Florida Schools Need Help With COVID, No More Petty Arguments

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This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.

Let’s not pretend COVID-19 is in the mirror, that schools are back to normal, or that students and teachers are safely installed in learning environments on campus. 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 threatened by an interrupted school year.

A Tampa Bay Times Tuesday’s report showed the continued toll that quarantines have on the college experience. Matthew McCrary, senior at Boca Ciega High, recalled sitting in the school auditorium four of the seven periods on a recent day because so many teachers were absent. “It’s very difficult,” he says. “We’re not getting any assignments and we’re falling behind.” Tatyana Arnold, a teacher at Johns Hopkins High School in St. Petersburg, said teachers juggle every day to cover up for missing colleagues. “It’s even more difficult than in a normal year,” said Sarah Khattabi, another teacher at Hopkins.

Of course, the fall semester 2021 was supposed to usher in the recovery, as students who switched to virtual learning during the pandemic last year returned to brick and mortar classrooms. School districts have braced themselves 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 hit last year’s level after just a month, sending thousands of children and teachers to quarantine. Students were left behind as the state stopped paying for distance education. And schools have struggled to fill the gaps with substitute teachers.

Gov. Ron DeSantis and Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran are only making conditions worse by fighting with school districts that have imposed temporary mask warrants to counter this upheaval in the classroom. In practice, it is probably too late in the semester to offer duplicate learning options. But the state and local school districts must provide more resources to help students and staff weather the uproar on campus. Many teachers, as usual, go above and beyond by making themselves available during their off-peak hours. But the situation demands a more organized strategy than a voluntary effort. And it shouldn’t be just the responsibility of parents or classmates to help quarantined students keep up with their homework.

Hillsborough County has responded by launching new online initiatives for home students who want to stay on top of their classes. For Kindergarten to Grade 5, Hillsborough is setting up a group of virtual instructors who are on call to answer students’ questions about their classroom materials. Teachers will not be teaching classes, but will be available for support. For middle and high school students, which offer many more classes, the district has made a commitment to provide 24-hour online access to tutors. These palliative measures should help maintain some continuity in the educational process.

But the schoolchildren do not have time on their side. Florida’s ongoing legal battle over school mask warrants and the investigation the U.S. Department of Education announced on Friday into whether the state’s ban on warrants violates federal law by making students disabled in danger of increased health, will not be resolved in time for many students to avoid falling further behind. There has to be a balance between the governor’s political motives and the costs students pay as a result of these disruptions to university life. We wish the pandemic was not over, and pretend it only prolongs the fight.

Editorials are the corporate voice of the Tampa Bay Times. Members of the Editorial Board are Editorial Board Editor Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chief Executive Officer Paul Tash. To follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.



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