After a year of being reopen for full-time, in-person learning, Florida school districts have recommendations and lessons learned to share with colleagues nationwide striving to reopen with a sense of normalcy. For many, this school year drove home the importance of technology, in-person instruction, flexibility, communications and collaboration.
"What we’ve learned is what we instinctively knew but couldn’t prove," said Sandra "Sam" Himmel, superintendent of Citrus County Schools.
The Florida Department of Education required all public schools to reopen for full-time in-person classes in August. Many districts also offered two online options. These typically consisted of virtual classes often offered in partnership with Florida Virtual School, or a "live" option that was more popular in many districts.
In the live option, students attended online with teachers from their home school on video, following their school’s bell schedule, with breaks for lunch and physical education or recess. For example, some students would go outside to play hopscotch or basketball.
However, a number of districts throughout the state will not continue the live options for the 2021-22 school year because the model proved hard for students, families and teachers. Many teachers had both online students, including some quarantined temporarily with the coronavirus, and students in their classrooms.
“When we first opened, we had about 35% of kids in virtual education,” said Himmel, who is president-elect of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents and 2020 Florida Superintendent of the Year.
“A lot of our kids struggled online,” she said.
Students’ struggles and the increasing percentages of students returning to brick-and-mortar classrooms throughout the year confirmed face-to-face instruction is best, at least for most students, Himmel said.
“We know online education has a place and is a tool,” she said.
Still, the pandemic proved technology’s worth, Volusia County Schools Community Information Specialist Cindi Lane said.
Volusia’s school board approved a full 1:1 initiative in January. All 33,000 students in grades 6-12 were issued laptops that month. Elementary students will each have a dedicated laptop or iPad, depending on grade level, for classroom use starting next school year, Lane said.
Previously, most of Volusia’s 62,000 students — more than 60% of whom qualified for free or reduced-price lunch — used their families’ home computers or a limited number of computers schools had available to lend with priority to students with financial need, Lane said.
Many districts scrambled last summer to provide Chromebooks and other devices for each student or family, though some districts were 1:1 before the pandemic.
Sumter County School District previously issued laptop computers to every student in 3rd grade and up, but every student — including the early elementary grades — was issued a computer to start the 2020-21 school year.
Devices are just another tool in the teacher’s toolbox, Sumter Superintendent Rick Shirley said. Teachers have all been forced to rely on technology, whether they liked it before or not.
“We’ve come a long way,” Shirley said. “Technology doesn’t do any good without a competent, caring staff.”
The Florida district leaders K-12 Dive spoke with offered several recommendations and lessons learned during the pandemic:
Communicate and collaborate. “It was important for us to keep staff informed of decisions made and, when possible, ask for their input beforehand,” Lake County Schools Superintendent Diane Kornegay said.
Citrus County Schools also beefed up its website to share information and added a “Let’s Talk” section to its homepage for parents. It plans to keep that popular avenue, Himmel said.
Use technology as a tool. Sumter and Citrus are among many districts that equipped school buses with Wi-Fi routers to bring the internet to rural communities where families lacked access for online learning or homework. Many districts also issued hotspots to students who lacked reliable internet at home.
Provide as much time as possible for remediation and acceleration. Volusia County Schools is offering a robust summer program, including classes at some elementary schools and high school credit recovery. Lake County instituted a remediation and acceleration block at least twice a week in all schools and four days a week in most.
“This time built into the instructional day, along with numerous before- and after-school tutoring and credit recovery opportunities, is helping to minimize learning lost when students are at home due to sickness and quarantine, or learning online without the needed home supports,” Kornegay said.
Talk to students. Sumter County encouraged all teachers to have one-on-one conversations with every student at least once a week, Shirley said. Some conversations were via the Microsoft Teams programs used for live online instruction. Many with remote learners were also by telephone.
“It’s not the same as sitting next to someone and feeling what they’re trying to say,” Shirley said. While social and emotional needs can also be difficult to diagnose, repeated conversations help build relationships that will uncover students’ needs.
Set up office hours for teachers so students (or parents) can seek help. “Students should not be emailing teachers at 11:30 at night asking about a homework problem,” Shirley said.
Teach students to learn. “It’s probably more important that they learn to learn than to learn the content,” Shirley said. “We’re preparing a generation with today’s technology and today’s skill set for a world that is changing.”
Sumter teaches students to analyze sources of information and determine whether it is fact, opinion or falsehood, he said.
Get more families involved by using technology. Practice made online meetings easier. Streaming is a way of bringing in families that schools could not reach before, Citrus County Schools Chief Academic Officer Scott Hebert said. By holding parent events simultaneously in-person and also online, more families participate from home.
Be flexible. “Pandemics bring about constant change,” Kornegay said.
Talk about how to do things better next time. This is a question discussed at the end of every meeting in Citrus County, Himmel said.
“Sometimes we get stuck in a bubble — that you can’t do it differently,” Hebert noted.
Support school leaders and instructional staff. Without that support, Kornegay said, “It’s difficult to make it to the end of a crisis having retained all the great teachers, staff and leaders who started the journey with you.”
Correction: In a previous version of this article, the student enrollment for Volusia County Schools was misstated.