NEW PORT RICHEY — Pasco Schools Superintendent Kurt Browning said the district will have a public announcement by July 1 about how the 2020-21 school year will open and hinted parents may be given options on either returning to the physical school plants, maintaining distance learning, or a combination of both.
Browning made the announcement during a June 4 virtual town hall interview by Greater Pasco Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Tim McClain for members of that organization.
Browning said the decision should be made sooner than later for the parents of the current 75,000 students and 1,900 expected to be added in the upcoming school year.
The superintendent said the district spent almost two full weeks actively seeking the opinions of teachers, students, parents, and the community as a whole on how the schools should approach reopening “and what the expectations should be about going back to school in August.”
Browning said the results split on the subject of distance learning versus returning to the classroom.
“There were those who thought distance learning was great for their kids and gave them a better understanding of what their child does,” he said. “Then there were those who said if we did this to them again, ‘We’re going to come looking for you.’”
The challenge now, Browning said, is “finding that sweet spot for next year.”
“We are now taking all that data and trying to synthesize that and be in that spot where people are going to be able to have the educational needs met in a safe learning environment,” he added.
Browning said he did not want to put parents in a position of having distance learning forced on them.
“I think parents are going to need to make that decision,” he said. “It’s ironic we are hearing we can’t reopen the economy until the schools are open. Moms and dads, particularly in elementary schools, need a place to be able to have their children go so they can get back to normalcy and get back to work.
“We are trying to come up with a plan that brings kids back to school, minimizing their risks to the COVID-19, but giving parents the option because there are parents out there – we’ve heard them – saying they are ready to send their children back,” Browning said. “Then we have some parents saying they would like to send them back, but aren’t quite sure and would like to have some options.”
He said the district is exploring plans that would give parents options of some selected classes virtually or maintaining a full-slate of virtual classes.
“The difference here would be the parents making that decision and not the superintendent or the school district,” Browning said. “It really has to fit the student, but I will say virtual learning will look different than it did for the last nine weeks. It will be structured more and have greater check-ins. We cannot afford to lose track of kids. We cannot afford to not have kids engaged in their learning.”
He said he hopes to have the district’s plan completed and made available to staff and parents by July 1.
“Hillsborough has indicated they aren’t coming out with their plans until Aug. 1,” he said. “I think that’s way, way, way too late. Parents need to know now so they know how to plan ‘what decision am I going to make for my child?’ We want to give parents more time to do that.”
Browning said the Pasco schools were “well-positioned” when it came time to make the change to distance learning at what could be considered record time for such a transition.
“We have the Pasco eSchool that a number of our students avail themselves to, so they were able to support going from a very small number of students in the district that are multi-virtual to 75,000-plus students that became in essence full-time virtual,” Browning said.
“We know that was a strain on moms and dads. We know that it was a strain on teachers and students,” he said. “But, I can tell you our teachers, parents and students just rose to the occasion.”
The superintendent added there have been concerns about “achievement gaps” for some students and that, because of distance learning, that gap may have widened.
“I will tell you we are very, very confident that because of how we rolled out distance learning for our families, that gap is not as wide as we believe it probably is in many other districts throughout Florida,” Browning said. “Some districts are passing out paper packets to kids. We just don’t think that’s rigorous learning.”
He said his two major concerns for the next school year is what to do to close those gaps and ensuring classrooms are “a safe, healthy environment” when students return.
As part of the solution, Browning said the summer classes “are really focused on grades K-3 literacy-wise and trying to break that cycle of kids coming back to school not prepared to learn and not being able to read.”
“Those early grades have a major impact on middle and high schools as well,” he said.
Browning said school facilities would receive vigorous, ongoing cleanings, but there really was no way to guarantee perfection in that process.
He also addressed how the COVID-19 situation forced the cancellations and postponements of milestone moments, including graduations, for the Class of 2020. The district has since announced August dates for those ceremonies at the USF Yuengling Center.
“Some parents thought the district was being a little indecisive because we weren’t making a decision (on graduation),” Browning said. “Quite honestly, things were changing so rapidly. The last thing I wanted to do was not have graduations as regularly scheduled. With the CDC guidelines, the year for our seniors was incredibly and unfortunately disrupted. We eventually had to make the decision that we could not hold graduations as they were regularly scheduled.”
He called the USF staff “eager to help us,” but remained cautious the CDC guidelines may become a hindrance on having the ceremonies even at that later date.
“I know we have kids going off to the military. I know we have kids going off to college. But, we really wanted to provide an opportunity for kids to walk across that stage, be recognized, have their picture taken and receive their diploma,” Browning said, noting the district’s social media has already been broadcasting virtual celebrations.
“This district really wanted to recognize its 2020 graduates, and I believe we have done the best job we could have done under the circumstances,” he said. “Hopefully, we won’t find ourselves in this place a year from now.”
The superintendent praised the Pasco County community for being supportive throughout the extraordinary times.
“They have been terrific in trying to make our seniors feel special,” he said.
Browning said the same lack of closure felt by students is also being felt by those who have taught them.
“Teachers are going through the same thing,” he said. “Teachers develop relationships with kids and I have said over and over again those relationships are so important. Sometimes, moms and dads try to get kids to do something and they just won’t do it. But because a teacher has that special relationship with that student they will move heaven and earth for that teacher. These teachers went out on spring break not knowing they would not see their kids again in a classroom.”
Despite the setbacks, Browning called the district teachers “resilient.”
“They have been innovative and have sought out ways to connect with their kids before school got out,” Browning said.
He also gave praise to the school district staff who, during the nine weeks the physical facilities were closed, prepared and distributed more than 1 million meals.
“Our staff again rose to the occasion,” Browning said. “We had volunteers from all across the district who helped prepare those meals as well as serve them.”
The district is now into its summer feeding schedule and served 65,000 for the first week of that timeframe.
“Students have needs to be met and we will continue to do that,” Browning said.