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Hillsborough decides, for now, to reopen schools on Aug. 24

The School Board will continue to monitor COVID-19 data and will meet again in two weeks.
High School English teacher Maria Diaz rallies with other protesters outside Raymond O. Shelton School Administration Center in Tampa on Thursday before a special School Board meeting to discuss the district's reopening plan.
High School English teacher Maria Diaz rallies with other protesters outside Raymond O. Shelton School Administration Center in Tampa on Thursday before a special School Board meeting to discuss the district's reopening plan. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Jul. 23, 2020
Updated Jul. 23, 2020

TAMPA — In an emotionally charged session that had teachers saying they did not want to read death notices about their colleagues, the Hillsborough County School Board approved a reopening plan that will include a return to campuses on Aug. 24.

The 5-2 vote followed an often-confusing discussion about what the board could do and what the cost might be if they failed to adhere to a deadline to submit a plan to Tallahassee by the end of this month.

At one point, board member Tamara Shamburger asked superintendent Addison Davis: “Can you guarantee that every human being that walks through those doors will be safe?”

Davis said that of course he could not, although his staff is taking every possible precaution.

Board member Karen Perez grilled Davis on how often the staff will receive training in protection against the coronavirus, as medical knowledge changes daily. As a hospital employee, Perez said, she receives training at least three times a week. Davis said such training sessions would have to be approved by the district’s employee unions.

Perez also questioned the results of a teacher questionnaire that showed more than half are willing to return to physical schools even though a union survey shows more than 90 percent believe it is not safe to reopen.

Perez and Shamburger cast the two dissenting votes.

Board member Cindy Stuart, who has argued most forcefully against opening school buildings before Labor Day, wound up calling the approval question to a vote. Her reasoning: The state requires a plan, and there are steep financial consequences if districts do not comply. Stuart wanted to approve the plan, then allow the board to decide how to implement it later on.

Jim Porter, the board’s attorney, told Stuart the board would not have that right.

Despite Porter’s explanation, Stuart amended the motion to say that the board will meet in two weeks, hear from medical experts and consider the direction the virus is taking.

It was understood, at the end of the discussion, that if the coronavirus continues to surge through Hillsborough County, the district will be prepared to send students home, as happened statewide in the spring.

The plan that was adopted gives families three choices: Traditional schools, with mandatory face coverings and other strategies to minimize contagion; distance learning through the children’s assigned schools, on a rigid bell schedule that mimics those used at school; and participation in Hillsborough Virtual K-12, which is independent, with a more flexible schedule. So far, roughly half the students appear headed to in-person school.

Teachers have pushed back against the in-person option, saying it is too risky. A small protest greeted School Board members as they arrived, with teachers carrying signs with slogans such as “Am I next to die?” and “Teachers’ Lives Matter.”

Some also spoke during the meeting.

“I have never heard the word ‘terrified’ as much as I have recently,” said music teacher Jessica Kendal, “from people who I know would put themselves between students and a bullet.”

Sheldon Bridges, a trial attorney, pointed out that courts are not even reopened, even though they are more spacious, with fewer people inside. “The greatest lie in American politics is that we put our children first,” he said. “But we betray them every single time, and this pandemic is only the latest example.”

School reopening plans and deadlines have tied school districts in knots since July 6, when Florida’s education commissioner Richard Corcoran issued an emergency order, calling for families to have the option of in-person instruction, five days a week.

“I’ve heard from thousands of my constituents on both sides of this argument,” said Stacy Hahn, a former education professor who represents south Tampa, a hotbed of parent activism over this issue.

Corcoran’s order did not say outright that there would be penalties for districts that did not comply. But it described incentives that districts will enjoy, which — in a district of Hillsborough’s size — add up to tens of millions of dollars that are desperately needed.

Understanding that reality, even School Board members and administrators who fear that the opening of schools will trigger a vast worsening of an unprecedented health crisis, are falling in line.

There were also logistical reasons why the Hillsborough board members did not do what many had urged them to do, and insist that all instruction be virtual.

Hahn and Melissa Snively, the board chair, pointed out that distance learning through the schools is not an option for most working parents, as they will not be around to take care of or supervise their children as they learn. And, Davis reminded them, unless there is a rigid schedule of classes, the district cannot get full funding for these students.

Since the state began tracking the pandemic in March, there have been 25,432 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Hillsborough, many in recent months.

On Wednesday, the state reported 18 Hillsborough COVID deaths.

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