COVID-19 & school openings in Tampa

Maya Trotz

Firstly, wear a mask. Learn about indoor air exchange rates, and consider opening windows, working outdoors, and purchasing an air purifier with a HEPA filter. I will cover some of these topics in this blog, so let’s get started.

Mrs. Tiffany Talbot Oliver, an IB Biology teacher at Robinson High School in Hillsborough County Public Schools (HCPS), received the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching (PAEMST) in the United States in December 2019. HCPS’ Director of K-12 Science,Technology, Engineering & Mathematics (STEM) Education Mr. Larry Plank introduced us at the Florida Aquarium where she was participating in “Mission Tampa Bay: Girls Underwater Robotics Camp.” A few months later Tiffany would accompany me to Placencia, Belize as part of a National Science Foundation funded Research Experience for Teachers. So, when she recently posted her wishlist for her classroom, I immediately checked it out (please feel free to purchase gift cards for her as like many teachers in the world, she spends from her own pocket to teach the next generation while being completely underpaid for her service to society). In addition to cool biology tools for her students like a wireless microscope camera, it also included cleaning supplies, a wireless mic, and an air purifier.

Teaching with Mrs. Tiffany Talbot Oliver, a video profile of an IB Biology teacher from Hillsborough County Public Schools who received a Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching (PAEMST).

Around the same time that Mrs. Talbot Oliver posted her wishlist Mr. Addison Davis, the Superintendent of the HCPS released a video on the hub for online learning resources as the school district decided to go virtual for the first few weeks of the Fall 2020 semester. This made absolute sense to me as our cases in Florida had risen significantly at that time, and we were trending as the COVID-19 capital of the world. Comments on social media showed some push back to this with parents demanding the classrooms open, some unsure of how to manage their own kids at home. I tweeted the Tampa Bay Arts & Education Network (TBAENET) about providing lessons via their network, to which they replied that they would explore. I imagined teachers like Mrs. Talbot Oliver recording at the Florida Aquarium, being able to share that expertise with every kid in the district — that teachers of a subject could each take a piece of the syllabus and produce high quality videos. This could free up online interactions to more problem solving and discussion. The University of Southern California’s Dean of Education Pedro Noguera held a webinar in July 2020, An Equitable Restart: Back to School, Not to Normal, where I learned about LA Unified’s data showing disproportionately less Black and Brown students participating in schooling since closures compared with others. Teachers like Mr. Lenski Adams in St. Vincent and the Grenadines through the Ministry of Education quickly recognized how much more accessible TV was for learners (these were also shared on social media), and broadcast via that medium that I was asking TBAENET to consider for HCPS. Challenges with access to WiFi, laptops, and a quiet space at home are not lost on me, as these are real and must be dealt with. Soon after Superintendent Davis’ video release, however, he was off to Tallahassee to defend our district’s push for a few weeks of online learning.

You see in 2018 we voted for a half penny sales tax to assist our schools. At that time we were told,

“Failure to get a new funding source through the sales surtax would mean our students would face a future in aging, crowded schools. It would also mean increasing the amount spent on debt as we borrow money to deal with basic needs such as urgent air conditioning and roof repairs, reducing the amount available over the long term for maintenance at existing schools…Needed maintenance and renovations on existing buildings would continue to be deferred due to lack of revenue, eventually costing more money in the future due to building and equipment failures.”

The measure passed, but the repairs would actually take some time. Ventilation upgrades would surely not be done by now, especially since the measure was looking at a 10 year horizon for raising the capital needed, and resources were just not there to get the work done prior to Fall 2020 we are told. Mrs. Talbot Oliver’s ask for an air purifier seemed justifiable as did Superintendent Davis’s ask for more time to prepare for in person learning.

Like any science teacher, Mrs. Talbot Oliver was probably reading what scientists were saying on protocols needed to open schools safely. From my previous blogs you know that since March I’ve been a Twitter fan of Professors Linsey Marr, Shelly Miller, Richard Corsi, and Joseph Allen. The list keeps growing, and one just needs to read their retweets to find the others. Thankfully, they have put together resources for us to answer pressing questions on what’s needed to reopen schools safely.

In June 2020, SCHOOLS FOR HEALTH, Risk Reduction Strategies
for Reopening Schools
was released. The five themes included

  1. HEALTHY CLASSROOMS (e.g. wear masks, don’t be close to each other)
  2. HEALTHY BUILDINGS (e.g. increase outdoor air ventilation, use MERV 13 filters or above, use portable air purifiers)
  3. HEALTHY POLICIES (e.g. have a plan, encourage COVID-19 testing, support remote learning)
  4. HEALTHY SCHEDULES (e.g. stagger school times, make buses safe, encourage walking or biking, make lunchtime safer)
  5. HEALTHY ACTIVITIES (e.g. use outdoors more)

While verifying ventilation rates and the installation of MERV 13 filters might not be easy for a teacher or parent to do, though they should ask for that information, they could add one or more portable air purifiers in the classroom depending on the purifier and classroom size. What purifier to buy? Professor Shelly Miller describes these things in her article, “How to use ventilation and air filtration to prevent the spread of coronavirus indoors,” and includes a link to a downloadable spreadsheet that will calculate the size of air purifier needed for a classroom. The height of the ceiling and the square footage of the classroom are needed. Links to air purifiers are included — they are a few hundred dollars. As Professor Shelly Miller says in a recent Tweet, however, these things will help with overall indoor air quality even if you get one for home.

“So when COVID ends, & you purchased an air purifier it will come in handy for other applications, including reducing your exposure to cooking particles. There’s a preponderance of evidence that exposure to particles such as those from cooking increase illness & death.” Shelly Miller, Tweeted on August 15th, 2020.

Calculations estimate that it would only cost 1 billion dollars to place air purifiers in every classroom in the US, and the gains are significant for reducing COVID-19 exposure. Research has shown that improving air quality in classrooms also improves student performance. As more of us spend time indoors, learn about how COVID-19 spreads through the air, and learn about our indoor environment, one can only hope that we also start to pay more attention to other products that we purchase or have to live with that are potentially toxic to our health. This should not be something only for the wealthy like those who will populate Tampa’s Water Street, a wellness certified district.

It comes as no surprise to some that immediately after Superintendent Davis’ trip to Tallahassee another video was released, this time saying that the district would only be online for a week from August 24th, and that everything was being done to ensure the safe reopening of schools on August 31st. The Florida Department of Education threatened to cut funding to the district if HCPS did not open. The state mandates that schools in Florida must reopen and there is a lawsuit underway challenging this by the Florida Education Association. An opinion piece in the New York Times based on where the “rate of new coronavirus cases may be low enough, and testing rates high enough, to allow it”, lets us check by county to see whether schools should reopen. The answer is no for the entire state of Florida as of August 15th, 2020. So, we see photos of principals and parents building outdoor seating for kids — the science says outdoors is safer keeping all other precautions in place in terms of distancing etc..

This is a welcome move as many teachers have tried to make outdoor living laboratories for students as the post below shows of a garden at Stewart Middle School. The fact that much of the housing of the African American West Tampa community around Stewart was recently demolished will be the theme of another blog.

Outdoor seating installed by teachers and students at Stewart Middle School. Photo taken in May 2019.

Having worked with many teachers in HCPS, I know that Black and Brown folks make up alot of the custodial staff, bus drivers, and cafeteria workers. I know that Black kids in East Tampa, still a majority African American neighborhood, don’t all have the luxury of walking to school as they are bussed away as others get dropped off by car in their communities for magnet programs. That those who can ride, still await biking lanes that would make it safe for them to do so. That traffic lights and a crosswalk were only installed on a Florida Department of Transportation managed road, Hillsborough Avenue, following deaths, including that of students from East Tampa’s only high school, Middleton High. Given the data released to date, Black folk in the US are most at risk, for multiple reasons, of dying from COVID-19. I wrote about this in my last blog, COVID-19 and Being Black in America, and am even more concerned for our schools after reading about recent deaths of Leon county school employees Jacqueline Byrd, Jordan Byrd, and Karen Bradwell.

I wonder how we would have fared if like the Chicago school district we were allowed to go online and could provide resources for our students to learn remotely instead of buying air purifiers and cleaning supplies for our teachers. If instead our bus drivers were engaged in a safe, and efficient coordinated effort to deliver school meals each day. If our custodians were able to grow nutritional food on our school yards to sustain local communities. If faculty like myself could work with teachers on developing online learning materials that help our kids and their families at this time. There is this lump in my throat, and a certain feeling of inertia as the semester begins at my own university where, unlike many of the wealthy Ivy Leagues or the Cal State university system, we will offer both hybrid and online options for instruction. My next blog will discuss opening of college campuses.

educate.engage.enhance. Environmental Engineer from Guyanese. Professor at USF. Coral restorer supporter. Afro-Caribbean American. All views are my own.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store