When the School District of Manatee County moved to e-learning at the end of March as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, Jo-Ann Yermak struggled with the adjustment.
She worried about being able to provide child care for her two children, Mikenna and Hayden, as well as ensure they were getting a quality education. Mikenna is a rising third grader at Braden River Elementary School, and Hayden is a rising fifth grader at the school.
Hearing the district’s recommendation to have all elementary school students return to in-person classes in the fall is a relief for Yermak.
“Going back in the fall, that’s what I voted for in the survey; that’s what I want,” Yermak said. “I’m doing everything at home to take every precaution, and I’m 100% confident in the school that they will do the same.”
After hearing from more than 21,000 parents, faculty and staff and community members in a survey regarding the reopening of school, Cynthia Saunders, superintendent of the district, shared a recommendation for reopening with the School Board of Manatee County during a workshop June 25.
Saunders recommended all elementary students return to traditional school in the fall. She recommended that sixth graders return to school four days per week and have one day per week of e-learning. For seventh through 12th graders, Saunders recommended hybrid classes in which students will spend part of the week on campus and the other part of the week with e-learning.
The hybrid schedule at the middle and high school levels will allow for reduced student populations in their buildings for better social distancing.
Saunders said because middle and high school students are older, they will be able to remain at home with less supervision.
Regardless of what the school board decides in the coming weeks, parents have the option to have their students continue with e-learning full time.
Although the district has developed the framework for its reopening plan, Saunders said the plan could change.
“There’s a lot of time between now and Aug. 10, and there’s a lot of school year in front of us,” Saunders said.
The board is expected to vote on the plan July 14.
Laurie Rahn, a second grade teacher at Robert E. Willis Elementary School, looks forward to being back in the classroom teaching her class face-to-face.
“Students learn better being face-to-face in front of teachers,” she said. “In my case, I feel I’ll make the best of that situation. … There is a plethora of seating arrangements out there if we have to separate the students, and I’m ready to do that.”
Dawn Reilly, a science teacher at Dr. Mona Jain Middle School, is concerned she won’t be able to provide as many hands-on activities to her students because they’ll be on campus only a few days per week.
“I now need to rethink how I’m going to teach to get [all the standards] in,” she said. “I will get it done, but I’m worried how I’m going to get it done.”
While some are pleased with the district’s recommendation, others disagree and have concerns with the recommended plans.
With COVID-19 cases increasing in Florida, Lenora Galeziowski, a rising senior at Braden River High School, said reopening schools at all is not a smart plan.
“I have a newfound appreciation for the value of being in a classroom, but [e-learning] wasn’t horrible,” she said. “I didn’t miss [on-campus] learning as much as I thought I would. I think having a slightly lesser quality of education is worth the price of saving people’s lives.”
Cynthia Stedman, a student education teacher at Braden River High, is concerned that even with reduced populations and strict guidelines in place, people could still be exposed to COVID-19.
Stedman worries about her husband, Bryon, a teacher at Palmetto High School who has a preexisting condition that places him more at risk to exposure to COVID-19.
“If it requires masks, distancing, face shields and temperature checks, and we have to go through all these processes, those are proof we’re not ready to go back into that environment,” she said.
Mikaela Boelkins, who lives in Lakewood Ranch and is a rising senior at Southeast High School, said being on campus still poses risks.
“Half of me would like to return to school just to get senior hallmark experiences, but I know my parents have talked about continuing e-learning regardless of what [the district does] because it’s not worth the risk,” Boelkins said.
Gloria Spirey, a parent of a Lakewood Ranch High School rising senior, wanted high school students to be back on campus full time.
“The poll showed respondents wanting normal, full school for those interested, and yet that was not taken into consideration,” Spirey said. “If you go two days or five days, you are still exposed.
“Of course it’s going to be different because our numbers [of COVID-19 cases] are going up, but I think if we just ride it out a little bit and maybe extend the start of school, we could go back and not see major effects.”
Pam Hodges, a parent of a rising Manatee School for the Arts senior and a rising sixth grader at Carlos E. Haile Middle School, wanted to see a full return for all students because to her, e-learning was “just homework assignments.”
“They did not have that daily interaction with their teachers, that daily instruction they need,” Hodges said.
John Flood, a parent of a rising senior at Lakewood Ranch High School, has concerns for students who are socioeconomically disadvantaged or have individualized education plans.
“They need every hour of in-person instruction they can because YouTube is not going to advance them in their career,” Flood said. “Superintendent Saunders’ proposal to have kids equally out of school for an equal amount of time places an unequal burden on our neediest and most deserving students.”