Hillsborough releases its back-to-school plan

Here's how Tampa Bay's largest school district aims to keep students and staff safe when classes resume amid the pandemic.
The Hillsborough County School Board meets in June, observing social distancing. Today, the board hears superintendent Addison Davis's plan to reopen schools.
The Hillsborough County School Board meets in June, observing social distancing. Today, the board hears superintendent Addison Davis's plan to reopen schools. [ MARLENE SOKOL | Times staff ]
Published Jul. 16, 2020

TAMPA — The Hillsborough County school system released a reopening plan in advance of a School Board workshop Thursday.

The document opens with a timeline of activities that have taken place so far, from the first recorded cases of COVID-19 in Florida to the March 30 statewide shut-down and beyond,

Page 7 restates arguments that state leaders have posed for reopening, despite the continued spread of the coronavirus in Florida. The key points: Achievement gaps have likely widened since schools closed their doors in March. Marginalized and low-income families are harmed, as parents cannot work. Self-isolation is psychologically harmful to children. The economy suffers when an estimated two-thirds of employed parents cannot earn a living.

When surveyed in June, parents and staff were evenly divided on the question of whether they would feel comfortable returning to school buildings. More than a fifth of parents said they preferred virtual school, which is why the district has undertaken heavy promotion of Hillsborough Virtual K-12.

Now, to the meat of the plan:

1. Face coverings will be required for students, staff and parents, as true social distancing cannot be guaranteed in most situations. The students will be given cloth, reusable masks. If they lose or forget their masks, they will be given disposable masks for a single day. Accommodations will be made for medical situations where a mask is not possible. Staff will work with children who resist masking, using “restorative practices.” School resource officers will NOT be used to enforce the masking rule. But school staff will be stationed throughout campus to do so.

2. Students will get on and off buses in ways that will limit exposure to others. Of note: Students will be encouraged to socially distance at the bus stops. Breakfast will be grab-and-go style, eaten in the classroom when possible.

3. Classrooms will be well stocked with cleaning supplies. “Students and staff will work together to ensure everyone is contributing to a healthy environment by wiping surfaces after classroom instruction is complete.”

4. Similar to the Pinellas County plan, schools will space desks apart as much as possible, although a full 6 feet will not always be possible.They will remove “extraneous furniture” to maximize space.

5. Physical education, music and art have not been eliminated. But there will be no contact sports in gym class, and steps will be taken in the other elective classes to accomplish social distancing.

6. No mass gatherings for now, such as assemblies or pep rallies.

7. Student-to-staff ratios will be reduced in before- and after-school programs. They’ll practice frequent hand-washing.

8. Steps will be taken to avoid having students share materials. Parents can expect detailed school supply lists, although supervisors will review those lists to make sure they are not unreasonable.

9. Lunchtime will be interesting. Sometimes it will happen in the classroom. Or outside. In the cafeteria, students will have assigned tables and seats. They cannot share food. When they are not eating, they must wear masks. Of note: School leaders are asked to “designate areas in the cafeteria for students with underlying health conditions to limit exposure to other students.”

10. Bus rides will also be interesting. Of note: “Students will be encouraged to stay socially distanced while at the bus stop.” They will have seating charts. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says to clean the buses once a day, but Hillsborough will clean them twice a day. And drivers will wipe high-touch areas between each run.

11. As reported earlier, staff will submit to temperature checks every morning, but not students. Instead, the children will be “self-screened at home with parents or guardians.”

12. Scenarios for what happens if someone tests positive are too complex to summarize here. They are explained on pages 12 through 25 with flow charts about who will be contacted and how long the infected person must stay away from campus (The short answer: 10 days since symptoms appeared, and 72 hours fever-free without using fever-reducing medication.)

13. A summary follows, along with detailed information about how the schools will meet the needs of students with learning disabilities. For example: How they will make sure they have key meetings to prepare students’ individualized education programs (IEPs).

14. Detailed information about Hillsborough Virtual K-12, which is its own school for students who can learn independently, and “eLearning,” which uses technology so students can “remote into” their schools during a typical bell schedule .