By LINDA CHION KENNEY
Whether they walk into a classroom or log on to their studies at home, students in the nation’s seventh-largest school district are set for a new school year unlike any other as teachers and administrators continue to write the rule book on how best to deliver instruction in pandemic times.
The 2020-21 school year officially started Aug. 24, with all students engaged in eLearning. School campuses are set to reopen Monday, Aug. 31, with students given the choice to attend in person or continue with virtual learning. This will be the first time all school campuses reopen since shutting down in mid-March due to the community spread of COVID-19.
“We’ve been planning since March to be able to be prepared to transition to eLearning and brick-and-mortar [instruction]; that’s our role and responsibility,” said Addison Davis, Hillsborough County’s school superintendent, at an Aug. 21 back-to-school conference at the newly opened Jule F. Sumner High School in Riverview. “We don’t have any choice but to be ready,”
Standing before a line of television cameras in Sumner’s newly minted media center, Davis gave reference to a table of mask-wearing classroom teachers in attendance. “Not every hero wears a cape,” Davis said. “These are true heroes, sitting in front of us today. Every one of these teachers and educators [is] willing to step up and do great things for children.”
Indeed, it has not been without strain, stress, angst and worry that today’s educators are planning for what’s ahead, but it’s blended also with that back-to-school enthusiasm that strikes every teacher on the eve of a new school year.
“I’m very nervous but I’m excited,” said Katy Karpenske, an English teacher at Sumner High. “I’m missing seeing the kids. I miss having kids in my classroom. I’m so ready to have them back in my room.”
Since mid-March schools have been closed due to the coronavirus pandemic as divisive, political debate continued to rage over the summer break as to how best reopen for business for the start of the new school year. School board members pushed back the opening from Aug. 10 to Aug. 24, then voted to extend e-Learning for the first four weeks of school after hearing from a panel of medical experts that agreed it would be wise to hold back a physical reopening.
State education officials nixed that idea, threatening to hold back funding, based on the grounds that an executive order signed July 6 by State Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran required all Florida schools to have brick-and-mortar schools opened by Sept. 1.
Davis argued his case in Tallahassee to no avail, and plans went forward with an Aug. 24 opening. Meanwhile, the Florida Education Association, the state’s teacher’s union, won its day in court Aug. 24 when State Circuit Judge Charles Dodson granted a temporary injunction that blocks Corcoran and Gov. Ron DeSantis from enforcing the July 6 mandate.
Judge Dodson found “the order is unconstitutional to the extent it arbitrarily disregards safety, denies local school boards decision-making with respect to reopening brick and mortar schools and conditions funding on an approved reopening plan with a start date in August.”
Hillsborough school board members were to address the ruling at both a workshop and school board meeting Aug. 25, but no further vote on the matter was expected. A spokesperson for the governor said an appeal is pending.
Meanwhile, school buildings are set to reopen Monday, with a good percentage of students opting to stay home. At Sumner, which opens with 1,900 students in grades 9-11, and 450 sixth-graders in Sumner’s Academy 2027, the percentages of students opting to learn virtually are 35 percent and 45 percent, respectively, said principal Dave Brown.
For those returning to brick and mortar, pre-screenings and assessment will be the order of the day, along with orders to wear masks and social distance. Hand sanitizers have been ordered en masse.
“We know that adults are super-spreaders,” Davis said, so “we’re going to take temperatures of adults every single day.” People who show symptoms at school will be screened in an isolated room in the nurse’s office. And the push is on to promote self-screening at home.
“We want to be very clear,” Davis said. “Whether it’s an employee, whether it’s a child, we have got to have everyone conduct self-checks. If you don’t feel well, you have symptoms related to a runny nose, a fever, a cough, stay home.”
As for what it feels like on the eve of a new school year for educators who every year look forward to greeting a new cohort of students, only this time under the shadow of a coronavirus pandemic, Brown didn’t skip a beat.
“If you want to know how we’re feeling, think of emojis,” Brown said. “Are we excited? Absolutely. Are we scared? Sure. Are we thrilled? Yes, so we run the whole gamut.”
For more on how the school district addresses the coronavirus pandemic, visit: www.sdhc.k12.fl.us. To view, and read the transcripts for, the Aug. 25 school board workshop and meeting, visit: http://schoolboard.hcpswebcasts.com.