The Hillsborough County School District is putting the entire region at risk by proceeding with its reckless plan to hold high school graduations. With the coronavirus spreading across Tampa Bay, and cases surging in Florida, there’s no idea more irresponsible than herding thousands of people to an indoor event. It is unconscionable that district leaders and elected School Board members are even considering this endangerment to public health and the region’s health-care system.
School superintendent Addison Davis announced near the end of a School Board meeting Tuesday that he is preparing a letter to the district’s 27 high school principals outlining the details for graduations. Hillsborough holds all of its commencement ceremonies at the Florida State Fairgrounds Expo Hall — typically, three or four per day — and Davis had pledged to make a decision by July 1 on whether the ceremonies would proceed by mid-July.
The protocols Davis released Wednesday call for graduates to be spread out on the lower level of the indoor hall. Each graduate could invite up to two guests, who would be seated on the upper level. Graduates and families would be seated six feet apart. Up to 16 staffers from each school could attend. Among other measures, attendees would be required to wear masks and told to go directly to their cars when the ceremony ends.
This is an invitation to trouble for young men and women who live in multi-generational households amid a worsening pandemic. The Expo Hall could see thousands of people a day for a week or longer as graduates from various schools troop through the parking lots, doorways, bleachers and bathrooms of the facility. And that doesn’t include the attendants, ushers, janitors and security and emergency health care personnel toiling in the wings. Or friends and family members who invariably will gather outside. Can anyone seriously imagine — even with social distancing and sanitizing procedures - that this won’t be a hug-fest that merely precipitates new outbreaks across the region?
The numbers released by Hillsborough health officials on Monday should’ve nixed this idea overnight. New cases of the virus, which is twice as infectious as the flu, and 20 times as lethal, are soaring. While testing has increased two-fold, Hillsborough has seen a six-fold increase in cases. More younger people are getting infected. And emergency room visits are rapidly increasing, leading to an uptick in hospitalizations. The alarm raised Monday by hospital providers and physicians throughout the bay area was enough for Hillsborough to adopt an emergency order that masks be worn in most public places.
Is this district in a bubble? School Board members need to show a sense of responsibility for the institution they run. After all, three of the seven board members attended Tuesday’s meeting remotely, including Tamara Shamburger, who tested positive for COVID-19 last week.
The recklessness, hypocrisy and sheer lack of leadership from the county’s biggest employer is mind-boggling. The district should be focusing on key decisions involved in safely reopening the schools. Providing educational opportunities and needs -- especially to kids who are falling behind -- may require taking risks in the interests of education. But graduation pomp and circumstance is not part of that equation. The last thing Hillsborough should be doing is endangering thousands of graduates who are heading off into the world — or their families, friends and employers, or the teachers who are needed around the corner, or the millions of area residents who are threatened by a rising curve.
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