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Pinellas keeps plan to reopen schools, despite concerns

Testing the state's emergency order, as Hillsborough did, would be too costly, officials said.
Wearing masks and keeping their distance, four members of the Pinellas County School Board discuss the district's reopening plans during a meeting carried via livestream Tuesday. From left, the members are Eileen Long, Carol Cook, Rene Flowers and Lisa Cane.
Wearing masks and keeping their distance, four members of the Pinellas County School Board discuss the district's reopening plans during a meeting carried via livestream Tuesday. From left, the members are Eileen Long, Carol Cook, Rene Flowers and Lisa Cane. [ Pinellas County Schools ]
Published Aug. 11, 2020

Though still concerned about aspects of reopening school buildings in two weeks, Pinellas County School Board members declined Tuesday to follow their Hillsborough County counterparts in going fully online to open the new academic year.

The board will stick with the plan it approved last month to start the school year on Aug. 24, with some students going back to campuses and others opting for online classes as Florida continues to grapple with the pandemic. While thousands of new coronavirus cases are reported each day, their numbers are trending downward, including in Pinellas.

“It hasn’t turned out well in a financial way,” board member Lisa Cane said, referring to Tuesday’s news that Hillsborough stands to lose $23 million a month in state revenue if it goes against a state emergency order and declines to start the year with in-person classes. Cane had started the day seriously considering a similar option for Pinellas.

Education commissioner Richard Corcoran has warned Hillsborough that, if it does not offer in-person classes, the district cannot qualify for waivers that will allow for full per-student funding.

Bill Corbett, deputy superintendent for Pinellas schools, told the board that the district stood to lose $167 million over the year if it could not rely on the guarantees the state offered in exchange for a reopening plan that includes a “bricks and mortar” choice for families.

“There would be some draconian cuts we would need to make,” Corbett said, equating the amount to more than 2,000 teaching salaries.

Board attorney David Koperski further advised that fighting the state’s emergency order, as the Florida Education Association is doing in a lawsuit, would be an uphill battle against courts that haven’t been friendly to school district concerns and an order that isn’t necessarily illegal.

By allowing districts to offer some online classes at full funding, the state “is offering something over and above what the law offered,” Koperski said, calling it a “benefit” that districts do not have to take. “What (Corcoran) is asking is, would you like to take advantage of the benefit?”

In reality, it’s an option the district can’t afford to pass up. “At this point, the (state) is saying, ‘We’re not bluffing,‘” Koperski explained.

Board member Nicole Carr laughed at the notion that the district was taking advantage of some sort of benefit. Rather, board member Rene Flowers added, “We did what we were asked to do.”

But lacking a viable alternative, Carr said, it didn’t make sense to pursue a delay of in-person classes — regardless of the concerns, which for her included the ability to implement adequate social distancing in middle and high schools.

The board can always call a special meeting to change if it doesn’t get satisfactory answers from the staff to its questions, she noted. But for now, the board agreed, the administration has regularly responded to issues and tried to resolve them as much as possible.

“I think we’re on the right path, knowing there are still going to be improvements,” chairwoman Carol Cook said.

Board members praised the district staff for reacting to the ever-changing landscape of the COVID-19 pandemic, providing detailed proposals and information when requested. They spent hours Tuesday reviewing the specifics, including an updated facial coverings and mask rule that the board adopted unanimously.

The rule requires all students, staff and visitors to wear solid facial coverings while on district property. It allows for time to remove the masks, in situations where social distancing is possible. Students who repeatedly refuse to follow the mandate could be reassigned to online classes.

Among the other details provided, the board learned that a general restriction on visitors won’t prevent parents from taking their kindergartners to classrooms on the first day of classes. They heard that the district is working with health agencies to get expedited virus testing for school-related cases. They discussed exact steps to take if an employee or student has symptoms or tests positive.

And they learned how plans are developing to maintain social distances on buses and in cafeterias. With about 55 percent of students signed up for in-person classes, the use of facilities decreases, making it easier to create the space, officials said.

Even so, several speakers addressing the board contended that all the actions cannot be enough to protect everyone. They noted that board member Cane urged several times during the meeting for reminders that students attending in-person classes could be subject at a moment’s notice to quarantine or a campus closing again.

That only highlighted the dangers, they said, arguing that reopening isn’t the best answer.

Superintendent Mike Grego suggested that the board is taking the proper steps. At a time of crisis, he said, leaders must collaborate for solutions rather than criticize.

“It is so important that we stay collectively, as a district, united to help this community get through this pandemic,” Grego said, noting the hard work and planning continues.

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