The COVID-19 pandemic has tossed K-12 education into a sea of uncertainty, forcing parents navigating waves of anxiety to search for a safe harbor for their children.
Innovation Preparatory Academy, a new K-8 public charter school in Wesley Chapel, is positioning itself as a beacon of stability.
Like many states, Florida has been roiled by conflicting policy demands amidst coronavirus apprehension. On July 6, the state Department of Education issued an emergency order requiring all public school districts to reopen brick-and-mortar schools five days a week to provide an option for families. That prompted a lawsuit from the Florida Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, which argues the DOE’s directive is unconstitutional and puts students, teachers and their families at risk of contracting COVID-19. The lawsuit is seeking all instruction to be held online until in-person has been deemed safe.
Parental frustration is boiling over. InPrep principal Sara Capwell said a mother called her in tears recently, saying, “I just don’t know what to do anymore.”
InPrep, part of the Charter Schools USA network, was scheduled to begin its first year Aug. 10, along with other Pasco County district schools. Citing concerns about rising cases of COVID-19, the school board pushed back the start date to Aug. 24.
Capwell says she and her staff would have been ready to go on the earlier date, but admits the two-week delay will give them additional time to distribute iPads to students, put the finishing touches on mobile technology in classrooms and persuade parents still trying to decide which education option is best for their children to consider InPrep.
“A lot of parents are worried about going to a school, then having the school shut down and being thrown to the wolves again because that’s what they experienced in the spring,” Capwell said. “We are an alternative. We have a plan and teachers who are ready to go to work. That’s what parents want to hear.”
Capwell says InPrep is trying to develop, as much as possible, a sense of normalcy. That means maintaining in-person classroom learning for those who want it while also providing an online “mobile classroom” that incorporates brick-and-mortar lessons.
This isn’t a teacher sitting in front of a computer screen of Zoom squares, checking to see if worksheets have been completed, Capwell says. Online students will learn the same curriculum, at the same time, as students in the actual classroom. In fact, 360-degree cameras and microphones put the online students in the classroom and follow the teacher around during a lesson, even when classes break up into smaller groups, making for an interactive experience. That includes online students interacting with their in-person classmates.
“We’re trying to make it as real as we can so they can feel like they’re there,” Capwell said.
Improving the quality of distance learning is just one goal. Making in-person and online learning as seamless as possible is another.
InPrep wants to make sure students don’t miss a beat if their parents initially choose the online option as a temporary solution and then pivot to brick-and-mortar later. The school also will provide the flexibility for students to move back and forth between in-person and online if that becomes necessary.
“When they do come back, they’ve probably already made friends, because even though we’re a new school, they’ve built relationships in class and with teachers,” Capwell said. “We’re trying to give them a mirror of actually being there. When they come back, they can just jump in.”
The number of students choosing in-person learning versus those doing the “mobile classroom” keep shifting, a testament to how volatile the pandemic is. Initially, about 90% of InPrep’s inaugural families chose in-person, but after the COVID infections began soaring, that figure dropped to as low as 52%. The figure has since rebounded to around 65%, while the school continues to survey all its parents to make sure they still are where they want to be in terms of in-person or online.
Regardless of the exact figures, it’s clear that a significant number of parents want in-person learning for their children, while others prefer the options online can provide, at least in the short term.
As for those families who still are undecided about what to do, Capwell is getting the word out that InPrep is open, has teachers who are ready to teach, and has processes in place to facilitate learning while protecting everyone’s health. She said she already has seen an uptick in enrollments in recent weeks, an additional 25 to 35 students each week.
InPrep also has begun hosting Facebook Live presentations to show off the new school and to have staff members role-play safety procedures to reassure parents.
“Parents can actually see that and go, ‘Oh, so it’s not like everyone’s going to show up and be afraid to interact.’ We’re going to interact, and do so safely,” Capwell said. “Once they see the actual visuals in our building, I think that the interest will be exponential.”
Although chartered as a K-8 school, InPrep will be K-6 its first year, building a middle-school culture in the upper grades before adding seventh grade in 2021-22 and eighth grade the year after that. The school currently has more than 400 students enrolled toward this year’s target of 615, so space is available. Even if it reaches its maximum capacity, Capwell said, InPrep will be able to practice social distancing between students in every classroom. And while students and faculty will be required to wear masks, they will be allowed to take five-minute “mask breaks” each hour – while remaining socially distant – to give everyone a literal breather so they can stay focused on learning.
This may be what passes for normalcy in the turmoil of a pandemic. But for many parents craving constancy, they’ll take however much they can get.