Like many working parents with young children, Meredith Piazza feels like she has no choice other than to send her kids back to school in person next month. Piazza, a social worker with the Teen Parent Program at Sarasota's Riverview High School, has already returned to campus herself to prepare for students’ arrival in late August. Her children, a third grader at Southside Elementary and a sixth grader at Sarasota Middle, are excited to go back, but Piazza is worried about their health and safety.

“Both of my kids love and miss school, and I want to make sure it’s a positive experience for them,” Piazza says. “But it still feels weird to go back after we’ve had lockdown all summer."

The students Piazza works with at Riverview often come from marginalized and low-income households and are dependent on school services, like free or reduced lunch and breakfast programs, child care and mental health support. Even just having a safe space to go to is key. “We need to accommodate these families that financially rely on the school system in order to survive,” Piazza says.

These same families, however, are at a higher risk for contracting COVID-19, since they come from hotspot ZIP codes where remote learning might be a safer choice. “We are obviously choosing between two imperfect decisions,” Piazza says.

As Sarasota and Manatee county schools prepare to welcome back students for the 2020-2021 school year, parents and teachers have widely varying opinions about whether schools should reopen their campuses and whether students should learn online instead.

In Sarasota County, schools will reopen on Monday, August 31, with new rules requiring everyone to wear masks and follow social distancing and hygiene guidelines. Manatee County schools have a similar plan, but will reopen two weeks earlier, on Monday, August 17.

The districts, however, are allowing alternatives. One option requires students to virtually follow along with a specific class at their normal school. Another is a completely online program that is meant to be overseen by parents. A survey conducted by the Sarasota County school district found that 67 percent of Sarasota County parents are opting for brick-and-mortar schooling, 26 percent for full-time remote learning and 7 percent completely online.

While some parents have the opportunity to keep their children at home, many working parents and families depend financially on the public school system and have no choice but to send their kids back. Organizations like the Brain Health Initiative of Lakewood Ranch have pointed out the importance of in-person socialization for childhood development. A recent presentation by the Harvard School of Public Health stated that, without schools and routine, “many children cannot effectively develop, learn, grow, engage, socialize, be active, eat healthy food or get support.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, COVID-19 "poses a relatively low risk for school-aged children, and scientific studies have shown that transmission among children in schools may be low." Children and adolescents under 18 account for less than 7 percent of COVID cases and less than 0.1 percent of COVID-related deaths, according to the Centers. This, however, does not account for transmission from students to adults.

While families have the ability to choose, teachers will be required to return in-person, recording lessons for remote students and dedicating extra time to hygiene measures in the classroom.

Tuttle Elementary science teacher Tara Green says she is hesitant to return to the classroom, despite how much she misses her students. She has been working at Tuttle for 17 years, and believes beginning the school year online, for teachers and students, would be the safest option.

“Online learning is not the ideal education for most students. In-person schooling is the better option. But only when we can do this in a safe way,” Green says. She plans on wearing a face shield while teaching students.

Pine View School journalism and English teacher Chris Lenerz believes that the brick-and-mortar reopening could prove to be a waste of time. He says a more comprehensive plan for remote learning could have been developed, instead. He is also concerned by a teacher shortage Sarasota County has faced since last year. 

“Even though we are the most desirable district in the state, positions have still gone unfilled pre-COVID,” Lenerz says. “The majority of substitute teachers are also retired teachers, who aren’t likely going to risk their lives to come in and teach.”

Lenerz has children in seventh and ninth grade and has chosen to have them study online, to protect family members at a high risk for contracting the virus. He empathizes with each parent's situation, but believes kids may end up back at home because of the state’s current virus trajectory.

“I’d rather make sure my children are healthy and alive,” Lenerz says.

Trey Jones, a parent of a third grader at Bay Haven School of Basics Plus, has a similar viewpoint. He works from home, and will opt for online schooling, despite the difficulties it presents.

“Based on the end of last school year, it’s hard for kids to learn when not in a group setting,” says Jones. He read the district’s plan for reopening, but feels that it wasn’t fully fleshed out enough to trust. “If we could keep kids clean and wearing masks at all times, it would make sense, but kids are kids—they spread germs," he says.

Parents like Lindsay Howell, however, are sending their children back full-time, even with the uncertainty. Howell, a mother of a Southside Elementary third grader and the incoming vice president of the school’s parent teacher organization, labels herself a “nervous option one parent." She believes in Southside’s administration and leadership, but also sees the way the coronavirus is impacting Sarasota as a whole.

“I’m for opening schools under the best possible conditions,” says Howell. “It’s not ideal, given the more we’re learning about this virus each month, but I have faith in my daughter’s school.” Online learning is not off the table for her family, since both she and her husband have flexible work schedules, but Howell believes it is best when younger students can have eyes and ears on a teacher as they enter school. “As things change, however, I am open to keeping her home," she says.

Sarasota School of Arts and Sciences has kept lines of communication open between families and faculty through the school's YouTube channel and frequent video updates. Principal Tara Tahmosh-Newell says that despite the plans in place, her teachers are still hesitant to return.

“Many teachers are much more nervous about in-person education than remote learning,” says Tahmosh-Newell. “Our faculty is completely prepared to teach remotely, synchronously and effectively, and would prefer it." The school is using Microsoft classroom software and has created teams of teachers to improve remote learning. Tahmosh-Newell hopes such steps will allow as many children to learn from home as possible.

“Even if only 75 percent of our students come to school on a daily basis, schools cannot possibly socially distance and are not designed for a six-foot radius around every child,” says Tahmosh-Newell. She hopes that families strongly consider remote options to make social distancing a possibility.

Sarasota School of Arts and Sciences parent and board member Angela Bailey has decided the hybrid option will work best for her eighth-grade daughter, as well as for her high school-aged son, who attends Suncoast Polytechnical. Many of her son's friends have chosen the online route, since they are older and don’t require the same hands-on involvement that younger students do.

“The case numbers are like a roller coaster. It’s very alarming,” says Bailey. “I don’t even want my son riding the bus to school. Safety has to remain first.”

Riding the bus is one of several concerns for daily operations within a school day. How will after-school and extracurricular activities work with social distancing, if at all? What about band practice, sports teams, recess and even parent involvement in school activities? Some parents wonder if teachers will be compensated for their extra work to keep classrooms clean and safe.

In Manatee County, former Lakewood Ranch High School principal Mike Wilder says schools should keep the high school experience as normal as possible for kids. Wilder was the principal at Lakewood Ranch for seven years, and went on to become a district office coordinator, training new principals.

“I think schools need to find a way to have activities like prom, football games, etc.,” says Wilder. “Principals also need the ability to make decisions for their schools and individual communities.” 

“The general mandate is important, but then we’re missing the talent of individual leadership," he says. "Everybody needs to have a voice."

Wilder’s daughter, a second grade teacher at Marjorie G. Kinnan Elementary School, has expressed her excitement to return to the classroom.

“She is looking forward to seeing her students,” says Wilder. “But if things change, or one of her students gets COVID, she is prepared to move to an online platform and be part of the solution."

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