School is returning this fall, one way or another, and area parents have some tough choices to make. Those decisions only get harder with each passing day.

On June 18, Pasco County schools announced that parents will have three choices when classes resume in August. The deadline to choose had been July 1, but it was extended to Wednesday, July 8, the day after this issue reached your mailbox. 

The three choices are as follows:

* A return to traditional, brick-and-mortar schooling, with special social distancing and enhanced disinfecting measures implemented, as well as mask requirements.

* Pasco eSchool, a franchise of Florida Virtual School (FLVS), which writes the courses that are taught by Pasco County teachers. Students work on assignments during non-traditional hours, with contact with teachers and classmates during web-based class sessions and other technology.

* A hybrid version of traditional & virtual school, being called “mySchool, for students not yet comfortable returning to campus, but who want to remain connected to their schools. 

Students will attend scheduled classes every day via their computers, with synchronous class meetings. Students will have access to teachers during regular school hours, and attendance is taken daily. 

As parents wrestled with these difficult decisions, the number of Florida’s positive Covid-19 tests skyrocketed, raising new concerns and doubts, resulting in the deadline extension. 

Superintendent of Schools Kurt Browning, who announced the Pasco Schools plan, revealed just a few days later that he had tested positive for Covid-19. And, the coronavirus-related death of a 17-year-old Wesley Chapel High rising junior was being investigated by the Medical Examiner’s Office.

The Neighborhood News spoke with three parents, each of whom made different choices prior to today’s deadline. Each parent we spoke with stressed that they would reassess their choice as the pandemic played out, but they were each ready to move forward with what they felt worked best for their respective families. 

The Willis family (l.-r.: Ethan, Chloe Alicia & Will) chose the “mySchool” hybrid option for their family for the 2020-21 school year. (Photos: Charmaine George)

Alicia Willis – mySchool

Alicia Willis considers herself an optimist when it comes to Covid-19. She’d like to think the virus will die out or become more manageable before schools re-open in August, or that a vaccine will be found.

But until then, she’s not quite ready to send either of her kids, a rising first grader and a rising fifth grader, back to Sand Pine Elementary.

Instead, she chose the mySchool option for her children, which will allow them to attend school remotely and still follow the standard school schedule and bell times.

Alicia also strongly considered Pasco eSchool, where students work on their own schedules with different teachers than they ones they had in traditional school.

“Going back to brick and mortar was eliminated (for us) immediately,” she said. “I do think they did a great job with the choices.”

Unlike Pasco eSchool. Alicia’s kids still will be learning along with their usual classmates and teachers.

“It was important to me that they get to have the teachers they are familiar with,” she said, adding that she thinks mySchool will make the transition back to regular school, should it come in January, much easier.

Alicia says her kids adapted well to online schooling this spring, and she didn’t mind doing the teaching. But, she also says that her kids asked often about their friends and teachers at school. 

Even before the three choices for the fall were put forward by Pasco County Schools, Alicia had decided her kids would be staying home this fall. 

And, she said, the rising number of positive Covid-19 cases in late June, just before the July 8 deadline, made her more confident in her decision.

“I believe it will make some parents think twice and possibly reevaluate their decisions,” Alicia said. “Parents going back to work may not have another choice. I’m blessed to have the choice that I have.”

Kelly McDowell, with daughters Avery (left) and Audrey (right), has chosen the traditional brick-and-mortar school option for the 2020-21 school year.

Kelly McDowell – Traditional School

Kelly McDowell started online learning at her house at 8 a.m. every day. She says her third and fifth graders were expected to be up and ready to work. It took only a few hours each day for them to complete their assignments. Sometimes, they would work a little extra so they could have Friday off. 

An accountant who is happy she is fortunate enough to have a flexible schedule, Kelly enjoyed her extra time with her kids.

But, Kelly said it could never replicate the benefits of a classroom at a brick-and-mortar school. When it came to making her choice, Kelly chose a traditional setting for her children, and plans to send them back to New River Elementary in August.

“I really feel the social aspect, and face-to-face interaction, is really valuable for them,” Kelly said. “They need structure if school is going to be beneficial (for them).”

Kelly says her job is flexible enough that she could continue to work at home. So, she did seriously consider the online options, and while she says that mySchool may not be feasible for her family, Pasco eSchool (see next column) “might still be in the back of my mind,” due to its more structured format.

But, Kelly’s kids like their mom’s choice. It was what they wanted.

“The kids were very, ‘I wanna go back to school,’” Kelly says. “I told them they would have to wear masks, be extra vigilant and worry not about just themselves, but others, too. They were very adamant about going back.”

With the potential for school openings still more than a month away, and Covid-19 unfortunately dominating the recent news headlines in the Sunshine State, Kelly says she reserves the right to change her mind. 

“If Florida becomes the new New York,” she says, “then that decision is going to change.”

When it came to deciding what to do for the 2020-21 school year, Samantha Billington (left, with daughter Alanah and son Travis), chose online options.

Samantha Billington – Pasco eSchool

Samantha Billington didn’t have just one decision to make, she had two.

Her son, 11-year-old Travis, enjoyed his online learning experience last spring when he could no longer attend Union Park Academy.

Her daughter, 15-year-old Alanah, not so much.

As a high schooler at Wesley Chapel High (WCH), Alanah was eager to get back to school to be with her friends. Initially, Samantha thought she would keep Travis home, and let her daughter return to traditional school.

But, the news on Covid-19 just got worse.

“As time went on and we not only had a rise in cases but also a tragic loss of a boy that went to the same school as (Alanah), we decided it was best to postpone the traditional school setting,” Samantha said. “My kids going to school, being in a building with thousands of people five days a week just doesn’t make me feel comfortable.”

That was “heartbreaking” for Alanah, who will do mySchool this fall, with the hopes of returning to the WCH campus in January. But, Travis will do Pasco eSchool, and Samantha said he already has decided he wants to do that for the whole school year.

“We chose FLVS (Florida Virtual School) because we wanted a wider range of options,” Samantha said. “It is all winging it at this point, and we will adjust as needed.”

 Samantha is able to work from home, so it made sense for the kids to learn at home. She is confident her children can still have normal social lives via technology and with friends in the neighborhood. 

“This virus is not going to just disappear,” Samantha said. “It will be around for a long time and until we have trusted environments, like enforced social distancing and regular sanitizing, or a medical solution, then I feel very confident it will remain an issue.”

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