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Hillsborough School Board votes to delay in-person classes

The school year will start on Aug. 24, as planned, but classes will be online at first.

TAMPA — Schools in Hillsborough County will be all-virtual for the first four weeks after their Aug. 24 opening, the School Board decided in a 5-2 vote on Thursday.

Then, on Sept. 8, if COVID-19 numbers have fallen sufficiently, the board might vote to reopen their buildings to students.

Thursday’s reversal of a decision two weeks earlier followed presentations from a panel of physicians who warned that, if the schools reopened for face-to-face instruction, there would likely be widespread closures because of the coronavirus.

In hearing these explanations, board member Stacy Hahn — who had voted previously to reopen campuses — said she realized that face-to-face school, which most agree is best for children, would be greatly diminished.

“We will have interrupted instruction,” Hahn said. “That’s not good instruction. That’s not high quality instruction.”

Related: Will other districts follow Hillsborough’s decision to delay in-person school?

The board also heard 54 public comments on both sides of the issue. They were limited to a minute each, with some of the speakers growing emotional as they described their fears of the illness and their children’s needs.

Hahn and board member Steve Cona, who also voted for the reopening plan on July 23, acknowledged Thursday that the shift will create a hardship for working parents and students who have been cut off from friends and teachers since schools closed statewide in March.

“I’m of the belief that we need to make sure we get our kids back to school as quickly as possible, because we know that’s the best way for us to serve them,” Cona said. But he said he could not ignore the pandemic.

The health experts said things are improving in Hillsborough, with lower rates of infection and hospitalization. But Hillsborough’s test positivity is still more than double the 5 percent that is considered safe.

In arguing against the delay, board member Cindy Stuart noted that families had planned on sending 42 percent of students back to the schools. ”And they have serious reasons for wanting to come back,” she said.

Stuart’s position has changed since earlier in the summer, when she announced publicly that she wanted an all-virtual opening.

Related: How coronavirus is spreading in Florida

Chairwoman Melissa Snively, who cast the other dissenting vote, has pushed all along for the schools to reopen. A mother of three school-age children, Snively has argued that many students are not successful in virtual learning. Families will flock to private and charter schools, she said Thursday.

What’s more, Snively said, children of working parents will have no supervision while they are learning, and the system approved by the state requires rigid schedules that mimic the school day.

”It’s not just a digital divide,” Snively said. “It’s a divide between the haves and the have-nots.”

Tamara Shamburger and Karen Perez have been most consistently on the side of an all-virtual opening. Shamburger, who recently recovered from COVID-19, said, “the lack of internet pales in comparison to a loss of life.”

Perez, a clinical social worker, questioned the doctors on childhood obesity and on the preponderance of COVID-19 in the Black and Hispanic communities. Perez has also pressed superintendent Addison Davis for statistics on COVID-19 cases within the schools, even though they are closed to most students. Since March, Davis said on Thursday, there have been 283 cases.

Lynn Gray had voted for Davis’s original plan, even though she preferred a virtual opening, so the district could meet its state deadline. On Thursday Gray voted to open all-virtual. Before the vote, she asked if the district could do something that some of the medical experts suggested: open schools in phases, with elementary years first.

The rationale: Elementary students, statistically, are less likely to suffer ill effects from COVID-19. It is harder for them to learn remotely through a computer. And they require parental supervision, while older students can work independently.

But, under their rules, board members were not able to make such revisions to the plan, as they had previously adopted it and sent it to the state. Their only option was to delay implementation.

Much work remains for district staff, not to mention tens of thousands of parents who will scramble for child care.

At one point in the meeting, Davis suggested that if the COVID-19 situation truly improves, so that it is not a threat to children and teachers, students could all come back sooner to in-person learning.

In the meantime, his staff will try and figure out how to get more computers to children who need them, and reorient teachers to this new reality.

“Everyone uses the words sprint and marathon,” said Gray, who has run more than 100 marathons of her own. “I’ll call it an ultramarathon because we won’t be done with this in January or February. We’re in this for a long haul.”

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