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Nearly half of Hillsborough parents, teachers wary of returning to schools

Twenty-two percent of parents prefer virtual classes; another 30 percent would consider the virtual option.

TAMPA — With coronavirus cases rising in Hillsborough County and statewide, roughly half of all parents and staff in the school district are reluctant to return to campuses in August.

The results of the district’s survey, released Tuesday at a School Board meeting, pleased board member Cindy Stuart, who remarked that some communities have lower levels of confidence.

For superintendent Addison Davis, the results signaled that the district must work to bolster confidence among the nearly 50 percent who are reluctant to send their children to school.

“As we continue to have an aggressive communication plan about our re-entry plans,” he said, “we hope we can transition them back to where they feel psychologically safe to be able to send their children back to our schools.”

As of Wednesday morning, 3,027 people in Hillsborough had tested positive for COVID-19, which amounts to 1 in every 472 residents, and 97 had died.

Hillsborough’s survey results were similar to those in Pasco County, even though the two districts used different methods. Where Hillsborough used an online survey, Pasco opted for focus groups and a “thought exchange” that allowed participants to make their own statements and rate each other’s statements.

As with Hillsborough, Pasco spokesman Steve Hegarty said, the Pasco parents and staff were evenly divided on whether they felt the schools will be a safe place at the start of the school year.

In Pinellas County, superintendent Mike Grego said the district will conduct surveys and convene focus groups over the next few weeks, in advance of a July 14 School Board workshop, when he hopes to unveil a reopening plan. The process would involve “a lot of listening,” he said.

Hillsborough’s five-day, emailed survey drew 62,348 responses, 52,883 of them from parents and the rest from staff.

Of the parents, 53 percent were comfortable to very comfortable sending their children. The rate was similar for staff; 52 percent were comfortable or very comfortable. The other half — 24,783 parents and 4,501 employees — were not comfortable, or somewhat uncomfortable with a return to school.

Parents were asked how they felt about putting their children on school buses, assuming they were eligible. Again, there was a near-even split, with 45 percent likely to put their children on a bus while 42 percent were unlikely to do so.

In Hillsborough, which has an extensive magnet school system and crowded conditions on some buses, transportation promises to be a challenge — especially if the district follows public health guidelines by spacing children apart.

Parents were also asked if, assuming schools reopened under a normal schedule, they would prefer virtual instruction. Nearly half — 47 percent — said no. Close to a third — 30 percent — said maybe, and 22 percent said yes.

Anticipating that tens of thousands of children might opt to learn virtually, the district is working to expand its Hillsborough Virtual School. That way, state dollars continue to flow to the district.

When asked to cite specific concerns, parents said they want to be assured of clean and sanitized environments, class sizes that are manageable for social distance, and halls that are not packed between classes. One parent suggested testing incoming faculty and students at the start of the school year, to make sure they are not ill with COVID-19.

The Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association has been conducting its own polling, with similar results. More than 3,300 teachers answered the question: “How concerned are you about about returning to school in August?”

The greatest number — 45 percent — said they were somewhat concerned. Another 38 percent were very concerned. And 17 percent answered, “I’m not concerned.”

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