Florida schools need help with COVID, not more petty arguments | Editorial
Students and teachers need more resources as campus quarantines disrupt academics.
Boca Ciega High School senior Matthew McCrary, 17, works on algebra homework for his Liberal Arts math class while his cat KiKi explores the dining room table, at left, on Monday at McCrary’s home in Palm Harbor.
Boca Ciega High School senior Matthew McCrary, 17, works on algebra homework for his Liberal Arts math class while his cat KiKi explores the dining room table, at left, on Monday at McCrary’s home in Palm Harbor. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published Sep. 15

Let’s not pretend that COVID-19 is in the mirror, that schools have returned to normal or that students and teachers are safely ensconced in on-campus learning environments. A new wave of infections has forced thousands of Florida students and teachers into isolation and quarantine — leaving many students adrift, classrooms without adequate teachers and student performance again at risk from an interrupted school year.

A Tampa Bay Times report Tuesday showed the continuing toll that quarantines are having on the academic experience. Boca Ciega High senior Matthew McCrary recalled sitting in the school auditorium four of seven periods one recent day because so many teachers were out. “It is very difficult,” he said. “We don’t get assignments and we’re falling behind.” Tatyana Arnold, a teacher at John Hopkins Middle School in St. Petersburg, said teachers are juggling on any given day to cover for missing colleagues. “This is even harder than in a normal year,” said Sarah Khattabi, another teacher at Hopkins.

Of course, the 2021 fall semester was supposed to usher in the recovery, as students who opted for virtual learning during the pandemic last year returned to brick-and-mortar classrooms. School districts readied to help students make up for lost time, with the reopening of campuses signaling a larger return to normalcy. But the opposite has happened, as coronavirus infections reached last year’s level after only one month, sending thousands of children and teachers into quarantine. Students have been left to languish, as the state stopped paying for remote instruction. And schools have struggled to plug the gaps with substitute teachers.

Gov. Ron DeSantis and Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran are only making conditions worse by battling with school districts that have imposed temporary mask mandates to counter this upheaval in the classroom. As a practical matter, it’s probably too late in the semester to offer dual learning options. But the state and local school districts need to provide more resources to help students and staff alike weather the tumult on campus. Many teachers, as usual, are going above and beyond by making themselves available during their off-hours. But the situation demands a strategy more organized than a volunteer effort. And it shouldn’t fall only to parents or classmates to help students in quarantine keep up with their assignments.

Hillsborough County has responded by launching new online initiatives for students at home wishing to stay current with their lessons. For prekindergarten through fifth grade, Hillsborough is establishing a group of virtual instructors who are on-call to take questions from students about their class materials. The teachers won’t deliver lessons, but will be available for support. For students in middle and high schools, which offer many more courses, the district contracted to provide access to online tutors 24 hours a day. These stop-gap measures should help maintain some continuity in the educational process.

But school children don’t have time on their side. The ongoing legal battle in Florida over school mask mandates, and the investigation the U.S. Department of Education announced Friday into whether the state’s ban on the mandates violates federal law by putting students with disabilities at heightened health risk, won’t be resolved in time for many students to keep from falling further behind. There has to be some middle ground between the governor’s political motivations and the costs that students are paying because of these disruptions to academic life. Wish as we may, the pandemic isn’t over, and pretending it is only prolongs the fight.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Paul Tash. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.