In the first week of online learning for Pinellas County Schools, only 3 percent of students did not show up for classes.
Michael Grego, Pinellas County Schools superintendent, is looking for attendance to improve more this week.
“Our attendance in Pinellas County in the first week districtwide was at 97 percent,” Grego said during an education briefing Thursday afternoon with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and state education leaders. “That was last Friday. There were well over a few thousand computers and laptops distributed this week. So I’m venturing to guess that 3 percent is going to be down to under 1 percent at the end of today or the end of tomorrow.”
The briefing also gave Pinellas school officials a chance to highlight the transition to online learning at Lakewood Elementary School in south St. Petersburg, historically one of the lowest performing elementary schools in Florida.
Schools throughout Florida began online learning on March 30, in an effort to slow the spread of Covid-19 coronavirus. Campus closures are scheduled to continue through May 1. During the briefing, DeSantis said there’s been no decision made about when – or if – the state will go back to in-class learning this year.
“We have not made a decision yet. If it’s safe, we want kids to be in school. I think most parents want that. So we’re going to continue to look and see how this develops,” DeSantis said. “If we get to the point where people think we’re on the other side of this and we could get kids back in, even for a couple of weeks, we think there would be value in that.”
DeSantis acknowledged that online learning is a big change. He asked Grego about the feedback he’s been getting and whether parents look forward to their kids going back to school.
“I think they look forward to the day we go back to a level of normalcy,” Grego said. “But I also want to work to build a level of trust so that when those students come back, they’re coming back to a very safe environment.”
The Pinellas County attendance figures are a major accomplishment, considering that nationwide, some districts are struggling with kids that go off the grid, with absences running as high as 15 percent, said Richard Corcoran, education commissioner.
One of the local educators taking part in the briefing was Stephanie Woodford, principal of Lakewood Elementary in south St. Petersburg.
All but two students had logged in online through Wednesday, so Woodford, along with the school’s assistant principal and St. Petersburg police officers, did wellness checks on those students.
Related story: Federal, state education officials visit Lakewood Elementary
“The administrative side, getting technology in all our student’s hands and tracking them down, was a pretty big undertaking. But it’s been exciting to watch,” Woodford said.
One challenge has been finding a balance between too much and too little schoolwork for students, to avoid overwhelming or underwhelming families. It’s not a one-size-fits-all approach, she said.
Woodford cited one frustrated parent who called her Wednesday.
“I think some of the frustration is we’re teaching our students and it’s not the same way we were taught before. Parents are working hard with this online learning,” Woodford said. “And so she was frustrated and feeling overwhelmed. We reached out to the teacher. The teacher got online with the child and the parent, did a little mini-lesson on decimals, which was amazing, and the parent was just relieved. The lesson was as much for the parent as for the child, so the parent was able to assist.”
Grego thanked Pinellas County Schools community partners — Spectrum, which is providing free internet service; the Juvenile Welfare Board, which paid overdue bills for needy families; and the Pinellas Education Foundation and the Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg, which paid $150,000 to provide more than 500 hot spots to ensure every student has access.
Those organizations are helping erase the digital divide in the state, he said.
He also emphasized the driving themes in Pinellas County online learning.
“Less is more. Quality over quantity. Relationships over rigor. Grace before grades. Patience before programs. Love before lessons. And let’s continue to support, let’s continue to be flexible and let’s continue to balance our lives and support one another as we go through this,” Grego said.