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Will Hillsborough reopen schools all virtually?

A 3 p.m. School Board meeting might open that door.
The Hillsborough County School Board is pictured on video meeting in a socially distanced fashion during a workshop to discuss reopening plans last week.
The Hillsborough County School Board is pictured on video meeting in a socially distanced fashion during a workshop to discuss reopening plans last week. [ Hillsborough County Public Schools ]
Published Jul. 23, 2020

TAMPA — Just a few days ago, Hillsborough County school superintendent Addison Davis proposed that, for better safety and planning, the district postpone its reopening of schools from Aug. 10 to Aug. 24.

Now there is pressure to put off the opening of school buildings even longer as the coronavirus continues to create COVID-19 cases by the hundreds each day.

The district’s Citizens Advisory Committee, composed of educators, students and others appointed by School Board members, reached this consensus at its Monday meeting: “Brick and mortar schools should not open for at least nine weeks.”

The Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association confirmed today that 91 percent of its member teachers do not feel it is safe to reopen campuses right now.

A special School Board meeting has been called at 3 p.m. to vote on the reopening plan, which gives families the options of in-person learning on campus or two types of virtual school. The agenda includes Davis’ revised calendar, which starts the school year on Aug. 24, and a bell schedule.

On Tuesday, the Pasco County School Board changed its opening date even though that issue was not on the meeting agenda.

Could the same thing happen today in Hillsborough?

It could if the board votes down Davis’ calendar and then proposes its own.

Advocates of an all-virtual start might have the votes, judging by School Board members’ recent comments and Facebook posts.

From board member Cindy Stuart, who has called multiple times to open either all-virtual or after Labor Day: “The safety of our teachers and students needs to come first.”

Board member Tamara Shamburger stated on a recent Facebook post: “I have yet to hear a compelling, even a partially compelling, reason why students, families, teachers, substitute teachers, classroom staff, school nurses, administrators, bus drivers, student nutrition workers, custodians, maintenance workers ... or anyone should be put at risk by opening schools as COVID-19 numbers continue to climb. My position hasn’t changed. Keep the schools closed until we can reasonably guarantee safety!”

Board member Karen Perez has posted a succession of articles about the danger that COVID-19 can pose to children, along with frequent commentaries about the growing death toll. One of her posts from a few days ago said this: “State tallies over 11,000 new cases, 366 hospitalizations, 128 deaths, THAT’S 128 too many..!!!”

Board members Lynn Gray and Stacy Hahn also have spoken publicly about their growing concerns.

As school districts around the region are realizing, there are financial consequences for going against education commissioner Richard Corcoran’s July 6 order to open campuses by the end of August. Technically, districts decide when to reopen. But the document outlines funding incentives districts will enjoy if they follow Corcoran’s timetable, and most district leaders are reluctant to lose out on that much-needed funding.

Will Hillsborough make history today if it pushes the reopening of campuses into September or beyond?

It will for the Tampa Bay area. Dynamics are slightly different in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties, as they are technically Phase 1 of the state’s reopening plan, and can use that defense if they are challenged.

But conversations like the one in Hillsborough are happening around the state, said Andrea Messina, executive director of the Florida School Boards Association.

“From what I am hearing,” Messina said, “even if Hillsborough is the first, there are others who are contemplating that action and I suspect others will discuss it in the near future.”

The Tampa Bay Times will live-tweet the discussion.