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School reopening and more: 15 questions for the Hillsborough superintendent

Addison Davis weighs in on staggered schedules, school buses, graduations, virtual school and all kinds of cleaning.
"We've developed a reopening plan that is multifaceted," Hillsborough County Superintendent Addison Davis said in an interview Thursday.
"We've developed a reopening plan that is multifaceted," Hillsborough County Superintendent Addison Davis said in an interview Thursday. [ MARLENE SOKOL | Times staff ]
Published Jun. 11, 2020
Updated Jun. 11, 2020

TAMPA — These aren’t the first 100 days Addison Davis envisioned when he took over leadership of the Hillsborough County School District. He’s talking about thermal fogs and protective masks when he’d rather be touring classrooms. But, in an interview with the Tampa Bay Times, Davis was upbeat and still determined to shake things up in the nation’s seventh-largest school district.

Here is a portion of a lengthy interview Thursday with Davis, edited for brevity and clarity:

What are your thoughts about reopening campuses?

We’ve developed a reopening plan that is multifaceted: One (scenario) that’s ready for the e-learning to continue, one that is going to be more of a blended model. Here, if you take a two-week period and Addison Davis is the learner, he’ll be in front of the teachers five days in a two-week space and the other five days he’ll be participating in e-learning. And the third option would be to return back to normalcy, making certain that we have all of the proactive safety protocols in place with cleaning touch points, cleaning common areas, cleaning buses, lunchrooms, making certain we have Lysol wipes, sanitizer, you name it.

In the second option, the A-L last names would be in school while the rest are at home?

In theory it could be alpha. But it would be more of just looking at the history of the learner and make sure we’re matching students’ strengths with each other, making certain we’re looking at readiness levels so that when we’re brick-and-mortar, when we’re in front of teachers, we have cohorts ready to go. Those may be fluid based on the learner, based on the needs, based on concepts being taught. If it comes to a point where Addison is doing really well in e-learning and the parent wants that to grow, maybe it gets to where you get six days of e-learning and if the child is struggling and needs more one-on-one tasks, that person might get six days of brick-and-mortar in front of a teacher.

In high school, how does that even work?

It becomes complex and that’s all the nuts and the bolts that we’ll have to unpack and make sure that the structure is able to handle it, the processes will be fluid and that we’re able to make certain that high school students who are involved in extracurricular activities not only are they able to have extended high-quality instruction, but we’re really mindful of when they’re going to be on campus.

Who’s working on this?

We have everybody working on this.

Normal means kids sit three to a seat on buses. Kids are sitting on the floor and sitting on band instruments. How do you make normal also safe and healthy?

It becomes very difficult to do. The survey said only 40-plus percent felt very comfortable putting their learner on the bus. While we get money for student ridership, we can’t make two or three waves to pick up students and bring them to school because then we’re delaying the school day, then we have children waiting an hour and a half at a bus stop.

Given these obstacles, what does normal look like?

From a transportation standpoint, every morning we’re wiping down every bus, every seat before a student gets on. A thermal fog kills all the bacteria, all the possibility for contagion. As students get off the bus before we go to another route, we’re cleaning it once again. We’re going to spend millions of dollars in making certain our facilities, our classrooms, our common areas, our buses are all clean and ready and prepared for every one of our students and parents to feel comfortable. But it’s a commitment we have to make.

The other side, if we do not make that commitment, there’s a true potential that we would lose our students. Hence the reason our Hillsborough Virtual school is going to have to open seats and we’re going to have to re-imagine, re-brand the way we do business. E-learning appeals to a strong percentage of our learners. Twenty-one percent of those surveyed highly enjoyed it.

Hillsborough County superintendent Addison Davis
Hillsborough County superintendent Addison Davis [ MARLENE SOKOL | Times staff ]

In rough numbers, how big is Hillsborough Virtual, and how big do you see it getting?

Hillsborough Virtual right now only has around 330 students and we are losing around $9 to $10 million (in funding for) students that are going to Florida Virtual. That’s $9 or $10 million that we can spend on classrooms, that we can hire teachers, that we can hire support staff, that we can provide resources. And, openly, it’s not okay and it’s not good enough.

How big could you make Hillsborough Virtual?

We can accept 3,000 or 4,000 students. We can go all the way up to 20,000 or 30,000 students. I’m willing to take it as large as it needs to go. Hillsborough is four or five times larger than Clay County (where he previously was superintendent). I had close to 600 kids in virtual. There’s no way we should have 300 kids.

I’ve heard so many stories from parents about how well their children are doing in the e-learning process where they may have struggled in brick-and-mortar. They are doing a better job focusing, they connect with teachers in different ways, they’ve learned independence, they’ve learned how to become confident educationally and that’s exactly what we want them to do.

I have my growth and development and operations right now looking for potential places throughout the district, to find a coffee shop mentality location that will use Hillsborough Virtual as somewhat of a Starbucks area where we put teachers at those locations, students have the freedom to come in, work on their assignments and feel really comfortable. You walk into a Starbucks and you see it all the time. You walk into a Panera and you see it all the time. Why can’t we create that?

What are you hearing about state funding?

My understanding is that it’s going to remain constant. Maybe a little less, but we’re going to have to think differently about every dollar and every cent. What are we going to do to make certain we are providing some type of (personal protective equipment) for our staff? We’re going to have to reel back and eliminate some of the vendors and contractual agreements, all to elevate some of our funding related to safety and security. We are program and consultant rich and results poor, and that can’t happen.

Let’s talk about graduation. If we have graduation at the Florida State Fairgrounds, what will it look like?

It will probably look like, if the CDC guidelines are relaxed, every graduate will probably be able to select two to four individuals to be able to attend. The first floor will be filled with students, six feet apart and staff. The second floor, parents and caregivers and loved ones, maximum up to four, to be able to sit there and watch and engage in a traditional graduation.

The biggest point for us is, in between graduations, there is an hour or an hour and a half buffer. It’s going to be a full court press, all hands on deck, to clean every seat, every corner.

Who pays for this?

We do.

So let’s do the math. You have four graduations a day for some days, at an indoor venue, air-conditioned. Some won’t show up, but let’s say they do. Each graduate can invite up to four guests. You have School Board, faculty, the marching band. You’re talking about thousands of people per graduation.

That’s right.

So, over the course of the day, maybe 10,000 in and out of an indoor venue. Can you say there won’t be community spread when you have 10,000 people in one room over the course of the day?

That’s a fair question. It is all contingent on the CDC guidelines that will be released by the July 1 deadline. I’m trying to be, as a leader, so optimistic for our seniors. They have lost so much of their senior year proms, their activities, senior breakfast, you name it. They haven’t had a chance to really have a full experience as a graduate. So there are a number of concerns, but my job is to create the greatest vision and opportunity for them to have a graduation.

Is that socially responsible, even though we want to celebrate our seniors?

It’s a good question and it’s a good point. We’ve also talked about creating some limited opportunities on every one of our football fields and that way it’s outside. The graduates, we can stagger them in, have a handful of parents, have a stage set up and just have a modified graduation. In theory, that may be better.

Is that still under consideration?

Yes, absolutely, there are always contingency plans. We actually spoke about it yesterday. And it’s going to evolve.