With the school year half over, a number of students in Sarasota County are still learning at home, connecting with teachers through Zoom and other interactive tools. Sarasota County Schools chief academic officer and assistant superintendent Laura Kingsley says remote learning has functioned well for most students, but not all.

"The vast majority of our kids whose parents chose remote learning for them are doing very well, but we have children who are struggling," says Kingsley, "They need to have that social interaction, and it gets frustrating for children who have a hard time staying focused."

At the beginning of the school year last summer, 30 percent of Sarasota County students were taking virtual classes. As the year has gone on, that number has dropped. In December, one out of every five students was participating in remote learning.

School officials often check in with students enrolled in remote learning who are disengaged. Perhaps they are not participating in class, or not even signing on in the first place. School staffers will contact parents to encourage them to return their children to school if the students continue to struggle.

Truancy officers, social workers, principals, vice principals and teachers have made nearly 1,000 visits to homes where students are not engaged.

Kingsley says the data isn't yet in on how remote learning has affected students' learning, but she says anecdotal evidence shows it affects how students absorb different subject matters in different ways. Complicated science lab lessons are impossible to replicate at home, for example, as are technology classes that rely on expensive software not available to students who are not in school.

For students enrolled in classes from kindergarten through eighth grade, reading lessons have proven easier to absorb than math, according to Kingsley.

"Teachers that are teaching reading to remote kids and children face to face, they're all looking at the same reading document," says Kingsley. "In math, it's a little harder and more time-consuming. A teacher in a class face to face can look over a child's shoulder and observe the work they're doing in real time." That's not possible with children studying remotely.

Group projects, meanwhile, can be handled through Zoom, but students are still missing out on face-to-face collaboration. The loss of social interaction can be devastating to many. Remote learning can also add to the stress of parents, who must ensure that their children are equipped with what they need and are staying on track with their lessons, while often working from home themselves.

Since school began last August, 240 school and school district staff members have tested positive for Covid-19, as have 931 students. (Those numbers do not include charter schools.) Among students, most cases have occurred in high schools. The Sarasota Herald-Tribune reported this month that the number of cases surged followed winter break, with 322 new positive test results in the first week of classes.

This week, in a review of national schools data from last fall, three Centers for Disease Control and Prevention scientists wrote that "the preponderance of available evidence" shows that schools did not experience the "rapid spread" of Covid-19 that can occur in other indoor group settings. Some school-related activities, like athletic competitions, however, have led to transmission of the disease, according to the report.

The scientists urge schools to continue to maintain rules that require face masks, as well as social distancing measures, and to improve ventilation and to test and isolate individuals who have been exposed to the coronavirus. The report also recommends limiting community transmission outside of schools by, for example, restricting indoor dining.

Rules for quarantining students and staff who have been exposed to Covid-19 have proven "tiresome," says Kingsley. The school district has a team of around 800 substitute teachers to cover classes, but still struggles to fill classrooms.

Kingsley says Sarasota's "unbelievable" teachers are working harder than ever before and commends them for adapting quickly to teaching through a computer screen. But, she says the extra work and stress are taking a toll. "Burnout is a very real fear," she says.

"We know that teachers are tired and there have been teachers who have taken leaves of absence, because they're concerned about their health or they are just overwhelmed with the setting," says Kingsley. "We are really proud of the teachers. They just persevere and they don't give up. I would love nothing more than to send all of our teachers on a cruise somewhere."

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