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News about coronavirus in Florida and around the world is constantly emerging. It's hard to stay on top of it all but Health News Florida and WUSF can help. Our responsibility at WUSF News is to keep you informed, and to help discern what’s important for your family as you make what could be life-saving decisions.

Coronavirus Has Tampa Bay Area Schools, Universities Preparing For Online Learning

Bull statues on USF Tampa campus
Carl Lisciandrello/WUSF Public Media
The University of South Florida already announced plans to reschedule spring commencement ceremonies at all three campuses, and students are asked to remain off campus till at least May 7.

State officials made the decision to cancel all in-person classes for the remainder of the school term.  

Schools and universities across the Tampa Bay area are now having to gear up for the transition to online instruction.

The Florida Department of Education said all school districts are prepared to implement their distance learning plans by March 30. The department also announced that all schools should be prepared to extend their educational calendars through June 30, to make up for class time lost during the transition period.

Hillsborough County students are resuming classes Monday. Classes for Pinellas County students are set to begin March 30, after a week-long transition period to help parents and students familiarize themselves with the online instruction platforms.

Pinellas County Schools Associate Superintendent Kevin Hendrick says while it may feel strange for students at first, the move to online instruction is a matter of setting a new routine.

“Digital learning is much like face-to face-learning. You always get out of it what you put into it,” said Hendrick. “When you get those assignments online, and you're challenged with reading things, and you have other distractions and things. It's just like being in a regular classroom.”

Pinellas students without access to a computer at home can visit their local school Tuesday or Wednesday to pick up laptops and iPads to complete school work.

Spectrum announced it would provide free WiFi to all K-12 students and waive installation fees to help families across Tampa Bay facilitate the move to online learning.

Once comfortable with the online resources, Hendrick is confident students will be able to finish out the school year strong.

“I think the thing everybody will miss is just that daily interaction, that constant face-to-face interaction and sort of lighting the fire of social interaction. That'll be the biggest challenge,” said Hendrick.

Coronavirus: Complete Coverage From WUSF And Health News Florida

As students “return” from spring break Monday, professors at the University of South Florida will have fully converted their class to an online format.

"Through the hard work of USF faculty and staff, more than 5,000 courses have been transition online in a very short period time and will be ready for remote delivery when classes resume," said university spokesman Adam Freeman. "All students will now have access to Microsoft Teams and Office 365, providing additional resources for collaboration with faculty and student peers, particularly in group setting." 

Bookstores on all three USF campuses are also offering students free access to up to 7 eBooks at a time, as well as free access to educational resources coursewear to both faulty and students. 

The University of Central Florida announced plans last week to extend remote instruction through its summer semester. Freeman said that while USF will continue to monitor the situation, the university has not yet made a decision on summer classes.

University of South Florida St. Petersburg professor Judithanne McLauchlan spent what was supposed to be her spring break converting her two classes to an online format. Though McLauchlan has previous experience with online instruction, she said the university provided helpful trainings during the break to help professors make the transition.

McLauchlan plans to maintain her course schedule, class meetings and all.

“It's not going to be in person together, but we can be together online using the Blackboard Collaborate Ultra and we can still do everything we were planning to do," she said, referring to the real-time video conferencing tool USF is using.

McLauchlan said she’s even found a way to continue facilitating a research project between members of her constitutional law class and their student research partners in Macedonia through a combination of Facebook group discussions and Skype meetings.

“I'm sure people are dealing with a lot of challenging situations, as it relates to everything being turned upside down, but I think one thing that does not have to be turned upside down is their learning and the classes and the things that we were trying to do at USF,” said McLauchlan.

“My hope is that the students will be grateful that we can still go on and that this part that's left can still be strong.”