Heading up one of Florida’s largest school districts is certainly a tall task on its own merit — let alone when a world-altering pandemic shocks the system from March onward.
So, it’s understandable if Pasco County Schools Superintendent Kurt Browning tries to bring some levity to the whole situation.
His humor showed through at a speaking engagement before the Greater Dade City Chamber of Commerce Oct. 20 breakfast meeting.
“I always look for positive things. I think, ‘You know, I could be the supervisor of elections…’,” quipped Browning, before a crowd of dozens at the Scotland Yards Golf Club in Dade City.
Booming laughter, of course, ensued.
Browning held the Pasco County Supervisor of Elections position for 26 years, from 1980 to 2006.
He later joked and shared an anecdote how he once heard current Pasco County Supervisor of Elections Brian Corley discuss his various responsibilities and lengthy work schedule.
Browning retorted to Corley: “I don’t ever want to you hear you talk about how hard you work, until you run a school district. You don’t know what hard work is, until you run a school system.”
More seriously, though, Browning told the crowd that the past six months or so have unquestionably been a stressful period for administrators, teachers, parents and students alike. “We have had a rough go,” he said.
The superintendent shared his personal experience of contracting the coronavirus in June.
The moment he received word of his positive COVID-19 test, Browning said, “it was all downhill from there.
“Probably the sickest I’ve ever been, sickest I’ve ever been in my life,” said Browning, noting he still feels some lingering fatigue even today.
“It was bad. It was bad, bad, bad. …I was too sick to even worry about what was going on in the office,” the superintendent said.
He discussed the hurdles that the district overcame to get teachers and students either back in the classroom or learning virtually.
The district gave families three learning options for the 2020-2021 school year:
- Traditional brick-and-mortar campuses
- Pasco eSchool virtual education program
- mySchool Online, a hybrid virtual learning model where students follow a standard school schedule and bell times
One of the most challenging aspects of the first quarter has been the continuous indecisiveness by parents on which learning model to use for their child, he said.
Parents initially choosing a virtual model would flip back to traditional, and vice versa, mainly based on the latest news reports of whether COVID-19 cases were spiking or slowing.
“As we got closer to school, I mean people were just ping-ponging back and forth,” Browning said.
He said he had to plead with parents: “Don’t do that. Just pick a model and stick with it, because it’s not good for your student to keep going back and forth, because they’re going to lose instruction.”
Parent indecisiveness has “settled down a little bit,” but some parents are still “ping-ponging.”
The superintendent also noted that parents who intend to send kids back to brick-and-mortar campuses next semester need to inform his office soon, as preparations are already underway. A hard date for those second semester decisions will be set relatively soon.
“Keep in mind, it’s not as simple as moving kids into a classroom,” said Browning, the changes affect teachers and scheduling, too.
Other school district challenges amid COVID-19
Browning also touched on other challenges brought about by the start the pandemic, such as creating drive-thru sites to provide free meals for needy families.
The district served over 1 million meals, from March through the beginning of the school year in August.
The number of families who needed help increased drastically, Browning said, particularly among the district’s 36 Title 1 schools — campuses with large concentrations of low-income students.
Many of those students rely on school-provided breakfast and lunch, as oftentimes it’s their only meals of the day, “so it’s important we get the food to them,” Browning said.
The superintendent added the 1 million-plus meal figure is “much higher than we’ve ever served meals before, and I think a lot of that was due to folks having lost jobs, not being able to provide food for their kids.”
And, as students moved to remote learning, technology became a big challenge.
The district issued about 20,000 laptops and iPads to students for virtual learning purposes.
The school district primarily uses Apple equipment, but district leadership decided to distribute Dell laptops — in order to distribute more laptops. The district could buy three Dell laptops for the cost of one Apple laptop, Browning explained.
“We learned very quickly, if we’re going to get where we need to be with devices for our kids, we’re kind of switching over to Dell devices,” Browning said. “They’re not as sturdy as an Apple, but if a kid drops a Dell and breaks it, throw it in the garbage and buy another one. With an Apple, you have to fix it, and the investment’s too great to do that with.”
Getting remote internet access to students was another necessity and challenge — particularly at the end of last school year.
“You know how many kids in 2020 do not have internet service? A lot,” Browning said.
To solve the problem, the district equipped school buses with hotspots and set them up in school parking lots in remote areas with no internet service, such as Crystal Springs, Lacoochee and Shady Hills.
The concept allowed families to park their cars into school lots for several hours and have children complete necessary schoolwork from there.
“We bought hotspots by the hundreds,” Browning said.
New technical high school underway
Browning went on to discuss the district’s forthcoming technical high school — Kirkland Ranch Academy of Innovation, being built at 9100 Curley Road in Wesley Chapel.
The 184,000-square-foot technical school is expected to serve 1,000 students and is scheduled to open for the 2022-2023 school year.
The school will prepare students for high-salary, high-skill careers in high-demand areas, such as digital multimedia, engineering and robotics, biomedical sciences, building construction, and cyber security, according to district officials.
A groundbreaking ceremony was celebrated in early September.
Browning believes it’ll be a win for the school district, underscoring the importance of technical and vocational training programs, as well as dual-enrollment opportunities.
“We want our kids to have options, we want our kids to be successful,” said Browning. “We want them to be exposed to diesel mechanics. You know what a good diesel mechanic is paid? You know what a great welder gets paid? Sometimes six figures.”
The school, Browning said, is being constructed “with a lot of non-fixed walls” to allow for ever-changing learning programs that may require more or less space in the future.
“It’s going to be a very functional facility for our kids, and I believe East Pasco deserves that and needs that for our kids,” Browning said.
Kirkland Ranch will primarily pull students from Pasco, Zephyrhills, Wesley Chapel and Wiregrass Ranch high schools, but also will be available to “any other kid” from the county that wants to take advantage, Browning said.
Published November 11, 2020