As Florida schools open, teachers and staff prepare for a new life in and out of the classroom

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Lakewood High School math teacher Melissa Ostrowski loves her family and her students.

In a normal year, she’d see her sister and 2-year-old niece at least once a week. Every month, a visit with her grandparents. And in a normal year, she’d be there for the birth of her nephew in a few weeks.

But it’s not a normal year.

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“That will have to stop. I won’t be able to see her or her two year old or her new baby until she’s comfortable enough,” Ostrowski said. “It’s Just something I have to do. The kids need us more than anything. If that comes at the cost of ‘okay my family won’t see me for a month’ it’s worth it to come back and teach my kids. To me, coming back for a temporary life change, it is worth it. I think the kids need us.”

As schools begin resuming in-person learning, Ostrowski is one of the many thousands of educators in Florida, and more across the country, making tough choices as in-person learning starts for the first time since spring.

By the end of August, in-person learning should be in place throughout Florida, even as COVID-19 cases in the state near 600,000 and deaths pass 10,000.

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But to the educators on the frontlines, changing times don’t change the mission.

“Personally, I want to get back to be here for the kids,” Cypress Creek Middle School counselor Emily Cooper said. “As much as I might have my hesitations about returning and be nervous about what might happen, I’m ready to be here and do what I have to do.”

The first day of school will look different than most can remember. Each district has new protocols in place to limit exposure and enact social distancing measures. Elizabeth Brown Davis, a special education teacher at Lockhart Elementary in Tampa and 30-year teaching veteran in Florida and New York, said this is the strangest school opening she’s seen. That includes being a teacher in New York during 9/11.

“I lived through 9/11. Even my colleagues talking about Katrina, during this time, we’ve collected so many stories and testimonies, my colleagues in Louisiana said even Katrina wasn’t anywhere near this,” Brown said. “And it’s because even after those horrific events, we went back to almost a normal way and this is it seems like we’ll never go back to the way things were, which could be a good thing.”

Brown Davis teaches in a school with a large African-American and lower income population. Factors, she said, that add to stress felt by students and teachers. She spent much of her summer reaching out to organizations to help get students virtual learning equipment and volunteered her time to familiarize families with virtual learning.

“We see populations of families that are socially and economically disadvantaged have a higher need,” Brown said. “They would, of course, need devices. They need broadband or internet connectivity, and they also require the know-how.”

“We’re already trained to roll with the punches. It’s just different punches that no one’s ever experienced before.”

Melissa Ostrowski

Ostrowski admits it’s a little easier working with high school kids who might be more comfortable with technology. She plans to keep the rigors of her high-level math classes.

“I work in a magnet program that has a level of rigor that needs to be upheld,” she said. “And I plan to do that whether you’re in my classroom or on my computer. Figuring out how to do that is a bit of a challenge, but I’m not going to lower my standards because of what’s going on in the world.”

Even as students return to classrooms, that could change. There’s still the potential of outbreaks and there’s even an ongoing lawsuit challenging whether putting teachers at risk by opening school is constitutional.

Cypress Creek’s Cooper said one of the major stressors has been preparing for that change.

“I think we’re going to wind up having a lot of changes take place right away, Cooper said. “Looking at how other schools have gone through it already and some of the outcomes of that, it is a concern that we’re going to have to change everything and possibly go back online. At that time, it’ll be kind of just figuring out how to do the shift back to virtual.”

But change and adaptability is part of the job, Ostrowski said. These plans are brand new, untested and unprecedented, but you’ve just got remember your training.

“We’re already trained to roll with the punches,” Ostrowski said.” It’s just different punches that no one’s ever experienced before.”