Coronavirus in Polk: Distance learning starts this week


Distance learning begins this week at Polk County Public Schools. Parents will be able to pick up electronic devices from schools, as instructed by administrators, beginning Wednesday.

BARTOW — Polk County Public Schools continue to gear up for distance learning to begin this week amid a pandemic. For some students, that means a start day of Wednesday or Thursday, depending on the school, the teacher or the needs of the child.

One of the major challenges for learning remotely is getting online devices to the students who need them and making sure teachers and students know how to use them. The district will begin loaning internet-accessible devices to families in need beginning on Wednesday, district officials said in a press release Friday. The district had 50,000 devices on hand, but bought an additional 10,000 more so students in need could learn from home.

“We are asking families for their patience and understanding as we navigate these very strange, foreign waters,” said Superintendent Jacqueline Byrd.

Administrators at Polk County’s 150 schools will notify parents about distribution instructions. District officials are asking parents not to obtain a device if they don’t need one and not to go to the school until they receive those instructions on when and where they can pick up their family’s device. Parents will need to present their child’s student ID to receive a device.

For everyone’s health and safety, devices will be distributed on a drive-thru basis and only during specific times to limit the number of people on school campuses.

“Several districts around Florida were already operating on a one-to-one student-to-device ratio. Polk County simply does not have the same resources,” Byrd said. “We need the community to work with us. If you have an internet-accessible device at home, please use it. If you have multiple children, please only take one district device and have them share. We need to stretch our inventory to meet the needs of as many of our students as we can.”

The district polled parents in the last two weeks regarding their device needs, but only received responses from about one-third of parents or guardians, so school officials are now reaching out to families on an individual basis to better understand their technology needs.

“As the technology picture becomes clearer, PCPS anticipates there could be more students in need than there are available devices,” district officials said Friday.

“Again, we need the community to work with us,” Byrd said. “This is an unprecedented situation. We are doing everything we can for our students amid circumstances none of us could have ever imagined.”

In addition, school employees are making every possible device, including laptops and tablets, available to students and they are installing updates and filters into those devices. Bus drivers will be helping to disinfect devices per health guidelines issued by Hewlett-Packard.

The highest priority students to receive devices are high school seniors and eighth-graders, who need credits to graduate or be promoted to high school.

“In the case of our seniors, we know many of them already have plans to go to college, start a career or join the military,” Byrd said. “We need to support them in moving forward with the next stages of their lives.”

Teachers received training from the district and the teachers’ union last week on using a number of platforms and online resources to teach from their homes and some even practiced with their students.

One student service that is starting Monday are breakfasts and lunches for students in need. Parents can pick up the meals at their child’s school between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. in a drive-thru pick-up area. Their child or children must be present to receive the meals.

Some employees who are being asked to report to school buildings are concerned that safety precautions won’t be taken, including the use of masks and gloves for those distributing computers and lunches to parents.

District spokeswoman Rachel Pleasant said schools have gloves available in all clinics for employee use. In addition, they are strictly following social distancing guidelines by limiting the number of people on campuses and encouraging them to keep at least six feet apart.

“And, of course, we continue to remind employees who feel ill to stay at home,” Pleasant said.

Regarding masks, she said the district is following advice from the World Health Organization, which includes: using a mask only when taking care of a person with a suspected COVID-19 infection; if you are coughing and sneezing; and in combination with frequent and thorough hand cleaning.

In addition, the Polk Education Association union is telling teachers, para-educators and secretary/clerical staff that they have a right to ask for an at-home assignment if they do not feel comfortable going into work during the COVID-19 outbreak.

“Know your rights under our memorandum of understanding agreement for ‘instruction during an emergency’,” union representatives posted on Facebook. “You need to contact your principal or immediate supervisor of your preference.”

By Kimberly C. Moore