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Local school boards should make the coronavirus call | Editorial

School boards have the responsibility to decide what's best for their students without state interference.

To safely reopen schools in a few weeks, school boards across Florida need independence to make decisions that suit the particular facts in their home counties. They need support, not interference, from state officials and the educational bureaucracy. And they need money, not threats, to provide a safe, productive learning environment. It will be expensive to do it right, but it will cost even more — in health and in educational outcomes — if educators get it wrong.

The Hillsborough County School Board should have the right to decide that education will be all-virtual for the first four weeks of the school year. The board members are the elected officials closest to what’s going on in their county schools and most accountable to local voters. Listening to a panel of doctors last week, the board decided that it was too dangerous for classes to meet in person until the coronavirus numbers decline, and that many schools would quickly have to close just after reopening. Argue about the particulars, but that should be the local board’s call.

Unfortunately, that’s not how the state sees it. The state’s emergency order mandates in-person instruction as an option. Late Friday, Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran emailed the Tampa Bay Times to say, “The Hillsborough County School Board needs to follow the law, it’s that simple.” No, it’s not.

The Pinellas County School Board will meet Tuesday, and several board members are thinking about following Hillsborough’s lead. But the state’s terse response to Hillsborough’s decision could stifle that debate and keep Pinellas from considering the full range of options that best suit its students and staffers.

Everyone wants students back in school in a classroom setting with teachers leading face-to-face instruction. That is the ideal. But times are far from ideal, and wishing for normal won’t make it so. Districts must have the local freedom to make decisions. If enough residents don’t like those decisions, they can elect new school board members.

Districts need the money to provide safe classroom spaces, and the state should not penalize them financially if they don’t believe they currently can do so. If the federal government is spending trillions of dollars on pandemic aid, there should be enough money to meet schools’ safety needs. Officials should act as if education matters as much as they claim it does.

When the Pinellas School Board meets Tuesday, it should think through a range of imaginative possibilities. But if the state requires Pinellas to offer the option of in-person instruction to all students, five days a week, it will effectively stunt the creative process. Local autonomy matters because local realities differ. In Pinellas, many students who most need structured instruction also live in ZIP codes hardest hit by COVID-19, as reported by the Times’ Ian Hodgson. If the tumult of schooling since March has widened the achievement gap between Black students and others, it’s also true that Black residents of Pinellas are 2.5 times as likely to contract the coronavirus than white residents, a disparity among the worst in Florida.

So let Pinellas deal with the realities on the ground in ways that meet its students’ needs. It should enlist teachers and principals to be more creative in defining a “classroom.” It doesn’t have to be an indoor space with windows that don’t open and desks too close for COVID-19 comfort. Could it be a shaded playground space? Or an open wedding tent with big fans? After all, an outdoor classroom worked pretty well for Socrates. Would having elementary students come to class every other day — say kindergarten through second-grade one day, then third- through fifth-grade the other — keep the density of students low enough and provide extra space to be safe? Many ideas won’t pan out, but at least offer them as possibilities. See what works, and build from there. But that’s not as possible if the state creates unworkable rules or threatens to withhold funding.

Pinellas, like the state’s other 66 counties, has its own challenges with the coronavirus and with its schools. That is why the Pinellas School Board — the elected officials closest to the people — must have the authority and confidence to make these decisions without state interference.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Times Chairman and CEO Paul Tash, Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, and editorial writers Elizabeth Djinis, John Hill and Jim Verhulst. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news

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