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Pinellas School Board candidates talk pandemic response, diversity and equity

Reopening schools next month is a top issue this cycle.

Candidates for Pinellas County School Board District 1 met virtually Wednesday for a digital event outlining their priorities for the district on everything from COVID-19 precautions to diversity in schools. 

The forum, hosted by the Suncoast Tiger Bay Club, addressed the most salient topics of the day, reopening schools amid a booming pandemic, and equity issues within the school district independent of current health concerns.  

The candidates, Laura Hine, Stephanie Meyer and Tom Topping, are running to replace Joanne Lentino in her countywide seat. Lentino is not running for reelection. Elections for this position will be on the August 18 ballot.  

As an educator, Meyer managed moving to online teaching in the spring, and said she supports the three choices the superintendent laid out for students in the district’s reopening plan. Parents must select between in-person schooling, MyPCS Online or Pinellas Virtual School by July 27. 

The in-person option allows students to return to their assigned brick and mortar schools while MyPCS Online and Pinellas Virtual are distance learning options. Those who select Pinellas Virtual would risk losing their seat at an assigned school while MyPCS holds a student’s seat at their assigned schools for the duration of the nine-week commitment.

“I am the only candidate that has experienced this from both sides, as the teacher and as the parent,” she said. 

Topping, who clocked 23 years of teaching experience before starting his own business, said although there were choices for parents, teachers in the county need more choice and support to navigate the pandemic. Though he supports the fluidity of the plan because of the uncertainty surrounding the issue.  

Hine emphasized prioritizing student and teacher health, and as a working mother, understands the challenges students and families face navigating the system. She said she looks forward to improvements the plan calls for in virtual schooling, like providing more access to devices, giving one per student instead of per family. 

Candidates also addressed inequities among students of color in the Pinellas County school system, and how the candidates, all white, would represent minority families in the district.

Closing the achievement gap is one of Topping’s major platforms. He went over his goals of adding culturally relevant instruction, and emphasized a need for supporting teachers. 

“We need to get the best teachers in front of those students,” he said. 

Hine and Meyer addressed the need for community involvement, with Meyer emphasizing parental involvement.

Near the end of the forum, the viewers sent in questions for the candidates, including asking how each felt about schools receiving government funds while discriminating against sexual orientation, gender and race. All candidates said they do not agree with that practice. Rules are already in place for traditional public schools, protecting against such discrimination, but some privately-run charter schools may be able to skirt rules and private schools that receive publicly-funded school vouchers are not bound by those rules at all. 

Written By

Kelly Hayes studied journalism and political science at the University of Florida. Kelly was born and raised in Tampa Bay. A recent graduate, she enjoys government and legal reporting. She has experience covering the Florida Legislature as well as local government, and is a proud Alligator alum. You can reach Kelly at khayes15966@gmail.com.

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