The Hillsborough County School Board last week voted to begin the school year on Aug. 24, operating online only for the first four weeks of classes.
Within a day of that decision, however, Florida Education Commission Richard Corcoran notified the district that “this blanket, district-wide decision directly contradicts the district’s reopening plan, which was approved because it was consistent with the state’s emergency order.”
In a statement shared with The Laker/Lutz News, Corcoran said, ““The Hillsborough County School Board needs to follow the law, it’s that simple.
“The whole reason the Department created the emergency order was to grant districts maximum flexibility to do what is right for parents and schoolchildren.
“We will not stand idly by while they trample over the majority of parents who want to do right by their children.
“What they did yesterday (Aug. 6) completely eliminated the flexible options for their families and students, and ignored how harmful it can be for students who are experiencing violence, abuse, and food insecurity in their homes, many of whom are already struggling to close achievement gaps. These are urgent circumstances and we cannot, and will not, ignore it,” Corcoran concluded.
Hillsborough County Schools Superintendent Addison Davis issued a response to Corcoran’s letter, indicating the district had received it and was reviewing it with its legal team.
Addison also issued this statement: “Yesterday (Aug.6), the School Board made an informed decision after receiving data and hearing from the Florida Department of Health in Hillsborough County, along with hearing the advice of other local infectious disease and public health authorities.
“The Board acted after serious deliberations and with all due diligence. Our district understood the possibility that such a response from the state might come and it has been clear that the district could face negative implications. We will use this information to have discussions about where we go from here,” Davis said.
Both Corcoran and Davis’ statements came after a special Aug. 6 Hillsborough County School Board meeting that included hours of public comment, and testimony from a panel of medical experts.
During that meeting, the board voted 5-2 to start the school year with online options only. The board also determined they would look at the issue again at its Sept. 8 meeting.
Board members Karen Perez, Lynn Gray, Stacy Hahn, Steve Cona and Tammy Shamburger voted for those actions. Board Chairman Melissa Snively and board member Cindy Stuart dissented.
The board’s vote came after School Board Attorney James Porter told the board it could not change the reopening plan submitted by Superintendent Addison Davis, but could delay its implementation.
Addison’s plan calls for three learning options: Face-to-face instruction and two online choices. After gaining initial board approval, it was submitted to the state and approved. When making that initial vote, though, board members said they wanted to hear from medical experts.
Passions run hot, on both sides
The issue of whether to reopen school buildings has been a flashpoint of controversy.
A parade of speakers urged the school board to either reopen school campuses for face-to-face instruction, or to keep them closed for now.
Speakers wore masks to the meeting, and a district employee disinfected the podium and microphone after each person spoke.
So many people showed up, their comments were limited to 1-minute each. Many exceeded the limit and there were instances when the microphone was muted when people talked too long.
Speakers were passionate on both sides of the issue.
Some staff members said they have medical conditions and are afraid to return to school. Others said they have family members who are medically vulnerable.
Many said the number of COVID-19 cases is simply too high to return to school.
But, those arguing against online only cited a digital divide based on family incomes. They said families need child care, and that mothers, in particular would be forced to quit their jobs so they can oversee their child’s online instruction.
They also cited other issues, such as impacts on mental health, a need for personal instruction, a need to provide services for special needs students and the need to provide food for students who rely on schools for meals.
Members on the medical panel, however, told school board members that the positivity rate of COVID-19 is too high to safely return to school.
One medical expert said he would not support reopening schools as of that day, but might feel differently on Aug. 24, because he expects the positivity numbers to decline.
Dr. Douglas Holt, who leads the Florida Health Department in Hillsborough County, said he was at the meeting to provide technical assistance. He did not take a position on the issue.
School board member Gray said she’s not comfortable reopening campuses at the current COVID-19 positivity rate.
“I personally think that the spread rate of 10-11% is way too high and 3-5% is where we need to go,”” Gray said.
Chairwoman Snively said she didn’t want the board to only focus on the aspect of epidemiology. Having schools open helps bring to light issues such as children who are suffering from child abuse or have mental health, nutritional and other needs.
Because this situation continues to evolve, those interested in staying abreast of the latest developments should check the Hillsborough County School District’s website and its social media channels. Its website is SDHC.k12.fl.us.
Editor’s Note: The Laker/Lutz News received the following statement, after our newspaper went to press:
“Our district explicitly followed the state’s executive order. The order provides school districts the option of not opening brick and mortar “subject to advise or orders of the Florida Department of Health, (or) local departments of health”. Last Thursday, our School Board made an informed decision after hearing from the local public health authority and local infectious disease experts. The panel was asked if we should open our doors and not one medical professional could recommend opening today. The state’s order goes on to say the day-to-day decision to open or close a school always rests locally.”
Tanya Arja – Chief of Communications
Published August 12, 2020