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Hernando County moves school start date to Aug. 31

Masks in schools will be compulsory, not just encouraged.
Hernando County School Board chair Susan Duval and superintendent John Stratton at a special board meeting Monday.
Hernando County School Board chair Susan Duval and superintendent John Stratton at a special board meeting Monday. [ MARLENE SOKOL | Times (2020) ]
Published Jul. 20, 2020

BROOKSVILLE — Students in Hernando County will report to school on Aug. 31, under the latest plan approved by the School Board on Monday.

School leaders emphasized that all plans are fluid, and could be revised if there is a sustained reduction in COVID-19 cases.

But a majority on the board agreed that the safest course of action, with more than 1,000 cases reported in recent months in Hernando, is to push the start date as close as possible to the deadline set by state Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran.

Chairwoman Susan Duval cast a dissenting vote, but only because she did not want to start in-person classes until later in the school year.

Duval spoke at length, in prepared remarks, about the disconnect between opening guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which are based on a downward trajectory of COVID-19 cases, and state leaders’ insistence that brick-and-mortar schools should be open five days a week.

While sympathizing with working parents who will struggle without child care, Duval said, “I can’t agree to an economic decision by the state that penalizes districts, and places students and employees and families at risk. No one can guarantee the health and safety of brick-and-mortar at this time.”

Others around the table said that they, too, did not feel safe opening the schools to hundreds and teachers and students, despite precautions laid out in the district’s reopening plan.

But they did not feel comfortable defying the state order. So, like other surrounding counties, Hernando is giving families three options: In-person school, remote learning that is tied to the student’s own school; or independent learning through a virtual school.

Board members also wrestled with the question of how they can delay the start date without holding up employee pay. By law, they said, teachers and other school staff cannot be paid unless they are working. The plan now is to call teachers back to work either Aug. 17 or Aug. 24, and perhaps expedite the process of preparing their paychecks. That date will be set after a union bargaining session.

Hernando is not alone in struggling with the question of school start dates. Pasco County’s School Board could take up the matter at its meeting Tuesday. In Hillsborough, a special meeting on Thursday afternoon could result in a two-week delay.

Also at Monday’s meeting, the Hernando board unanimously adopted a mandatory face covering rule.

But there was a long discussion about the prospect of students defying the mask rule, and what kinds of recourse the schools will have when that happens.

Mask breaks will be built into the school day, they agreed, in situations where distance can be accomplished.

But those times will be the exception.

“Schools are not designed for social distancing, period,” superintendent John Stratton said. “The words are ‘where feasible.’ There is not going to be a 6-foot spacing between students all day long. We’re going to do our absolute best.” But “some of our newest schools have the smallest classrooms.”

Several on the board noted that a countywide mask ordinance would go a long way toward stopping the spread of the virus and getting children used to wearing face coverings.

Right now, face coverings are encouraged in Hernando but not mandated.

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