BROOKSVILLE — It’s been a remarkable year for Hernando County schools, which have worked diligently to manage schooling during the COVID-19 pandemic.
One of the administrators who worked on the task force charged with creating the county’s system of three different schooling options to deal with the crisis was Weeki Wachee High School principal Troy LaBarbara. At the helm of the high school since 2012, he recently learned he was chosen as the school district’s 2020 Principal of the Year.
“I was very shocked because there are so many good colleagues out there — so many good people deserving,” he said.
LaBarbara said the award is an honor, but perhaps bittersweet in a year in which school districts everywhere have been challenged beyond anything they’ve ever dealt with. He likes to think the culture of safety and respect he’s tried to instill amongst the students and faculty over the years has helped his school cope with the pandemic.
“As a school family, we work together to create a welcoming and safe campus for students, staff and our families,” LaBarbara once wrote in a letter to students and parents.
It concluded with, “I ask that we all be safe, healthy, and kind.”
LaBarbara said things are going as well as can be expected, but the situation for students this year is far from ideal. Tracking data weekly, it’s estimated that 67 percent of the 343 Weeki Wachee students currently schooling digitally from home have fallen behind in academic performance compared to the 847 students attending “face-to-face” in classrooms at the school. Some 110 Weeki Wachee students are enrolled in the third option: the state’s E-school online learning program.
The digital option is just like the classroom. Class starts at a particular time and when the bell rings, students use their computer at home to join the next one. They are learning alongside fellow students live in classrooms at the school in real time. The state’s E-learning system allows students to do their schoolwork on their own schedule as long as they complete the required work in a given week.
LaBarbara said the shortcomings of digital, at-home learning are related to less in-person supervision by school staff. Being in the classroom, students are more focused and kept on track by teachers, while at home students are able to slack off or even skip class easily.
“We’re seeing some of that,” said LaBarbara, who added that when parents are present during school hours to keep their children focused on their schoolwork, students do better. These students are among the better performing 33 percent. Also among them are students whose parents work during the day but possess a lot of self-discipline.
“Some children are 100 percent dedicated to their work,” said LaBarbara, something important to success when students have to “monitor themselves” while parents are at work.
“I don’t blame parents,” said LaBarbara. “They have to work and this is a tough situation.”
He’s worked to educate parents who are at home during school hours to be team players during the pandemic.
“Parents need to understand that they are the main resource for (student) success,” said LaBarbara, adding they must serve the role teachers and school staff members play in the classroom.
LaBarbara said during the initial nine weeks following the outbreak of the virus in March, there wasn’t a single positive case of COVID-19 among Weeki Wachee High students. By May, some infections were being seen and since students returned to classes in September, “we’ve had a few cases.” Those have been actual cases, but more often just exposures which occurred outside of school. In those cases, students quarantine at home for a couple of weeks before returning to school. It happened in a few cases following Thanksgiving.
“We got some calls after the break from students that reported they were exposed to someone at home who tested positive,” said LaBarbara, adding in those cases the student quarantined for the required time before returning. He expects it will be the case following the Christmas break.
LaBarbara and everyone at Weeki Wachee High School trudges on despite the challenges, and spirits are good — something he says is a lot easier thanks to a “solid foundation” the school has built over the years.
LaBarbara likes to think of students, parents and school staff as part of one big family, and like any strong family, the Weeki Wachee High family has what it takes to deal with a crisis like COVID-19.
Fittingly, the school’s mascot is the tenacious and determined hornet.
“I hope you believe as I do that when we say ‘one swarm, one nest, one family,’ it is not just a slogan, it is who we are — one family,” LaBarbara wrote in the aforementioned letter to students and parents.