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Hillsborough schools prepare for August reopening

Board members favor a so-called "traditional" reopening that still offers online options.

TAMPA — With the coronavirus continuing to spread through Hillsborough County, the School Board moved closer Tuesday to a plan for re-opening its more than 200 schools as scheduled on Aug. 10.

Much is still uncertain, with hundreds of new cases of COVID-19 being reported each day. The school reopening plan that received the most support in a morning workshop would allow some students to learn remotely.

But it also will move thousands of students around the county on buses, and depending on what decisions families make, might return some children to crowded schools.

“One thing we have learned is that our parents want choice,” superintendent Addison Davis said during his hour-long presentation.

The ultimate plan must be fluid and flexible, Davis stressed, as conditions and local mandates are changing daily. In just the past week, the city of Tampa ordered masks to be worn indoors, and the county issued a less restrictive order for masks inside businesses.

The district had intended to open about a dozen preschool programs this week with masks optional for children. That all changed with the city order. Now officials are wrestling with the possibility that they will be asked to make students of all ages wear masks.

Similarly, the district has made an abrupt change in its plans to provide masks.

Last week, word was that staff would be given masks, but that students would provide their own.

On Tuesday, Davis said the district is purchasing three reusable masks for each student. And if they are successful in an application to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, they will receive another batch and give each student five more.

But it was unclear Tuesday how teachers would prevent children from losing their masks or how they would respond if a student refused to wear one.

The meeting itself was unusual, in that for the first time, participants wore masks. Three board members attended remotely, including Tamara Shamburger, who tested positive for COVID-19 last week.

One by one, members questioned Davis about reopening details that, in some cases, are still being worked out.

Steve Cona wanted to see more structure in whatever distance-learning program is offered as an alternative to standard, in-person instruction. Stacy Hahn wants a workshop to analyze the effect COVID-19 will have on the district’s $3 billion budget. And Cindy Stuart asked if Davis would consider keeping schools closed until after Labor Day. He did not answer.

State leaders have been stressing the need to reopen schools, citing learning delays among low-income and minority children, and the loss of childcare for working parents.

Davis’s presentation contained statements that echoed those arguments, such as: “Nearly two thirds of employed parents in Florida say school closures have hurt their ability to perform their job,” and “COVID-19 will likely widen achievement gaps.”

Davis described steps he is taking to address equity issues that arose when schools statewide were closed abruptly in March, and students were asked to learn remotely. For example, some households had limited access to internet connectivity or limited familiarity with computers. Davis said he will launch a diversity and equity task force as the plan evolves.

As for the budget, Davis is making an all-out push to get students to take their online courses in Hillsborough Virtual School, which brings dollars into the district, instead of Florida Virtual School or commercial platforms that are advertising aggressively.

Davis offered two alternative reopening plans beyond the one that the board ultimately preferred.

One would be a hybrid model of instruction in which groups of students, arranged alphabetically to keep families together, would alternate between attending their physical schools and following along remotely. The hybrid, which might be needed if the COVID-19 numbers worsen, would ease crowding on the buses and in the classrooms.

Cona called it “a logistical nightmare,” and no one else rose to its defense.

The third option would be to do all learning virtually, as happened in the last three months of the 2019-20 school year. Again, this might be necessary in the most severe level of COVID-19 spread.

One thing that has not changed since last week: Davis does not plan to order temperature checks of students as they walk through the doors. Doing so would bunch children together as they wait, he argued, which in itself can spread the disease.

Students will be encouraged to tell their parents if they feel sick before they come to school.

If they come to school with coronavirus symptoms, they will be isolated and sent home. Contact tracing will follow. If necessary, the school will be closed for about 48 hours for a deep-cleaning.

Board member Karen Perez urged Davis to watch out for children who have autoimmune deficiencies or asthma or live in multi-generational households. “It is incumbent on us to protect the students,” she said.

There were calls for more training for teachers who migrate to virtual instruction and to make sure schools are cleaned and stocked with cleaning supplies.

The second in a series of parent surveys is planned on July 1 to gauge families’ intentions.

Given the uncertainty in the county and state, Stuart said, “I know this plan will probably change at least 10 times between now and Aug 10.”

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