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Crossing guards get new tool to guide kids during coronavirus: Handheld sirens

Street improvements and more personnel also are helping improve student safety, especially in the booming south Hillsborough area.

LITHIA — School crossing guard Ellen Cipriani has spent a decade putting names to the lively little faces that look to her each morning for direction.

“It means that I’m keeping them safe,” said Cipriani, 72, a school crossing guard at Riverview Elementary School. “If no one is here, there can be so many accidents so it helps the parents and the students feel a little more secure.”

She greets students by name amid the chaos of traffic along U.S. 301. And sometimes, on days where her whistle is no match for the clamor of honking cars and kids darting about, she yells out their names in a targeted warning that could save them from injury.

This school year, though, Cipriani can’t identify students' faces when they’re hidden behind the masks that Cipriani and the students are required to wear to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. Nor can she blow the silver whistle she has used since she first trained as a crossing guard with the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office in September 2011.

So the Sheriff’s Office has handed Cipriani and the county’s 369 crossing guards a new tool to help keep kids safe heading to and from school — electronic, handheld sirens.

Related: COVID-19 in Tampa Bay schools: a weekly update

Sheriff Chad Chronister said he had the health and safety of crossing guards in mind, too, when he purchased the 400 sirens at a cost of about $6,200.

“A lot of our crossing guards are of retirement age and are certainly even more susceptible to the coronavirus than our students," Chronister said, “so we immediately jumped into action to find a way to help them get drivers' attention that doesn’t require them to remove that facial covering."

Ellen Cipriani, Florida's school crossing guard of the year, carries a handheld siren as school lets out Wednesday. Hillsborough County's nearly 400 crossing guards use the new sirens to get the attention of students and motorists. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

Similar to the small, personal alarms marketed for self-defense, the sirens make a loud chirping sound with the push of a button — much louder than the silver whistle.

“I’m deaf in one ear and I could certainly hear that — it’s piercing,” Chronister said. “I think it’s loud enough to garner anyone’s attention, even those drivers who like to keep their radios up a little bit louder than normal.”

Even before the coronavirus turned riding a school bus and sitting in class into a health risk, officials in Hillsborough County anticipated more students would be hitting the sidewalks this school year because of enrollment growth and school budget cuts that have changed bus routes.

So in early 2020, Chronister retooled the county’s crossing guard program, nearly doubling personnel by adding guards to every elementary and middle school in the district.

Ellen Cipriani helps students at Riverview Elementary School leave campus safely Wednesday. Cipriani has worked 11 years as a crossing guard and works to memorize students' names. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

Hillsborough County also has added a number of infrastructure projects to improve student safety — pedestrian-activated crossing lights in high-traffic areas, automated stop bars at intersections to provide a barrier between people and cars, and new paint on pavement markings and crosswalk signs.

“We’ve been out of school since March, and a lot of drivers are going to encounter new traffic congestion and a lot of people walking around that they haven’t seen for several months,” said Bob Campbell, transportation engineering manager for Hillsborough County Public Works.

Some improvements on county streets also have been made with safety in mind, especially in the south county area where infrastructure has been stretched by a residential and business construction

During the six months that Hillsborough’s schools were shuttered by the coronavirus and summer break, speed limits have been reduced from 45 to 25 along stretches including U.S. Highway 301 near the new Sumner High School in Riverview. Flashing crosswalk signs have been installed in front of Belmont Elementary School in Sun City Center.

Related: All the latest at The Education Gradebook

At Deer Park Elementary School in Westchase where construction is underway on the Citrus Park Drive Extension linking Countryway Boulevard to Sheldon Road, road crews have turned northbound lanes into dedicated school lanes for student dropoff and pickup. Crews also added new sidewalk and crosswalk infrastructure for pedestrians and bicyclists at Citrus Park Drive and Countryway Boulevard.

For Cipriani, the job is different this year. She knows the masks aren’t going away.

Ninety-nine students and 41 employees tested positive for the coronavirus in the 12 days after students were allowed to return to classrooms on Aug. 31, according to the Hillsborough County School District’s online dashboard. Since the start of the Florida coronavirus outbreak March 1, Hillsborough schools have counted 290 cases.

What hasn’t changed for Cipriani is the reward she feels for helping keep school children safe.

“They are always so happy to see you," she said. “That makes you feel good, too, especially when they grow up and they’re in middle school and even into high school and they still remember you.”

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