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Hillsborough drops school reopening plan under state pressure

Under a new plan announced by superintendent Addison Davis, students will learn virtually the week of Aug. 24, with in-person school beginning a week later.

TAMPA — Hillsborough County school officials were up against a deadline.

State officials had instructed them to revise their reopening plan, or lose millions in funding. The School Board’s vote to start the year with four weeks of virtual lessons to lessen the chance of coronavirus infections didn’t meet state expectations. Plus thousands of teachers and more than 200,000 students were in limbo.

So on Thursday, superintendent Addison Davis announced a new timetable: The school year will begin Aug. 24 with all-virtual instruction. Then, for those who choose it, in-person school will begin a week later.

“Everyone has been frustrated, let’s just be very clear,” Davis said at a news conference after explaining some of the mechanics of the new arrangement. But, he added, “we’re here for children and we’re also here to protect the working conditions of adults.”

The decision ends weeks of uncertainty, as some in the community pushed for in-person school while others warned that Hillsborough’s coronavirus levels made school unsafe.

Davis said he tried to negotiate a middle ground with state officials. He asked if he could open in phases for students with learning disabilities, homeless and migrant children, and schools with a history of poor student test scores.

He was unsuccessful in those attempts. Education commissioner Richard Corcoran’s July 6 reopening order called for schools to offer in-person instruction by the end of August. And, as Davis explained it, state officials did not want inconsistency from one district to another.

So the district administration changed its plan. How could Davis do that without scheduling a meeting of the School Board, which then would have had to deliberate in public?

Davis said an attorney advised him the move did not require a vote because the board on July 23 had okayed a plan to reopen in-person schools on Aug. 24. The state approved that plan.

The state never accepted a revised proposal adopted by the board on Aug. 6 to delay physical school openings by four weeks.

As to how Davis made sure the board would not challenge his decision later on: “I had one-on-one conversations with every board member to let them know where we are,” Davis said. “Overall, the consensus was, this is what we have to implement, due to the fact of the negative financial impact” of defying the state.

Not all were in agreement. ”There were some board members that said they don’t approve of what the DOE is doing and they want to be able to make that known,” Davis said. A hard no came from board member Tamara Shamburger.

Board member Karen Perez, who has argued against opening campuses, said, “I am so beside myself. Everybody is talking about the whole child. But what about when that child goes to school and gets infected with COVID?”

She said that during her conversation with Davis, she indicated that the state was forcing their hand financially. But she said she would have preferred to meet as a board and cast a dissenting vote.

“He told me the other board members didn’t want to have a board meeting,” Perez said.

On Facebook, Shamburger posted: “I absolutely do not agree with this and am very disgusted that we are not challenging the bullying by the state.”

She added that “the failure to convene a public meeting of the School Board to discuss options, including a lawsuit to challenge the DOE’s threatened funding penalty, is utter nonsense and contrary to Democratic Government..... I pray for the health and safety of everyone.”

Steve Cona III, a strong supporter of Davis, said, “the time has come to now implement our approved plan and provide a safe and quality educational experience for every student in Hillsborough County. This is our constitutional responsibility.”

No one from the board attended Thursday’s news conference.

The state has said that for just the first four weeks, Hillsborough would have lost $23 million because students learning virtually would not receive full per-pupil funding under the state’s system.

Related: Hillsborough schools could lose $23 million a month for defying state

Other money would be lost because the state, to encourage districts to open in August, offered to maintain the funding levels they enjoyed before the COVID-19 crisis struck in March.

Since then, countless students have left the school system; about 25,000 have not responded to district surveys, Davis said.

He said the total hit could have been as high as $200 million, which, “would bankrupt us financially.”

With the opening date issue settled, school officials are now working on schedules for the teachers and tightening protocols related to the coronavirus threat.

Tracye Brown, the district’s chief of climate and culture, said the Hillsborough Department of Health is hiring eight teams of contact tracers who will work with school officials when there is a COVID-19 diagnosis.

To prepare for the Aug. 24 all-virtual opening, the district is working to make laptop computers available to students who need them. They are calling the first five days a “Smart Start” week.

Attendance will be taken, school officials stressed. But they will spend that time acquainting students to the new routines and the technology many will be using. Even those who have chosen in-person school must be familiar with the computer platforms, as there is every possibility that they will spend part of the school year at home.

Davis said he explained as much to the board members during their one-on-one discussions.

“I was very clear with all of them,” he said. “We’re going to be opening and shutting down, closing, self-quarantining, self-isolating, all that’s going to happen.”

He might have to close wings of buildings, classrooms and even individual schools. But, he said, “one thing is clear. We will not be closing down on an organizational scale unless the governor comes out and makes that clear.”

Davis also said he is anxious to get the schools open. “We’ve got to get to a point where we’re getting back to some sort of normalcy and educate children,” he said.

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