Schools shut down last spring, shifting learning to online. Here’s how the Collier County School District made the transition.

Rachel Fradette
Naples Daily News

Kamela Patton’s condominium is home to 14 boxes of old pictures chronicling her life and career from the past couple of years.

They went untouched for some time, she said. 

But last March, the superintendent for Collier County Public Schools set out to tackle the pile and finally organize her memories over spring break.

She never got to them, she said.

Collier County Superintendent of Schools Kamela Patton poses for a portrait, Wednesday, March 10, 2021, at Collier County Public School Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Administrative Center Office in North Naples.

In March 2020, Gov. Ron DeSantis announced that schools would remain closed for an extended spring break due to growing concern about the novel coronavirus. 

From 2020:Public K-12 schools in Lee and Collier will close for extended spring break due to coronavirus

On the morning of March 17, 2020, Patton and her fellow administrators had a call with the Department of Health. The meeting was on the heels of DeSantis’ extension of spring break.

“St. Patrick's Day will always be very different, you know, because that was it,” Patton said.

A month later on April 18, DeSantis announced Florida schools would remain closed until the end of the year.  

The unprecedented situation scattered educators who were forced to transform teaching methods, disrupted student learning and left school districts to adapt quickly to the changing environment. 

The Naples Daily News spoke with administrators and department heads in the school district about last spring. 

Here’s how Collier schools managed the closing of its school buildings and transitioned students to virtual learning.

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Collier schools' unforgettable year

From her time in Miami to more than a decade in Collier, Patton said nothing, apart from maybe a hurricane, compared to leading in the COVID era.

Like most superintendents throughout the United States, Patton and the district were tasked with seamlessly moving student learning to online.

But how did they get it done?

“We weren't told we were closing, we were told for two weeks, you were closed, then we were told another two weeks,” Patton said.

Collier County schools were one of four school districts, including Union, Duval and Sumter counties, on spring break when schools were closed initially.

In Lee County, kids and teachers were dismissed for spring break on March 12, there was no school the next day, and then the state announced the extended spring break that night.

More:Collier schools offering free meals to students after USDA extended summer food program

Patton said Collier's district had to facilitate how students and teachers could bring home what they needed for learning despite limits on gatherings and who could be on campus at the same time.

“Everybody else had a chance to know, send all that home,” Patton said.

During the extended spring break, Collier leadership met almost every day to develop plans for the district, especially during the weekend before it was announced schools would remain closed until April. 

The school district’s health team comprising more than two dozen district administrators and department leaders started meeting last spring.

At the meetings, Patton said the health team worked on strategy, like laptop distribution and developed plans for essential staff needed in school buildings while dealing with incoming statewide guidance on school closures. 

Hunting for laptops for virtual learning

Tom Petry, director of technology for the district, and his team were tasked with ordering, preparing and engaging laptop devices for students and teachers throughout the pandemic. 

"We knew that there were some students that weren't going to have those devices at home," Petry said. 

In order to launch virtual learning, Collier schools had to survey families about their access to technology and the internet.

Within about 24 hours, the district received more than 6,000 responses from families. 

Then the hunt for laptops at schools began. Petry and his team needed to bring all of the laptops available in the district back to headquarters while simultaneously gauging how many families required them.

The laptops had to be set up so that they could be used at home, he said. 

Last spring, students were allowed to use their personal laptops while families who required devices were asked to complete a survey. 

Collier worked to distribute about 16,000 available devices and more than 700 hotspots through the process, Petry said.

Once they were certain every student had a device who needed one, families with more than one child enrolled in Collier schools were able to request additional devices following the initial rollout over a few weeks.

Although it was fast-paced and uncertain, Petry said the laptops have provided the district opportunity. 

"Previously, we couldn't assure that every student had a device when they went home, or that they had reliable internet access when they went home to be able to use a device," Petry said. "Through this process, we've now been able to assure they have that and continue to provide that."

By the time devices needed to get into students' hands at the start of this school year, there were an additional 27,000.

A device for every child in Collier County, known as a one-to-one initiative, had been a goal for the district and now turned into reality. 

“What we were going to plan to do in three years, one-to-one devices, it’s done,” Patton said. 

Getting the devices distributed to students was another part of the equation. The district through school administrators set up laptop pick-ups at schools ahead of instruction in the spring and then again in the fall.  

Looking back:Lee, Collier schools to remain closed through May 1

COVID-19 changed how learning looks

Then on March 30, teacher-led instruction began.

Prior to that, the district provided learning resources and a week of district-led instructions while teachers prepared for their transition and trained on Canvas, the district’s learning management system. 

Behind the scenes, Peggy Aune, associate superintendent of teaching and learning, and other district staff were developing how learning would look. 

Course by course, grade level by grade level, Aune and other staff had to make adjustments along the way to student learning.

Elementary students who primarily learn with papers and pencils moved to a virtual setting with a new way to deliver materials. Teachers then needed support for making those switches, Aune said. 

“We’re continuing to make adjustments now, to ensure, for example, that we're spending more time going back and covering foundational standards that students may have had a little bit less time or emphasis on in the latter half of last school year," Aune said. 

Aune said the district also had to adapt how it monitored student progress. 

"As we started this journey in the spring, it was really about ensuring we did not have a lapse in student learning," Aune said. "We needed to quickly pivot to those independent learning activities designed by the district."

Aune said that "learning never stopped."

Flying the plane while building it

Another facet to the jump to at-home learning: What about students who rely on meals provided by the district?

There were 27 meal distribution sites for students. About 1.4 million meals were distributed to students from mid-March through Aug. 19, according to the district. 

Distribution continued even as the number of students online and those returning to campus were nearly even. 

Elizabeth Alfaro, Collier's director of nutrition services, had only started in her position six months before the pandemic started. 

"Usually we plan out our summer program four to six months in advance," Alfaro said.

Due to the onset of the pandemic, the district had to move to the summer feeding program in about two days, Alfaro said.

"I think the pandemic brought on a lot of unanswered questions for us because we had to go into a program of which we had never done before," Alfaro said.

Alfaro said those questions surrounded how nutrition services would implement the program after receiving flexibility from the state department.

"We were flying the plane and building it at the same time," Alfaro said. 

Pine Ridge Middle School food nutrition workers Joyceline Paul, left, and Maria Mastropierro, bring out prepared breakfast and lunches for middle school students at a curbside meal pickup area at Pine Ridge Middle School in North Naples, Friday Sept. 18, 2020.

Joyceline Paul, a nutrition services worker of more than 28 years at Pine Ridge Middle School, watched as the new normal changed her daily routine dramatically. 

Kids who once stood in line for meals were arriving at the curb, but the school's team adjusted to their new assembly line. 

“The parents really appreciate it and were grateful that we were doing this,” Paul said. 

The pandemic put more of a focus on the essential role of nutrition workers, Paul said. 

“That was the most important goal, making sure that kids were fed and taken care of,” Paul said. 

The next big question was how to pay for everything. 

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Money, spending and getting kids what they need

Laptops, hotspots, curbside meals, equipment at home, tracking kids — it took every department in sync to smoothly transition students online.

Costs started adding up.

Financially, several districts were poised with a difficult choice — spend the money or don’t.

“We sit in a good position that we're very fiscally responsible that we could go ahead and spend our money and know at some point, there'll be some kind of a reimbursement,” Patton said.  “That's not the position everybody sits in.”

More:Collier schools looks at 'long term' following first quarter grades

Collier schools had choices, she said. 

The district spent $14 million so devices for every child in the county could be made possible, which was originally planned to happen over three years. 

“We always have that reserve ready to go and we're not afraid to use that reserve,” Patton said.

Making the grade during COVID-19

In January, Patton expressed concern about this year's graduating class and their progress this year because of what they have had to overcome. 

More:SWFL graduation rates: Collier and Lee counties make gains despite pandemic

Collier County Superintendent of Schools Kamela Patton sits for a portrait, Wednesday, March 10, 2021, at  the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Administrative Center Office in North Naples.

Student grades — although not comparable to any other year, the district says — are also being impacted amid the pandemic. 

In the first and second quarters, about 20% of Collier students received one or more failing grades in core courses on their grade reports, up from last year.

Third-quarter reports also showed an uptick in failing grades in core courses for students. 

About 18% percent of students — grade levels third through 12th — had one or more failing grades, up from 12.7% in 2020, according to the district. 

Mental health concerns grow

Much of the pandemic was not being able to foresee what would become a much larger issue for school communities. 

There's always more that can be done through social-emotional learning, Patton said.

The David Lawrence Center, a Collier-based mental health treatment provider, released numbers related to student mental health in the pandemic.

More:COVID-19's high toll on children in Southwest Florida: Mental health needs have increased in an already strained system

The results are apparent: Mental health needs for young people are crucial, said Scott Burgess, CEO of the David Lawrence Center said at a Collier meeting in March.

"There are national issues around children's mental health that we are certainly not escaping here in Collier County either," Burgess said at the meeting. 

Florida's Baker Act allows people, including children, to be involuntarily committed to a mental health treatment facility by authorities if they are considered a threat to themselves or others. 

From March 15 to June 4 last year 68 cases under the state's Baker Act were reported in the school community. The upward trend continued through the new school year. 

The children's crisis unit at the David Lawrence Center saw a 33% increase in Baker Act admissions to the Children’s Crisis Unit from July 1, 2020, to Jan. 31, 2021, up from the previous year. 

More:Wounded Warriors steps up help for homeless veterans with second house targeting long-term needs in Collier

Aune said the district had amplified and enhanced social-emotional learning in addition to mental health services during the pandemic. 

"They've got complete disruption in their life. They've had changes in school," Burgess said at the meeting. "They've had changes in their outside-of-school routine."

Burgess said kids struggle to process through stressful events. 

"I think all of that disruption has been challenging," Burgess said. 

Taking criticism this school year

The district did not have a lot of things fall through the cracks because district staff, including Patton, spent hours thinking about what could go wrong to get ahead of it, she said. 

“We had many things already in place, but we had no idea COVID was coming at us and what kind of problems COVID would cause,” Sandi Eaton, the district's human resources administrative director, said. 

Eaton said she does not believe the district had anything fail over the last year. 

There’s no playbook for what they did and continue to do, Patton said. They stayed afloat along the way and other districts noticed how Collier managed the school year. Many reached out, she said. 

Every Thursday, Patton said, she has phone conferences with a Chicago Public Schools superintendent and another superintendent in California to discuss reopening and other topics.

"They're just amazed when I tell them our stories," Patton said.

More than 1,600 coronavirus cases have been reported in Collier schools so far this school year. Collier schools reopened in August.

More:Collier schools not releasing student, employee quarantine numbers

"I think our mantra was, is not open schools, it's open and stay open," Patton said. "We never sent one class home one time, not even a class. Certainly not a wing of a school, not a school, not a whole sport."

Since then, the number of students on campus has steadily increased to about 90% back in brick-and-mortar schools.

When asked about criticism surrounding coronavirus cases in the district, Patton said safety protocols are working. 

"I think our numbers told us, at least it told me we're doing something right that we're not sending as many kids home as other people," Patton said. 

The district's plans for on-campus safety measures and virtual learning have seen criticism this school year, especially at board meetings. 

In July 2020, Collier County teachers paraded in their cars outside the Martin Luther King Jr. administration building where they also flooded public comment with concerns about the upcoming school year. 

They were calling for a delay in the reopening of brick-and-mortar buildings until COVID-19 case numbers came down. 

District teachers received some reprieve when in-person learning was pushed back a few weeks until the end of August. 

More:Back to school in Collier County: A look inside an atypical first day back

Over a span of several months, more critics have emerged.

At a school board meeting last month, about 40 parents and students challenged the district's mask mandate that was instated at the start of the year. 

Many called for the masks to be made optional. The meeting was plagued by interruptions and hostility. 

One speaker, Jacob Wagganer, a Palmetto Ridge High School senior, said his grades have suffered, he couldn't participate in events like homecoming and he quit marching band because of the mask requirement this year. 

Wagganer said Patton was "part of the problem"

"Thank you for taking away my senior year," Wagganer said. "I will forever dislike you for that."

Patton said aspects of criticism can be bothersome but has to be taken in stride. Most people, namely parents, are operating on their own school experience of K-12, she said.

"People aren't trying to be mad at us. They're trying to either defend the taxpayers' dollars, or they're worried about their most prized possession, their kid, and based on their 13 years of experience that's why they're saying that," Patton said. "It doesn't make it easy to hear it continually, but if you can always put yourself in other people's shoes, it makes it a step easier."

Last year, the school district opted for virtual graduations to avoid community spread and to follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines at the time.

This year, seniors will be able to have in-person graduation ceremonies although with fewer attendees. 

More:Graduation 'No. 1 priority' for Collier schools as district plans on-campus ceremonies

Superintendent Kamela Patton participates in an interview, Wednesday, March 10, 2021, at Collier County Public School Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Administrative Center Office in North Naples.

Patton said it was important to the district to make something happen for the Class of 2020 despite the surrounding difficulties from the health crisis. 

With some semblance of normalcy inching its way back in schools, Patton said she's reflecting over the last year and how the district kept going.

“It's not a job. It's a lifestyle,” Patton said. “So I don't want to do it wrong. And I think we have, I think we've done a really good job."

Those same photos that Patton attempted to go through in March as she had for the last several years are still a work in progress.

She will try again in the summer evenings to complete her project. 

Rachel Fradette is an education reporter for the Naples Daily News. Follow her on Twitter: @Rachel_Fradette, email her at rfradette@gannett.com.

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