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What will and won’t happen (probably) when Hillsborough reopens schools

Superintendent Addison Davis says he hopes his reopening plan can be a national model.

TAMPA — The Hillsborough County School District is days away from unveiling its 2020-21 reopening plan, and this much is clear: Staff will not be checking children’s temperatures at the door.

“You will just create an unintended consequence,” superintendent Addison Davis said Thursday, describing the potential for students crowded together as they wait. “You will openly look like TSA (airport security) with everybody standing outside our schools. We just can’t do it.”

Instead, schools will employ what officials call “verbal screenings,” with students asked at home and then at school if they feel ill.

Davis described features of his plan at a web-based panel discussion Thursday that included officials from the Florida Department of Education. He will share the full plan at a 9 a.m. School Board workshop Tuesday, the first one in months.

Those details include a substantial supply of hand sanitizer for the common areas and Lysol wipes for classrooms, although supply chain issues could emerge if the coronavirus situation worsens, as some predict, later in the year.

Pre-planning, the teacher preparation week before school begins, will include instruction on how to use the cleaning products and how to embed hygiene and hand-washing into class time, especially for younger children.

Davis said he hopes Hillsborough’s plan can be a national model. But he was candid about the difficulties.

Limiting children’s movement around campus is relatively easy in the younger years, he said, adding that it’s not realistic in high school, where each student has a different schedule and science classes include labs.

Then there is the matter of the school bus. To practice the level social distancing recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Davis said, the district would need to buy 2,000 more buses.

“We would have to hire personnel, you look at fuel, we’d have to spend $310 million a year,” he said. “That just can’t happen.”

A Hillsborough District Schools' Bus Driver who asked not to be identified walks between parked school buses at the transportation facility in Thonotosassa [ Times (2013) ]

Masks are similarly problematic. Davis committed to providing reusable masks for all teachers and staff. They will be encouraged, not required.

But to cover 220,000 students, the district would need to buy single-use masks, and that would add up to $9 million a month.

Instead, he said, the district will encourage parents to provide masks for their children, and will try to identify suppliers who can make them affordable.

For children who ride the buses, masks will be provided. If they are reusable, the district will sterilize them between use.

Some details are still being developed. Others cannot be finalized, as important conditions — mainly Hillsborough’s infection rate for August — are not yet known. That’s why it is impossible to say, at this point, if staff will submit to temperature checks every morning when they report to work.

“We’ve developed a thoughtful, deliberate plan that’s really rooted in reality,” Davis said. “We will work to continue to refine our plan in order to strengthen it every single day.”

He spoke shortly after the Pasco County district released its plan, offering families three options for the coming school year: In-person school, virtual school at their own pace, or live instruction that can be viewed online. In this online form, Pasco parents are asked to commit to a mode of instruction for at least a semester, so principals can complete their teacher and student assignments, and their class schedules, and then prepare their procedures for daily operations.

Pinellas is still conducting a parent and community survey that it will use to formulate its plan.

RELATED: Pasco’s reopening plan: Three choices for parents

RELATED: Pinellas parents are surveyed about reopening

Davis said Thursday, as he has before, that building parent confidence is one of his priorities.

“Fifty-three percent of the parents feel very comfortable about returning their children to school,” he said, referring to a recent emailed survey that drew more than 50,000 parent responses.

“There is a subset and a pocket of parents that do not feel comfortable. But that’s on us, at a local level, committing to a thoughtful communication plan that shows them all the active steps that we’re going to take to protect their children. How we’re going to have structured movement ... how are children going to interact in before and after school activities? What’s going to happen when children are in classrooms related to the class size? All of those elements have been included in our plan.”

In keeping with the messaging from state leaders in recent weeks, panelists made the case that fully reopening the schools is of vital importance to children who have fallen behind academically; and parents who need to be at their jobs.

“We’re going to do this with care,” Davis said. “We’re going to be delicate in this matter. But we have got to get to a point where we get a chance to get in front of our children.The achievement gap is real. It is something that we have to actively address.”

Plans are also under way to direct people to Hillsborough Virtual School if they feel that the risk of infection is too great at Hillsborough’s brick-and-mortar schools.

Matthew Hoff is the new principal of Hillsborough VIrtual School [ HCPS ]

Davis noted that more than 20 percent of the surveyed parents believe their children thrived during their months of computer-based, distance learning.

A notice went out to principals this week with facts they can share with their families, and advising them to watch for more developments. On June 9, the School Board approved Matthew Hoff, the former principal of Cannella Elementary School, to head Hillsborough Virtual.