Following a summer of indecision and fear of the unknown, New Tampa’s schools finally opened their doors to students for in-person learning for the first time since they closed in March due to Covid-19.

“Woo hoo!,” shouted one parent, as she drove off smiling after dropping her two kids off at Benito Middle School.

Students spent the first week of the 2020-21 school year eLearning only, as the fight over whether or not to open brick-and-mortar classrooms for students and teachers raged on. 

The Hillsborough School Board initially leaned towards doing eLearning only for the first nine weeks, before settling for four weeks after consulting a panel of medical experts. However, that decision was then overturned by Superintendent Addison Davis, after Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran threatened to withhold millions of dollars in funding to schools that did not offer a brick-and-mortar option for parents.

Busy at work cleaning and prepping their classrooms for a socially-distant learning experience, teachers finally opened the doors to their students on August 31.

After the first week, Chiles principal Teresa Evans said things went “remarkably well.” At Chiles, roughly 450 students were home learning online, while 400 or so learned in classrooms. Evans said none of her teachers were forced back into the classrooms, and praised their efforts in the opening week.

“I think we planned and planned and planned and what we planned has worked out so far,” Evans said. “The kids aren’t struggling with masks the way people thought. They have been very compliant, and the parents have been incredibly compliant and helpful in following the new rules.”

Those new rules include keeping desks as far apart from each other as possible, eating lunches outside under the school’s covered courts keeping everything as clean and sanitized as possible.

“We were nervous, but never terribly worried,” Evans says. “We were very careful and will continue to be, and we are tweaking things as we go.”

While the Covid-19 numbers were slightly rising in Hillsborough County during the first week, schools hadn’t reported any large outbreaks.

According to the school district’s Covid-19 dashboard, the first four days produced only 21 positive cases among students, and another nine from school staff.

The district is not reporting if any classrooms have been quarantined.

From March through July, the district reported 284 confirmed cases of Covid-19. 

In New Tampa, the only schools to report any cases were Freedom High and Tampa Palms Elementary, with each reporting one student positive from the first day of school.

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