Posted by: Grace Maseda on Monday, August 9, 2021
Leaders Ready to Fuel a Post-Pandemic Education Ecosystem 

The transformational power of education not only uplifts individuals, it uplifts entire communities. Yet, as public schools innovated to meet the needs of students and families during the COVID-19 pandemic, segments of our community struggled. As Chief of Innovation for Hillsborough County Public Schools (HCPS), Leadership Tampa Class of 2019 alumnus, Van Ayers, spent nearly two academic years adapting, evaluating, and reinventing curriculum delivery.

The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated long-standing inequities that historically have led many minority students to underperform in education. Addressing these inequities was critical at the onset, and for the duration of the pandemic, in order to ensure students remanded engaged in education. Because many underserved students rely on HCPS to provide nutritious meals daily, HCPS utilized school buses to bring food into under resourced communities. “Feeding students has been a huge undertaking for our district. Our Student Nutrition Services team did not have any time off during the pandemic,” said Ayers. They constantly worked to ensure families had free meals during the pandemic.” HCPS had a team of migrant advocates who stayed connected to migrant students, providing meals as well as internet hotspots and devices, to make sure they continue to learn throughout the pandemic.

As strong communities do, Tampa Bay came together to address the needs of all students and their families by supporting school-based food pantries, providing social services, and addressing the needs of students and teachers, now thrust into virtual instruction. During the pandemic Hillsborough Virtual K12, an exclusively online school within the district, saw enrollment swell to approximately 9,000 students. Enrollment in Hillsborough Virtual K12 has decreased as students return to on-campus instruction in the Fall.

The pandemic clearly demonstrated, however, why it is critical to address the “digital divide” in education – the gap between students who have ready access to computers and the internet, and those who do not. HCPS purchased 40,000 laptops and devices to help bridge the digital divide for students who did not have connectivity, but chose not to return to brick and mortar schools.

While K-12 administrators eagerly await students’ return to campus for the upcoming 2021-2022 academic year, leaders in higher education struggle to engage students who decided to forego college enrollment due to the pandemic. Chuck Tiernan, Leadership Tampa Class of 2018 alumnus, has been engaging students in postsecondary education since 2016 when he was named Director of LEAP Tampa Bay College Access Network.  “LEAP brings community partners together in support of students who want to complete education or training beyond high school. Our goal – which aims for 60 percent of working-aged adults to have a postsecondary degree or high-quality credential by the year 2025 -- aligns with the state’s Sail to 60 initiative,” said Tiernan. The global pandemic prompted both enrolled students to stop out, albeit for one or two semesters, and high school graduates to delay enrollment. “In the fall of 2020 and spring of 2021, there was a significant decline in college enrollment both locally and nationally,” explained Tiernan.

To address declining local enrollment and continue supporting the momentum toward Sail to 60, the statewide Florida College Access Network (FCAN) awarded LEAP Tampa Bay a grant intended to engage members of the graduating classes of 2020 and 2021 who had not enrolled in college. Through LEAP’s Complete Tampa Bay initiative, students can be coached through the enrollment process at Hillsborough Community College, St. Petersburg College, or the University of South Florida, among other institutions. Through the college partners, the grant also can offer qualified students a financial incentive to re-enroll. While the pandemic caused disruption, LEAP remains committed to connecting Tampa Bay’s residents to postsecondary education opportunities that lead to in-demand jobs.

As our community recovers from the unprecedented impact of COVID-19, Leadership Tampa Alumni are at the forefront. A strong education ecosystem not only fuels our workforce, it uplifts our community by connecting student potential to limitless possibilities. The education landscape has been altered by the global pandemic; however, the ambitious vision of our education leaders has been, and remains, focused on delivering educational excellence in every zip code.