Hillsborough schools ask state for leniency because of COVID-19 absences

The number of students and teachers missing 10 or more days has grown 10 percent, and is likely to go higher.
Hillsborough School Board chairperson Nadia Combs, left, and superintendent Addison Davis, right, have asked Florida education officials for leniency on state requirements due to COVID-19 absences during the 2021-22 school year.
Hillsborough School Board chairperson Nadia Combs, left, and superintendent Addison Davis, right, have asked Florida education officials for leniency on state requirements due to COVID-19 absences during the 2021-22 school year. [ Times (2021) ]
Published Jan. 25, 2022|Updated Jan. 25, 2022

Students and teachers are missing too many days of school because of COVID-19 and are struggling to prepare for upcoming state tests that will determine school grades, say Hillsborough County officials, who are asking for leniency from the Florida Department of Education.

The challenges entering the spring testing season are “insurmountable,” according to a letter Monday from superintendent Addison Davis and School Board chairperson Nadia Combs to state education commissioner Richard Corcoran.

The number of students who have missed 10 or more days of school is up more than 10 percent over the entire 2020-21 school year, they wrote. So is the number of teachers missing an average of 10 or more days of work.

“By the end of the current school year, this percentage will certainly increase significantly,” they wrote.

Davis and Combs, after commending Corcoran for his work to keep the schools open during the pandemic, asked that he hold districts and schools harmless by allowing schools to opt-in “A to F” grades this year, as they did for 2021. No grades were given in 2020.

They do not want to see the Florida Standards Assessments cancelled, as the test results are instructive in evaluating teaching methods and individual student needs. But, they wrote, “as a state, school district, and community, we will undoubtedly continue to see the academic impact of the COVID-19 disruption to learning in the Spring of 2022.”

Additionally, they wrote, “another potential variant spike would only compound these issues and impact the overall 95 percent assessment participation, which will result in “incomplete” school grades.”

To date this year, the Hillsborough district has reported 23,380 cases of COVID-19, with more than 19,000 of them among students. More than 10,500 of the total cases have occurred this month.

For all of 2020-21, there were approximately 9,000 cases in Hillsborough.

The delta variant brought about a sharp spike in August. The district, like others in Florida, imposed a strict masking rule, and the numbers fell. By November, the counts were down to a dozen or so a day.

But Omicron drove those numbers up in December, and this month the district is seeing as many as 1,000 a day. Laws are different too. In Florida, schools can no longer require students to wear masks, and they cannot quarantine healthy children.

“The inability to provide consistent instruction has created inequitable conditions to ensure that students close the exacerbated learning gaps and understand grade-level concepts,” Combs and Davis wrote.

“While Hillsborough County school-based leaders and teachers have worked tirelessly to create a world-class education, this year should not be about sanctioning schools according to the state accountability rules,” their letter said. “Instead, it must center on using student performance information to support further building the capacity of all learners through prescribed educational pathways.”

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In addition to school grade leniency, Davis and Combs have asked that the state reevaluate the timeline it is using to implement new alternative test scores for students who are scheduled to graduate high school this year.

Under last year’s measures, students who could not take the required 10th-grade English/language arts test when schools were closed in the spring of 2020 had to pass the test in 11th grade in order to graduate.

But many of those students did not take the test because of COVID-19 in the schools. Now, the letter explains, those students face a more rigorous scoring system as they try to meet the requirement with other accepted tests. Currently, they wrote, Hillsborough has more than 1,000 seniors who would meet this graduating requirement if the existing scoring system is maintained.

Davis and Combs also are asking state officials to consider veteran teacher pay as they continue in their efforts to raise starting pay for classroom teachers.