Hillsborough County teachers return to the classroom for the first time since pandemic began

Hillsborough County teachers returned to the classroom Friday for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic forced districts to shut down in March.

Teachers began planning and organizing the classrooms for the upcoming school year, which will be challenging during the ongoing pandemic.

"I've been waiting for this day for 155 days," said Kathy Hill, a teacher at Mitchell Elementary School. "This classroom has been empty since March 23 and I couldn't get wait to get back up. Woke up this morning with that usual excitement of the first day of school. It was different obviously coming in. But I certainly was excited to come back into the classroom."

Classes are going to be smaller. Only 50 percent of parents in Hillsborough County are sending their children back to school for in-person instruction. Six-feet for social distancing, however, might not be possible in every room; three-to-four feet apart might be more likely.

Teachers are also being asked to deal with mandated mask and constant cleaning. For Hill, that's nothing new.

"It has always been important to me that my kids feel safe. They feel safe inside my classroom. They feel safe from the outside world. I want them to feel loved," Hill said. "I want them to feel inspired and I want them to feel joy. Those things won't change.

Just because they make me spread out a little bit, those values to me will continue."

Nearly 60 percent of teachers in Hillsborough County have decided to return to the classroom. Superintendent Addison Davis said Friday marked an important first step time for educators.

"The biggest thing is for them to come together and talk about how they will take additional measures to reduce risk within our common areas, within our hallways within our classrooms," Davis said.

Many of the teachers who don't feel comfortable returning to the classroom have held demonstrations and are urging the district to go "online for nine," meaning they want the first nine weeks of school. The school board recently passed the superintendent's reopening plan for Aug. 24, but will revisit the nine-week virtual idea next Thursday.