TAMPA, Fla. — With just days until many students in Florida start the new school year, teachers and families are preparing for yet another unconventional learning experience.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed an executive order banning local school districts from requiring face coverings for students. DeSantis says that's a decision that should be left up to parents.
Some school districts are pushing on with mask mandates despite the governor's order.
The superintendent of Hillsborough County Public Schools, the seventh-largest school district in the country, said while the district will be following CDC guidelines and will encourage mask-wearing, Hillsborough County Schools will not defy the governor's order and mandate masks for students.
While districts in Tampa Bay don't have their finalized enrollment numbers for the upcoming school year, Florida Virtual School is projecting to have more than 9,000 students attend the program.
Florida Virtual School (FLVS) is an online, statewide public school district offering more than 190 courses to K-12 students. Most county school districts in Tampa Bay also offer their own virtual schools.
These programs are different than what many Florida school districts had in 2020-21, known as e-learning, where students had live instruction all day via online courses. Tampa Bay districts are not offering e-learning instruction this upcoming year.
FLVS offers full-time and part-time enrollment, with full-time students attending FLVS as their primary school for all learning needs. The part-time option, known as FLVS Flex, offers students the opportunity to take online courses in addition to attending their traditional zoned school.
Florida Virtual started in 1997 and has grown and adapted with the times seeing a huge bump in enrollment when the pandemic hit.
FLVS is expecting to have more than 9,000 full-time K-12 students this upcoming school year. Enrollment is still open for grades K-8.
During the 2020-21 year, 12,600 students attended FLVS full-time. The year before that, 2019-20, during pre-pandemic times, FLVS had 5,788 enrolled full-time students.
Many parents are opting to leave the traditional school setting and find a new educational path for their children.
Julie Shamas, a mom of two daughters in St. Petersburg walked away from traditional schooling just before the pandemic started. She said it ended up being a lifesaver when everything closed down and her children's academic experience was hardly disrupted.
She started sharing her experience with friends on Facebook and helped connect families and educators from all over the world to find a new way to get an education.
"We were watching and going, there’s got to be a better way," Shamas said.
One year later, and a Facebook group turned into a business.
Shamas launched Anything Academic, a website that brings together the wide array of educational opportunities that exist for children outside the traditional classroom.
"You can spend forever on the internet searching and we’ve been through that process," she said.
Out of her own experience and seeing the demand during the pandemic, Shamas says she built her network with more than 30,000 different educational experiences for students and families.
"We created a way to find them so you could find the perfect fit for your child," she said.
Shamas believes the pandemic led many parents down a new educational path and based on the interest she sees on her site, Shamas says many families will never go back to the classroom.