New school year begins for several Tampa Bay school districts with precautions, challenges

After being shuttered for more than five months, thousands of students across the Bay Area officially began their first day of school. This includes kids in Pinellas, Polk, Pasco and Hillsborough, though it was not without technical glitches.

School buses headed out to pick up students for the first time since March on Monday morning. Face masks, social distancing, new lunch times and alternate bell schedules are just a few of the changes schools implemented this fall to keep students and staff safe.

Nearly half of Bay Area students have opted to start the school year at a distance, attending school online.

In Pinellas County, students had three options to choose from. Thousands have headed back to the physical classrooms, but about 45% of students have opted for online learning.

It’s something every students and staff member will need to be comfortable with this year because if they are exposed on campus, they’ll have to quarantine for at least 14 days. Students, teachers and parents were all introduced to online learning last spring when the district suddenly switched over mid-March.

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Pinellas superintendent Dr. Michael Grego said things should be a lot smoother this fall now that they’ve had a chance to iron out the kinks 

“I know that our students are ready to return and have truly missed seeing their friends, teachers and school community," he said.  "I also know that they are eager to get back to the routines, engagement and learning that our schools provide."

With nearly half the district starting the school year online, Dr. Grego said students in brick-and-mortar schools and on buses will have an easier time keeping up with social distancing. Of course, superintendents know they can’t keep the virus off campus.

“In the spring, within a week, we all knew we had to turn on a dime and now over the summer we’ve started to utilize Canvas, which is a specialized learning platform and our teachers have been trained but you know what I’m gonna say up front that there are going to be challenges with that," Grego said. "The first day of school there will be challenges, the second day it’ll get a little better and what I want parents and students to understand is this is a learning experience for all of us”

In Hillsborough County, the entire first week of school will start online.

School board members had voted to have online classes for the first four weeks of the school year but when the state threatened to pull millions in funding, the district changed the plan again. Now, students who've chosen in-person learning will head back on August 31.

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“There’s also a chance that your school may be affected by a positive case of COVID-19," said Addison Davis, superintendent in Hillsborough County. "If this occurs, there’s a possibility that your child may have to be quarantined. SmartStart week will provide everyone with a strong e-learning days so they can transition seamlessly from brick and mortar to e-learning if the need arises.”

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Students experienced problems with Canvas, the distirct's new online learning tool, in its first day of use district-wide. Many could not lot on to their applications, and a widespread Zoom videoconferencing outage made matters worse.

Over in Pasco County, more classes will be held outdoors, amongst other changes this year.

Face masks will be required in schools, and staff will be doing extra cleaning. An emphasis will also be placed on wasing hands and using hand sanitizer stations around campus.

Pasco superintendent Kurt Browning says his district has even partnered with the health department, whose medical staff will be on hand to quickly try to prevent an outbreak 

“The health department will have staff members housed in one of our buildings and their sole responsibility is to work with our schools," Browning said. "When a school has a positive case or someone is exhibiting symptoms, we will have health department staff taking action immediately. COVID-19 testing will be faster, contact tracing will be faster and the results will come back sooner.”

In Polk County, summer vacation is also over as students had to wake up for the first day of school. 

Davenport Elementary School is a new school and an old school at the same time. Built in 1927, the school eventually fell into disuse for a number of years. It was rehabbed and overhauled, and it finally reopened Monday.

Essentially, teachers and students are coming back to a new school, and across the district, new rules. Masks and social distancing are a top priority, district officials said.