara and in front is son David.
Hillsborough County School Board Chairwoman Melissa Snively, second from left, poses with her family. Behind her, from left, are son William, husband David Snively and son Robert. Next to her is daughter Sara and in front is son David. [ Courtesy of Melissa Snively ]

Children: David, 12, Sara, 14, Will, 17, and Robert, 19

Fall 2020 plans: In-person school. Will and Sara are attending Newsome High and David goes to Randall Middle School. Robert spent last year in college and plans to enlist in the military.

“They are better learners in a classroom setting than they are at home,” said Snively, an insurance agent and chairwoman of the Hillsborough County School Board. “They just need the interaction with their teachers and their classmates to succeed academically at school.”

• • •

Holly Gregory

Tampa

Spectrum Bay News 9 anchor Holly Gregory with her sons, from left: Elijah, Ethan and Evan.
Spectrum Bay News 9 anchor Holly Gregory with her sons, from left: Elijah, Ethan and Evan. [ Courtesy of Holly Gregory ]

Children: Evan, sixth grade, Ethan, seventh grade, and Elijah, a high school junior

Fall 2020 plans: Virtual learning for Elijah at Wharton High. Evan and Ethan will go to Benito Middle for in-person school.

“Our boys have been very interested in hearing all the news and updates about COVID-19,” said Gregory, an anchor at Spectrum Bay News 9. “They’ll ask me questions about stories they heard me tell on the news. They have a healthy respect for the dangers of this pandemic, but they are not scared because they know kids are very low risk. My husband and I decided that the boys are old enough and informed enough to make up their own minds, so we left the decision on going back to school up to our three boys. We told them their choice comes with the responsibility of keeping their grades up and following all the rules.”

• • •

Will Weatherford

Wesley Chapel

Former Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford with his children, ages 5 to 12, who attend in-person classes at Cambridge Christian School.
Former Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford with his children, ages 5 to 12, who attend in-person classes at Cambridge Christian School. [ Courtesy of Will Weatherford ]

Children: Three girls and a boy, ages 5 to 12.

Fall 2020 plans: In-person for all four at Cambridge Christian School in Tampa. Classes started Aug. 17.

“We chose to allow our children to attend in person because we felt that Cambridge Christian put the safety of our children first and are creatively utilizing technology to put in place the protocols necessary in order to anticipate all the various scenarios,” said Weatherford, former speaker of the Florida House.

• • •

Jeff Brandes

St. Petersburg

State Sen. Jeff Brandes, center, and his wife, Natalie, with their four children.
State Sen. Jeff Brandes, center, and his wife, Natalie, with their four children. [ Courtesy of Jeff Brandes ]

Children: Charlotte, Colin, Conor and Lizzie

Fall 2020 plans: In-person school. The kids are in grades 1, 4, 5 and 7 this year.

”When you have four kids, it’s all about getting everybody into a routine,” said Brandes, a Republican state senator. “And for us, having an established routine for them ... we lost that during COVID.”

• • •

Shaun King

Brandon

Shaun King (holding son Shaun Jr.) with wife, Faith, and daughters Ahja, far right, and Adara. [Courtesy of Shaun King]
Shaun King (holding son Shaun Jr.) with wife, Faith, and daughters Ahja, far right, and Adara. [Courtesy of Shaun King]

Children: Ashton, two months, Shaun Jr., 5, Adara, 7, and Ahja, 10

Fall 2020 plans: In-person school at Independence Academy, a charter school in Dover.

”We’re comfortable with the safety guidelines in place,” said King, a former Buccaneers quarterback and former USF assistant coach who works at IMG Academy as an offensive coordinator. “And to be honest,” he added, “home-schooling three at that age with a newborn is almost impossible.”

• • •

Deiah Riley

Tampa

Ryan Rabon, left, and her sister, Riley, are doing virtual school this semester. [Courtesy of Deiah Riley]
Ryan Rabon, left, and her sister, Riley, are doing virtual school this semester. [Courtesy of Deiah Riley]

Children: Ryan, 12, and Riley, 13

Fall 2020 plans: Virtual learning through Hillsborough County public schools. Both girls are in middle school.

“Out of caution, my husband and I chose e-learning for them,” said Riley, an anchor for ABC affiliate WFTS. “We’re both fortunate to work from home right now, so the flexibility seemed like a safer fit. ... We tell our girls to keep an open mind and make the most of it. Their virtual class schedule is the same as if they were in school.”

• • •

Charley Belcher

Tampa

Charley Belcher, right with his wife, Lindsay, and their daughter Lindsey Rose at a 2011 event in Tampa. This year, Lindsey Rose is a sophomore at the University of Florida, taking a mix of online and hybrid classes, her dad said.
Charley Belcher, right with his wife, Lindsay, and their daughter Lindsey Rose at a 2011 event in Tampa. This year, Lindsey Rose is a sophomore at the University of Florida, taking a mix of online and hybrid classes, her dad said. [ Times (2011) ]

Child: Lindsey Rose, college sophomore

Fall 2020 plans: Hybrid — a mix of online and in-person learning at the University of Florida in Gainesville.

“My daughter did have a full, in-person schedule, but UF blew that up over the summer and gave her a new one,” said Belcher, a feature reporter for WTVT-Ch. 13. “It was all online, except for two ’hybrid’ classes. Then last week, one of the hybrids went all online. So, she’s back in Gainesville to be all online, except for that one hybrid class.”

• • •

Martin Gramatica

Tampa

Tampa Bay Buccaneers kicker Martin Gramatica leaves the field after a 2004 game against Carolina.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers kicker Martin Gramatica leaves the field after a 2004 game against Carolina. [ Times (2004) ]

Children: Two sons, a 14-year-old high school freshman and a 12-year-old middle schooler, and an 8-year-old daughter

Fall 2020 plans: In-person school for the boys and virtual learning for his daughter.

“At their age, the boys wanted to see their friends, plus they are playing school sports,” said Gramatica, the Bucs’ Super Bowl-winning placekicker from 1999-2004. “With our daughter, we felt that with little kids it’s harder to keep them from touching their face and to keep up the social distancing.” The boys attend a small private school, so he felt more comfortable. His daughter is enrolled in the Hillsborough public school system’s virtual school. “She loves it because she’s done by 11 and then she gets to hang out with Daddy in the pool the rest of the day. Knock on wood, everything has been fine so far.”

• • •

Darryl Rouson

St. Petersburg

State Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, left, with his wife, Angela, and sons.
State Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, left, with his wife, Angela, and sons. [ Courtesy of Angela Rouson ]

Children: Aaron, 14, Jared, 18, Emanuel, 19, Daniel, 26 and Evan, 27.

Fall 2020 plans: In-person school. Aaron is at Lakewood High. Jared is a freshman at Bethune-Cookman University. Emanuel is a sophomore at Florida A&M University.

“Our sons are attending classes in person because we approve of the protocols in place to ensure their safety, and trust that we have instilled in them the seriousness of this crisis,” said Rouson, a state senator. “As well, the structure of the school setting, we believe, is an asset to their learning.”

• • •

Kanika Tomalin

St. Petersburg

Nia Tomalin, left, is a junior at the Canterbury School of Florida, where she is attending classes in person, according to her mother, St. Petersburg Deputy Mayor Kanika Tomalin, center. Kai Tomalin is a sophomore at American University, which he is attending online.
Nia Tomalin, left, is a junior at the Canterbury School of Florida, where she is attending classes in person, according to her mother, St. Petersburg Deputy Mayor Kanika Tomalin, center. Kai Tomalin is a sophomore at American University, which he is attending online. [ Courtesy of Kanika Tomalin ]

Children: Nia, 16, and Kai, 19

Fall 2020 plans: Kai is a sophomore at American University, which is not holding in-person classes, so he’s attending online. Nia is a junior at Canterbury School of Florida and is attending classes on campus.

”Opportunities for individualized learning, as well as small class sizes, have always been a differentiator for our family in our choice of Canterbury,” said Tomalin, St. Petersburg’s deputy mayor. “They’ve put great effort into assuring a safe experience for students. I trust that the effort and commitment to put health first will produce a positive outcome. Nia was excited to return safely to campus.”

• • •

Orlando Acosta

St. Petersburg

Wes Pitzer, 14, is seen here at his eighth-grade graduation alongside his mother, Frances Masterson, and her fiance, Orlando Acosta. Wes is a freshman at Dixie Hollins High, where he is attending classes virtually.
Wes Pitzer, 14, is seen here at his eighth-grade graduation alongside his mother, Frances Masterson, and her fiance, Orlando Acosta. Wes is a freshman at Dixie Hollins High, where he is attending classes virtually. [ Courtesy of Orlando Acosta ]

Child: Wes Pitzer, 14. (Acosta, a St. Petersburg City Council candidate, is engaged to Wes’ mother, Frances Masterson, a registered nurse at Bay Pines VA Healthcare System.)

Fall 2020 plans: Virtual learning, for now, at Dixie Hollins High.

“We were told it would be easier to go from virtual to brick-and-mortar (school) than the other way around,” Acosta said. “Given that, the fear that the numbers would go up, we might find Wes in an increasingly dangerous environment without the ability to pull him out. The countervailing argument was about social development. He’s a freshman, he’s going to a new school, you start to form relationships. ... There’s a price to going virtual.”

• • •

Times staff writers Matt Baker, C.T. Bowen, Jack Evans, Charlie Frago, Joey Knight, Marlene Sokol, Josh Solomon, Christopher Spata, Kirby Wilson and Sharon Kennedy Wynne contributed to this report, along with Times photographer Dirk Shadd.

• • •

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