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Pasco’s online lessons will be more flexible and relaxed than a usual school day, officials say

Pasco County teachers begin leading online classes on Tuesday.

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LAND O’LAKES — Shahtia Hairston has three school-aged children and one laptop computer at home that she needs for her own work.

So when the Pasco County school district announced it would provide technology to help families participate in distance learning, Hairston knew she couldn’t miss the distribution. She showed up at Rushe Middle School, where one child attends, early Monday morning and waited for her turn in a double-wide line stretching out the parking lot.

“It is really important,” the public defender said of the support. “I get to work from home a lot. But having to do my work and police three kids on one computer would be difficult.”

Computer secured, Hairston said she was glad the district would conduct classes in an online environment rather than inside potentially germ-infested classrooms. It might not be exactly what every child needs educationally, she acknowledged, but it will keep them occupied and moving forward. The Pasco County school district made available about 33,000 computers systemwide.

The important thing for families to keep in mind is that it’s not school as usual, said Hairston, who previously taught.

“Having the patience to deal with your home workload and your children is going to be a task,” she said. “We have to keep reminding ourselves this is more relaxed than a brick-and-mortar school day.”

Rushe Middle School assistant principal Kristy Blazys prepares laptops for curbside distribution for families to use during distance learning. The school handed out nearly 200 in less than 30 minutes. [ JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK | Times ]

The message is one that district officials stressed when responding to questions from parents and teachers alike.

“We expect kids to be logging in and logging out all day,” assistant superintendent Marcy Hetzler-Nettles said. “It’s not going to be following their usual bell schedule. ... It really will be more flexible.”

In a March 27 virtual training attended by thousands of Pasco teachers, leaders told educators that life should come first. They told them to take account of their own well-being and to keep in mind the home situations their students might be facing.

“We want to prioritize human connections,” learning and leading department director Lea Mitchell said.

Failure can occur during this effort, Mitchell said, after her own video presentation wouldn’t load. Don’t worry, she continued.

“You guys are incredible," she told the group. “Everyone is here to support you.”

Pasco County teachers attended a virtual training via Zoom on March 27 to learn about the district's distance-learning model. [ Pasco County school district ]

Many teachers in the training indicated comfort with the way things were presented and said they were confident in their ability to run online classes. A few, though, signaled that they felt out of their element.

Organizers of the district’s model said they tried to design something that would not be too overbearing. Even with lead time, they recognized they could not train everyone to become adept, full-time virtual school denizens that quickly.

As a result, they decided to streamline and simplify the approach so it can bridge the gap until classrooms again become available. They focused on three aspects for teachers to start with, hoping to expand as they become more comfortable with the approach.

With all of them, communication is the key.

First, the teachers must assign student work and grade it with specific feedback in a timely manner.

Second, they must administer a discussion board for each course, on which the class can interact with one another about materials and lessons.

Third, they must answer all emails, text messages and other direct inquiries.

“These are the three things that we feel are mission critical for teacher-student interaction,” said JoAnne Glenn, Pasco eSchool principal.

Related: Get Florida education news delivered to your inbox. Sign up for the Gradebook newsletter.

This model, which allows for but does not require live interaction, provides a way for teachers to help one another, share information and step in if a colleague becomes unavailable or overwhelmed, Glenn said.

Eventually, she said, the teachers might use programs such as Facetime or Zoom, where they can have live class chats.

To get things started, though, the district has created 10 days’ worth of lesson plans for most courses. That way, teachers don’t have to become instant experts in the delivery model and the creation of online materials while also trying to establish as normal a learning experience as possible.

“Our goal is not to have kids do a pseudo paper-and-pencil task every time,” Mitchell said.

Veterans Elementary School kindergarten teacher Tammy Hickey prepares to caravan in her students' neighborhood before distance learning. [ JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK | Times ]

Veterans Elementary School teacher Tammy Hickey said she found the training a good place to start. Beforehand, the 26-year educator had some questions about how to run a kindergarten class from a distance.

Now, she said, she has a place to go for answers.

“I think the students are going to love virtual school, especially the kindergartners. They are all about technology,” Hickey said via email. “They will get to use some of their favorite apps while learning. What could be better than that?”

Robert Mayor, who has five children in middle school or younger, said he was hopeful that everything will work out well, because he anticipates remote learning will last a while.

“I’m just planning that it’s going to be for the rest of the year," said Mayor, as he waited to pick up a laptop from Rushe Middle. “It’s better than them not doing anything."

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at jsolochek@tampabay.com.

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