photo/Laura Kepner

Locals Virtually Teaching, Learning, and Graduating

in news/town square

Working from home, whether you’re a student, parent, teacher, or in some cases, both, is the norm these days. With the ongoing threat of COVID-19, there can only be guesswork as to when workers and students may return to a normal schedule . . . and environment.

Amy Stinsman teaches second grade at Safety Harbor Elementary. In a recent phone interview, she explained that she and her students had one week off for spring break. The following week became training for all Pinellas County teachers. They had to learn how to reach their students virtually. “The following Monday,” she said “we started gently: one lesson a day.”

Mrs. Stinsman said that there has been a big transition to the online technology. The whole process has been challenging for everyone. “But,” she said, “week by week we are all getting better – students, parents, and teachers.”

She appreciates how smooth this transition has actually been. “I am super proud of the county’s reaction to implementing virtual school so swiftly. It was a huge endeavor and the leadership at the county level has been phenomenal. I am grateful that we get to keep in contact with our students and give them some sort of normalcy.”

Some of the technical challenges have been due to a sluggish system, mainly on Microsoft Teams because of too many users. “Everyone is being very patient,” Mrs. Stinsman explained. “Our principal has not overwhelmed us. She has been wonderful and being supportive of what we are doing. I think [the pandemic] has brought more tolerance in the world and more patience.

“Right now, it is less is more because in these difficult times teachers are trying to understand that parents have a lot more to do. Teachers are trying to not overwhelm them. So far, we have gotten positive feedback.

While Safety Harbor is made up of many affluent families, there are also families who are struggling, especially now. Safety Harbor Elementary reacted quickly and provided computers for all kids who did not have them at home. Spectrum has given wifi to families who don’t have it.

Mrs. Stinsman and her coworkers are continuing to teach themselves. “It is confusing and there is a learning curve. I have been behind my computer at least eight hours a day, past my contractual hours and I feel ninety-percent of teachers are. Teachers are typically perfectionists and we are all trying to master this. As long as the kids are learning, that is what is important.”

On Saturday, Governor Ron DeSantis announced that Florida schools K-12 will remain closed through the end of this school year. Mrs. Stinsman said she thinks it is smart and will help keep children, parents, and teachers healthy and safe.  “I signed a petition for Ron DeSantis to keep the schools closed. I hope it helped.”

Kara Tanner‘s two daughters are students at Safety Harbor Elementary. She explained that she feels fortunate because she is a stay-at-home mom so she is used to having her kids at home with her when not in school. “But,” she said, “there are things at school that we can’t do – like socialization. And the girls listen to their teachers better than they do me.”

Mrs. Tanner has found ways to make online learning work best for her daughters. “We start later,” she said. “We will usually do recess first. I have a kindergartner. She will have a video to watch or her teacher will offer options. We have done things like cut our fruits and vegetables to see the seeds. Then she drew a picture of the seeds to compare and contrast. For math you can play a math game, like with Uno cards or you can go on the computer and do thirty minutes of math there. Sometimes I don’t have time to play a math game. My other daughter is more independent. She is in third grade. They recently went on a virtual field trip to a national park.”

But for the Tanners, there is an unavoidable downside to the stay-at-home school experience. “They miss their teachers so much, and friends of course. It is a different environment at home. At first they didn’t think they’d have to work.”

The Tanners hadn’t planned on sending their girls back to school this year anyway, even though it is now official. “My husband is very high risk, so we have to be extra careful,” Mrs. Tanner said.

Sophie Goldsmith is a senior at Palm Harbor University High School and plans to attend Amherst College this fall.  Like all Florida seniors, she recently learned she will not return to high school at all this year.

“My IB exams have been canceled. For weeks they were saying they weren’t going to cancel. It is a big deal . . .  the two-year program has never been canceled,” she said.  “Grad Bash at Universal has been canceled. Prom has been canceled. But I am healthy. We are doing our part and staying home.”

Sophie describes herself as an in-person learner.  “It is definitely tough to find motivation for how to do it all at home. I have a new respect for my dad, who telecommutes.

“I have had a lot of time to think about graduation,” she said. “I feel like graduation is pretty impersonal anyway. But a lot of people peak in high school so this is hard for them. It was going to be on a Saturday at 7 a.m. and that would have been a nightmare. It is what it is. I will be okay.”

Sophie hopes to study molecular biology.  “I also want to study history and a foreign language. I want to study abroad. I feel like the world is my oyster.”

Sophie misses her friends and teachers. “I miss having conversations and learning from people. We are not allowed to turn on our cameras. We have to turn on mute. I am still in touch with my friends. At lunch we do the New York Times Crossword so we still facetime and do all that but I miss learning with people—how they think and view materials.”

She has had time to focus on reading, though. “I haven’t read for fun in a really long time. I spend an hour in my driveway reading a book. I put on big sunglasses and look like one of the Three Blind Mice. It is really nice to see my neighbors. I haven’t seen some of them in years. It is neat. I like that a lot. I have been really trying to get outside even though it’s hot.”

When asked how she feels about the decision to close schools through the remainder of the school year, she replied, “I’m just bummed about everything getting canceled. Graduation is virtual now, whatever that means.”

What is your experience with COVID-19? If you have a story to share, please contact Laura Kepner at

Laura moved to this city in 2008 and immediately realized she had found Paradise! In an effort to meet creative people who also enjoyed writing, she founded Safety Harbor Writers & Poets in 2010. She has since facilitated open mic nights, classes, conferences and more. She is co-author of A Brief History of Safety Harbor, Florida, and editor-in-chief of ODET, a Florida-based literary journal named for Odet Philippe, who she believes, was the first known storyteller to call this town home. Currently serving as the secretary for the Whispering Souls African American Cemetery, and as a museum board member, she plans to share local history, biographies, and more through her Safety Harbor Sun contributions. She can be reached by email at