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After a legal pause, Hillsborough stays with plan to reopen schools Monday

Superintendent Addison Davis says schools are ready. But they could close if the coronavirus spreads.

TAMPA — In an emergency meeting Friday morning, the Hillsborough County School Board voted 5-2 to proceed with its plans to reopen campuses Monday.

The meeting was the latest in a series of twists and turns resulting from a lawsuit by the Florida teachers union challenging a state order to reopen school campuses by the end of this month. Board members agreed to meet after a Tallahassee judge on Thursday lifted a stay on a ruling he made earlier in the week that the state order violated the Florida Constitution.

The stay had gone into effect automatically after the state appealed the ruling by Leon County Circuit Judge Charles Dodson.

On Friday, School Board members were faced with two choices.

They could go back to their Aug. 6 decision, reached in a 5-2 vote, to hold the first month of classes online because of the coronavirus pandemic. That would be accomplished by simply not taking a vote.

Their other option: Vote to approve a plan that came along days later after state officials threatened to punish the district financially for their Aug. 6 decision. That plan, hastily devised by superintendent Addison Davis without a School Board vote, called for Hillsborough schools to reopen Aug. 31 after one week of online learning.

As in past meetings, the vote followed strong public statements that pitted the educational and emotional needs of children against the prospect of endangering teachers and family members if there is a resurgence of the coronavirus, which causes COVID-19.

Already, the virus has dramatically affected one school, Spoto High, where top administrators are in quarantine. The school will reopen Monday with a fill-in administrative team composed of district leaders.

But Davis and a majority on the board said too much harm would be done if they pulled the plug at this late date. And, depending on the outcome of the Florida teachers union’s lawsuit in Tallahassee, the district risked losing as much as $200 million for defying the state’s reopening order, written by education commissioner Richard Corcoran.

“I do believe it is time for us to move in concert, to stand together, to continue to offer opportunities for every learner in this community,” Davis said, aiming to assure the public that “this team is ready.”

Board members Tamara Shamburger and Karen Perez cast the dissenting votes.

Much of the conversation centered around an exchange of emails between Davis and Dr. Douglas Holt, director of the Florida Department of Health in Hillsborough.

Holt was one of seven medical experts who addressed the board on Aug. 6. While the other six physicians advised against reopening, Holt said he could not offer advice, but acknowledged there would be some degree of coronavirus spread.

On Friday, however, the School Board was told that, based on improved conditions, Holt believes it is safe to reopen schools.

Board member Cindy Stuart read this emailed statement from Holt: “Based on the latest data on COVID-19 transmission I can certainly say we are in a safer place going into the school opening on Monday.”

Holt noted, in the email, that the board made an informed decision on Aug. 6. But given the ongoing decline in new cases and positivity rates, he wrote, “proceeding with the opening plan at this time is supported by that data.”

The latest calculations from Holt’s office show a 14-day average of 6.64 percent test positivity, and a seven-day average of 5.7 percent.

Board member Tamara Shamburger, who has argued against reopening schools, accused Davis of “cherrypicking” Holt’s opinion and failing to solicit opinions from the other physicians.

Davis and the board’s attorney, Jim Porter, said it was appropriate to return to Holt because Corcoran’s order said districts should consult their local health departments.

Approximately 42 percent of Hillsborough’s more than 200,000 students have indicated they will go to physical schools on Monday. This week, all students were expected to learn remotely through the Canvas platform, in what Davis called a “Smart Start” week.

But without even opening the schools, there have been reports of COVID-19 cases on more than half the system’s campuses. At last count, there were more than 360 cases, nearly half of them since late July.

Board members, during the televised meeting, sought to reassure the public that schools would close if there is a surge in the coronavirus. They also said they should not be blamed for changing their decisions, as the data has changed over the last two months.

Three board members — Lynn Gray, Steve Cona III and Shamburger — face tough re-election contests in November. All three came in second in their primary races on Aug 18.

Stacy Hahn, who is not up for re-election this year, but who has changed her position twice on the reopening question, said it will be important for everyone to practice safe health habits to prevent the virus from spreading.

“If our schools are open on Monday, we will need our community’s help to keep them open,” she said.

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