As the Pasco County public school district wraps up an academic year that was anything but normal, Superintendent Kurt Browning hopes things will be different in the 2021-2022 term.
Browning discussed his hopes for the district, along with a full range of other topics, during a webinar hosted last week by the Greater Pasco Chamber of Commerce, as part of its Business Development Year series.
“This year has been incredibly challenging,” Browning told those listening.
“Whoever knew … when everything got shut down (in March 2020) that we would literally be shut down for the fourth quarter and that we’d still be dealing with COVID … more than a year later,” the superintendent said.
Browning praised district teachers, administrators and staff for making rapid adaptations to conduct the rest of last school year virtually.
Then, he said, the district made more adjustments before the 2020-2021 year began to create a new option called mySchool Online. That option has allowed students to learn virtually, following a normal school schedule — being taught remotely by teachers.
When the 2021-2022 school year begins, Browning said mySchool Online will be discontinued. Students will either return to school campuses for in-person learning or learn remotely through Pasco eSchool.
MySchool Online, Browning acknowledged, “had its challenges.”
“We’ve had some students that have been very successful on it. I will tell you that we’ve had some students that have not been very successful,” he said.
Concerns about students lagging behind prompted the district to make an all-out push in an effort to persuade parents of those struggling students to return them to campus.
Some parents simply refused, Browning said.
That’s concerning, the district leader said, because “the performance this year is certainly going to set them up for future success. We just want to make sure our kids are prepared, going forward into the next grade level.”
As of last week, details were still being worked out regarding the summer instructional program and the upcoming school year.
Browning wants to reintroduce activities that were diminished or curtailed by COVID-19.
“Kids need some sense of normalcy. They need to have their clubs. They need to have athletics. They need to have their dances. They need to have the social interaction with other students,” Browning said.
“And so, we are going to try to have as normal of a school opening as we possibly can, starting in August,” Browning said.
At the same time, the district will take guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and will work closely with the Department of Health-Pasco County, he said.
Social isolation, mental health
Browning said he doesn’t consider himself a “touchy-feely” type of guy. But added: “I have been very concerned about the mental well-being of our kids this year.”
When students are learning remotely, they don’t have the safety nets that schools provide, he said.
“Teachers can’t physically lay their eyes on these kids. They can’t see that they’re dirty.
“They can’t see that they’ve got bruises on their arms.
“They can’t see that they’re thinner because maybe they’re not eating.
“At least when they were face-to-face, they could see some things. Teachers could let their administrators know. We could make phone calls. We could do a wellness check with the family. We could provide food. We could provide clothing.
“Not only that, we could provide hope.
“What we found through COVID is that some parents have just not had any hope.”
“My heart just breaks when I hear about these kids that are struggling,” Browning said.
He then told those listening to the webinar about a call he received from a fellow superintendent — who told him two students in that district had committed suicide.
A few weeks later, Browning said, he learned of a Pasco student who had committed suicide and then, a couple of weeks later, another student did.
“I don’t know all of the underlying circumstances to what brought that kid to make that decision,” Browning said. Then, he reiterated: “I have been concerned about the mental well-being of our kids.”
Browning touched on some other topics, too.
In response to a question, he said he expects COVID-19 to have a negative impact on the district’s graduation rate.
He also told listeners that the district will be opening its Starkey Ranch K-8 school in the fall. Located in the Starkey community, off State Road 54, it is the district’s first school specifically designed for kindergarten through eighth-grade students.
The school is expected to have about 1,000 elementary school students and 600 middle school students.
The campus will have a facility that has been dubbed TLC, which stands for theater, library and cultural center.
The TLC will accommodate public library for patrons and students. It also will have a 250-seat theater and three makerspaces.
Michael Francis, conductor for the Florida Orchestra, has been helping the district with its arts planning for the campus, Browning said.
On another topic, the superintendent told the crowd that unlike many districts across the state, Pasco is projected to experience growth in the coming year.
The district also has been included in a 10-county intensive reading pilot project, which will allow the district to provide some intensive literacy help.
Although Browning expects the district to fare well, overall, in terms of the state budget, he said the district needs to improve salaries overall, but teacher salaries, in particular.
“It really is tough work out there, and with some of the other districts out there having additional sources of revenue that we don’t have, it makes it difficult to compete with those other districts,” Browning said.
Published May 05, 2021