Hillsborough’s plan to keep schools closed hits state roadblock

The schools must offer a face-to-face option for students who need it, Florida education commissioner Richard Corcoran says.
From left, Bright Owens, Jonah Seeley, 12, and Elijah Seeley, 14, gathered outside Hillsborough County school district headquarters Thursday as the School Board discussed reopening campuses for the 2020-21 academic year. They were part of a group who want school buildings to reopen.
From left, Bright Owens, Jonah Seeley, 12, and Elijah Seeley, 14, gathered outside Hillsborough County school district headquarters Thursday as the School Board discussed reopening campuses for the 2020-21 academic year. They were part of a group who want school buildings to reopen. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]
Published Aug. 7, 2020|Updated Aug. 8, 2020

Hillsborough County’s move to online-only classes for the first month of school is a no-go, the Florida Department of Education says.

In a letter delivered to district officials late Friday, education commissioner Richard Corcoran wrote that the School Board’s action Thursday violated its own reopening plan, which offered families three choices for their return to course work including an in-person option.

Without that face-to-face choice, he said, Hillsborough’s plan does not meet the requirements of the state’s mandate for resuming instruction this year. The Florida Education Association has challenged the order in court, calling it unconstitutional, but the case has not been decided.

Corcoran’s letter added a layer of uncertainty to an already confusing time, as schools are set to open in just weeks and plans continue to evolve. On Friday, Hillsborough families were still receiving calls from the district describing Thursday’s action.

Florida education commissioner Richard Corcoran
Florida education commissioner Richard Corcoran [ CHRIS URSO | Tampa Bay Times ]

“The Hillsborough County School Board needs to follow the law, it’s that simple,” Corcoran said in an e-mail to the Tampa Bay Times. “The whole reason the department created the emergency order was to grant districts maximum flexibility to do what is right for parents and school children. We will not stand idly by while they trample over the majority of parents who want to do right by their children.”

Forty-two percent of parents responding to the school district’s survey said they intend to send their children to in-person classes. About 15 percent of families did not respond.

Related: Florida adds 7,686 coronavirus infections and 180 deaths Friday

Corcoran noted that the district retains the authority to close schools after August. But he pointed to the section of the emergency order which details that such an action focuses on single campuses, and cannot be a district-wide, blanket decision.

Any move to shutter the schools would require an amendment to the district’s submitted and approved plan, with detailed information for each one under consideration.

“School leaders should be working creatively and diligently to accommodate as many students as possible with in-person instruction,” Corcoran wrote to the district.

For the time being, he concluded, the district has three options: Follow its approved plan. Submit an amended plan for each school under consideration for remaining closed. Or withdraw its plan and continue under the existing law, which means without waivers to provide funding for students attending live remote courses.

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The last option could cost the district tens of millions of dollars in lost state funding.

Hillsborough school superintendent Addison Davis
Hillsborough school superintendent Addison Davis [ OCTAVIO JONES | Times ]

Hillsborough school superintendent Addison Davis said he had not had the chance to read Corcoran’s full letter.

The School Board acted after serious deliberations, and with all due diligence, he said. Yet district officials understood the possibility that such a response might come.

“I’ve been clear from Day One that anything outside the emergency order could have negative financial impacts,” Davis said. “We’ll use this information to have discussions about where we go from now.”

Related: How coronavirus is spreading in Florida

He thanked parents, teachers and other stakeholders for their patience as the district works through this difficult situation, which he noted has been changing daily.

“I will work with the Department of Education to devise a plan that meets the needs of every one of our learners,” Davis said.

The arrival of Corcoran’s letter followed a public debate that, as in many communities, reflected sharp divisions on how to respond to the coronavirus pandemic. Hundreds of parents and teachers on both sides of the question lined up to speak at two School Board meetings, some moved to tears.

At the first meeting on July 23, board member Cindy Stuart moved that they submit Davis’ three-option plan to Tallahassee, but return in two weeks and reassess the situation after a discussion with a panel of medical experts. That motion passed 5-2 with Tamara Shamburger and Karen Perez dissenting.

At Thursday’s meeting, Perez moved to delay implementation of the reopening plan for four weeks, using distance learning in the interim, and to review the community COVID-19 statistics at the Sept. 8 board meeting before deciding anything further.

The motion passed, with Stuart and chair Melissa Snively dissenting.

Reached after the commissioner’s letter arrived, Perez said she hadn’t changed her opinion.

“I’m sticking to the fact that the professionals informed us that we should not open, and the cases within our own walls are on the uprise,” Perez said. “I don’t want to put our students, teachers or staff in harm’s way.”

The board members were clearly moved by what they heard from the physicians, who warned that if campuses reopened now the district would be beset with frequent closures as the coronavirus spread.

But, while Hillsborough Health Department Director Dr. Douglas Holt described a scenario in which the virus would continue to spread, he did not issue an order to keep schools closed. In fact, he told the board, “I represent the health department here. I’m providing technical assistance and advice. I do not have a position.”

Local health department officials, who work for the state, have been told not to make such pronouncements, even though the state set their actions as a prerequisite to a school district shutting down because of COVID-19, the Palm Beach Post reported.

The absence of such an order left the Hillsborough board shy of meeting the provision that Monroe County used to keep its students online for the first several weeks of classes. And because Hillsborough is not in Phase 1 of the governor’s reopening plan, it can’t claim the same exemption that Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach are invoking to keep school buildings closed.

Prior to the commissioner’s letter, Hillsborough’s vote set the statewide public education community abuzz. Activists across Florida who wanted their districts to remain closed past the end of August called on their boards to follow Hillsborough’s lead.

Some Pinellas County board members said they expected to make a similar motion when they meet on Tuesday.

By Friday morning, school board attorneys were calling one another to discuss whether it really could be done. They expected Corcoran to respond as he later did, noting that an approved plan can’t be so easily upended.

As he has in the past, Corcoran warned that keeping schools closed would hurt efforts to close achievement gaps affecting marginalized communities.

That was the last argument Shamburger wanted to hear.

“As an African American woman and a COVID survivor, I am more than willing to sit down with Richard Corcoran to discuss his use of the Trojan Horse of equity as a rationale to open schools,” she said in a text to the Times. ”The reality is that parents in the Black and Hispanic communities are concerned about sending their children back to school because they have seen what this virus can do.”

Damaris Allen, a public education advocate and former president of the Hillsborough PTA Council, expressed her frustration Friday with the latest turn of events.

“The state made it clear on multiple occasions that they would allow local school districts to make the decision based on what’s best for the health of their communities,” Allen said. “Every single doctor yesterday said it was not safe to go back to the schools at this point, and they are now asking us to put kids, teachers and the community in danger. It’s absolutely unacceptable.”

She worried about the long-term effects of the commissioner’s move, after months of what she described as inadequate preparation for another round of remote learning.

“I know Corcoran thinks he can force schools to open. But we are seeing teachers retire and leave the profession in record numbers,” Allen said. “While they think they can open school, they’re not going to have manpower to do so.”

Tampa parent Bright Owens had a different perspective. Her four children are ready to go back to school for in-person classes, a choice often referred to as the “brick-and-mortar” option.

“I am happy,” Owens said. “I like that they will have to think through how they will meet the needs of the kids who choose brick-and-mortar. I’m encouraged.”