Whether its drive-thru feeding sites or widespread distance learning, the coronavirus disease-2019 (COVID-19) pandemic has created myriad logistical challenges for school districts nationwide.
Pasco County Schools is no different — operating as the state’s ninth-largest school district, and 49th largest in the nation.
Even so, Pasco Schools Superintendent Kurt Browning is maintaining an upbeat outlook in what has otherwise been a trying situation over the last two months or so.
Speaking to the East Pasco Networking Group at a May 12 virtual meeting, Browning acknowledged the pandemic “really stretched the school district,” but credited district leaders and administration for “very quickly” pulling together a large-scale distance learning education program once it became apparent the remainder of the 2019-2020 school year would be remote.
Pasco Schools was more prepared than other surrounding counties, Browning said.
That’s because the district already had “a very robust virtual education program” known as Pasco eSchool, which typically serves more than 3,000 students in a normal year.
“It wasn’t easy, but we were better positioned than a lot of districts even surrounding us,” the superintendent said.
Unlike other districts, too, Browning added Pasco School instantly pushed out lesson plans for most courses to the virtual learning platform, rather than requiring teachers to develop a curriculum to post online, on the fly. “I think the teachers were appreciative of that because that was less on their plate that they had to work with,” he said.
As for how and when brick-and-mortar schools will open back up, Browning said district staff is having ongoing meetings to brainstorm various scenarios and possibilities, keeping in mind recommended social distancing health and safety protocols. Virtual learning will continue through summer school, he said.
At least one thing’s for sure — traditional schooling will “look different” compared to how things were before the pandemic, Browning said.
The superintendent observed, “Normally, you would have had 45 kids on a school bus, you can’t put 45 kids on a school bus anymore, if you’re going to social distance. How are you going to feed a school of 700 kids in a cafeteria, if you’re going to social distance? …We’re going to have to move and move pretty quickly, so we can let moms and dads know.”
If there’s one positive result from the coronavirus pandemic, parents and families now have “a greater appreciation” for educators overall, Browning said.
Said Browning, “I think the teaching profession, over time, has been diminished and just had a rough go, but I do believe that parents will have a better idea what teachers have to put up with and deal with on a daily basis to ensure that their children are learning.”
With that, Browning noted Pasco School teachers have done a solid job engaging and interacting with students on Zoom calls throughout the pandemic. “I am so, so proud and pleased where our teachers and where our administrators have taken us,” he said.
However, the superintendent later acknowledged the virtual learning setup has proved tough for servicing the district’s special needs population.
“It is an area we’re really going to have to spend some time in to make sure those kids do not get shortchanged,” he said. “We’ve been getting through it but, I do think going forward, we’ve got to have a more sustainable process to deal with kids with special needs.”
Providing devices, Wi-Fi, meals and more
Maybe the largest hurdle to implementing distance learning to all schools was ensuring all students had access to computers and tablets.
Browning said the county loaned roughly 20,000 electronic devices to students districtwide, which were distributed curbside at various schools.
The superintendent admitted he initially felt uneasy on the thought of loaning expensive electronic devices to grade school students.
Said Browning, “I cringe every time I think of this, because we’re giving an $800 device to a student, and we’re hoping and praying it comes back to us in one piece. But, we knew we had to do it. Personally, I had to get beyond that because I knew that if we wanted to get kids to continue to learn, we had to provide them the device.”
Ensuring all students had a viable Internet connection at home created another obstacle, Browning said.
Even in this technological day and age, the superintendent came away “surprised at the number of our kids that don’t have Wi-Fi” at their home.
To resolve that, the district has issued home hotspots to families and organized a handful of community hotspot hubs in remote areas, such as Crystal Springs. Here’s how it works: The school district positions a mobile hotspot vehicle at a local church or community center, allowing parents to drive up and have their children do complete online schoolwork and lessons from inside their parked car, during predetermined dates and times.
“We know it’s not easy, but nothing about COVID-19 has been easy for us,” Browning said. “The fact is we want our kids to continue to learn, so at least by providing those hotspots in those community hubs, at least we’re giving them the opportunity to have them get their lessons done, get their studying done and be caught up as best they can during this really weird time we find ourselves.”
Besides technology offerings, ready-to-go, prepackaged meals is another service the school district has been offering amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The district hit the 1-million meal mark last week.
The district’s food nutrition services department initially offered meals for pickup five days a week, but since transitioned to distributing all 10 meals (breakfast and lunch covering five days) per student, picked up once per week. As an example, a family with four school-age children could swing by a particular curbside feeding site and pick up 40 free meals for the week.
Browning mentioned even under normal circumstances school-provided meals might be the only opportunity for many students to eat, particularly those coming from the county’s Title I schools (whereby a large percentage of a particular school’s student population is eligible for free or reduced lunch).
“It’s been a lot of work on the school district, but that’s what we do. We care for people, in addition to educating people,” said Browning.
Elsewhere, the superintendent also touched on a number of other district-related matters:
- Pasco Schools graduation rate sits at 88.7 percent, “the highest they’ve ever been,” said Browning. “It’s not where I want them, but we’re moving in the right direction.”
- Pasco Schools is one of two school districts in Florida named to the College Board’s AP (Advanced Placement) District Honor Roll, for increasing access to AP for underrepresented students while simultaneously maintaining or increasing the percentage of students earning AP Exam scores of 3 or higher. DeSoto County was the other recognized school district in the state.
- Browning said the district will make “a huge College Board announcement regarding the opportunities we’re providing our kids,” sometime after Memorial Day weekend.
- The Kirkland Ranch Academy of Innovation technical high school in East Pasco will break ground this fall and will open in August 2022. Browning added the district also is building a K-8 school nearby that’ll feed into the technical high school, which is being built at the corner of Curley and Kiefer roads, in Wesley Chapel. “It’s going to be easy to get to from Zephyrhills, Dade City, Wesley Chapel,” Browning said of the forthcoming technical school. “Not only is it a pretty cool building, but there’s going to be some great programs in there that are going to be able to prepare our kids for jobs.”
Published May 27, 2020