Hillsborough School Board Grapples With School Reopening Mandate

HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY, FL — She’s the mom of a 13-year-old son with pre-existing medical conditions and an elementary school teacher. That makes Ariane Hargrave of Apollo Beach doubly skeptical about plans to reopen Hillsborough County public schools next month.

Hargrave said any viral illness exacerbates her son’s severe asthma “to the point that I ended up having to get a nebulizer unit at school, so he wouldn’t have to miss any days.”

“If kids return to school as normal, I won’t be sending him,” she said. “Part of me, for the sake of maintaining a paycheck and benefits, still wants the option of working in any capacity. However, for him, I’ll ensure he socializes in a more controlled environment.”

Hargrave said fellow teachers she knows are equally torn between the need to return work and help support their families or remain at home to protect themselves and their children from the coronavirus.

“It is a truly challenging time for us all,” she said. “Staff is underpaid. Teachers aren’t well-trained. Students aren’t progressing. I truly feel for those who have younger kids and don’t have the option of keeping them at home.”

For members of the Hillsborough County School Board, Hargrave’s story is a familiar one. Since Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis issued an emergency order mandating that school districts reopen brick-and-mortar schools five days a week if they want to receive any state funding, school board members said they’ve been overwhelmed with thousands of emails from concerned parents and teachers.

At a school board workshop Thursday, Hillsborough County Schools Superintendent Addison Davis outlined the district’s reopening plan, which gives parents a choice of either sending their children back to school or opting for one of two online learning programs.

At the same time, Davis has recommended that the district delay the start of school from Aug. 10 to Aug. 24 to give district officials more time to finalize safety protocols before reopening schools.

The school board is expected to vote on the school reopening plan and Davis’ recommendation for a delay at the July 24 school board meeting.

School board member Cindy Stuart said it is without a doubt the biggest decision the school board has ever faced.

As the seventh-largest school district in the country and the third largest in Florida behind Miami-Dade and Broward counties, Stuart said the nation is watching the Hillsborough County School District to see how it will handle the reopening of schools amid a record high number of coronavirus cases in Tampa Bay.

Due to their high number of coronavirus cases, both Broward and Miami-Dade counties have remained in the first phase of the governor’s statewide reopening plan, which gives those counties the legal right to delay the opening of their brick-and-mortar schools without losing funding from the state.

Hillsborough County, however, is in the second phase of the reopening plan. The school district stands to lose millions of dollars in funding if it doesn’t heed the governor’s order to reopen schools.

Stuart believes it’s a risk worth taking.

“I don’t think we’re in position as the third-largest district in the state to move forward,” she said. “The rest of the state and country are watching. We need to open as safely and effectively as we can.”

As far as school board member Tamara Shamburger is concerned, there’s no debate.

Over the summer, Shamburger was diagnosed with coronavirus and said she understands how easily loved ones can be exposed.

“It wasn’t until I was diagnosed that the symptoms became bad,” she said. In the meantime, she said she exposed an untold number of people to the coronavirus. “By the time someone shows up with symptoms, it’s too late.”

She said Davis’ school reopening plan doesn’t take that into account. Under the plan, parents are asked to check their children for symptoms and a fever each morning, but she said many children won’t have symptoms right away and unknowing parents will send them to school. By the time they’ve been diagnosed, they will have likely exposed all their classmates to the virus.

“Soldiers under fire take cover and only come out when the coast is clear,” she said. “Our teachers and students should never have to dodge a bullet. We cannot have the death of anyone on our hands.”

Shamburgers’s district includes some of the poorest neighborhoods in the county, and she said she understands the desire of parents to send their children back to school so they can return to work and support their families.

“They don’t have options,” she said. “They depend on us to continue their livelihood.”

At the same time, she believes the health and safety of the students and teachers should outweigh economic concerns.

“You’ve done a great job of coming up with a reopening plan for 2021,” she told Davis. However, sending kids back to school this year would be premature, she said.

“I’m willing to suffer the consequences of violating the (governor’s) order,” Shamburger said.

School board member Melissa Snively said the beauty of the Davis’ reopening plan is it gives parents a choice. If they’re not comfortable sending their children back to school for in-person learning, they can opt for e-learning or Hillsborough County Virtual School, the school district’s newly developed version of Florida Virtual School.

“We’ve had 1,330 children in the county diagnosed with coronavirus,” she said. “That’s .00065 percent of the population. Emergency visits are down, and new cases have flattened in Hillsborough County.”

Snively said many parents want their children to return to school.

“I have a contingent I represent who are anxious to send children back to school,” she said. “My three (school-age children) need face-to-face interaction with teachers. They did not do well with distance learning. But people do have options. If you don’t want to send your children back to school, that’s OK. But some parents don’t have that option. They been compromised economically because they haven’t been able to go back to work.”

Snively said she attended the meeting of the Florida Board of Education on Wednesday at Strawberry Crest High School in Dover and was struck by a comment made by board member and state Rep. Tom Grady.

“Tom Grady said he thought the order from the commissioner (of education) was timely and spot on, and said children are harmed by not being in school,” Snively said. “It’s about choices. We’re not forcing anybody to go back into a school if they don’t want to. If we have to change things, guess what? We can. If we get three weeks in and things escalate, we can close down the schools and go with distance learning.”

Snively noted that the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association have all endorsed sending children back to school provided safety protocols are in place.

The school district has asked parents to complete a declaration of intent by July 19, stating whether they plan to send their children back to school or opt for an online learning option.

“Forty-two percent have responded so far,” Davis said.

Of those, 56 percent of parents said they wanted to send their children back to school, while 44 percent said they would choose e-learning or Hillsborough County Virtual School, Davis said.

Additionally, 62 percent of the county’s teachers say they’re willing to come back to the brick-and-mortar school environment.

Davis said the school district has worked closely with medical advisers at Tampa General Hospital and the University of South Florida College of Medicine to ensure the safety of both students and staff.

At their recommendation, Davis said the school district plans to hire a “coronavirus captain” to oversee all safety protocols, quarantine procedures and manage the contact tracing team if a student or staff members tests positive for the coronavirus.

“We believe in full transparency and will notify parents of students who have been directly exposed as well as the entire student body,” Davis said.

The coronavirus captain will determine whether to shut down a classroom, a wing or the entire school if someone tests positive for the virus and decide who should be placed in isolation, he said.

The plan also mandates face coverings for both students and staff, providing three face masks to every student.

Student movements will be controlled, and classrooms will be reconfigured to put more distance between desks.

“I know parents want to be involved, but I’ve got to tell you openly, we’ve got to limit that,” Davis said. “All visitors and volunteers will be screened thoroughly before they come into our schools.
And any visitor would have to make an appointment 24 hours in advance.”

Visitors will also have to undergo a health check and temperature screening. Anyone with a temperature of 100.4 degrees or above will not be allowed to enter the schools.

Additional custodial staff will be brought on to clean and sanitize school facilities throughout the day as well as conduct a deep cleaning every night. There will be sanitation stations in each classroom. Buses will be sanitized after transporting students.

Movements will be limited in the cafeterias, and students will have assigned seating. Breakfast and lunches will be grab-and-go meals to limit contact with food service workers, and plexiglass shields will be installed.

School locker rooms will be closed and the district will follow Florida High School Athletic Association guidelines that include a maximum of 40 students practicing or playing at any one time.

Nursing staff will perform well checks throughout the day, and students with coronavirus symptoms will be isolated in a separate room.

Despite all of these protocols, Davis admitted that the district can’t guarantee its ability to maintain the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s 6 feet of social distancing guidelines.

“To be honest, we are not built for social distancing,” he said. “It is very complex and difficult to do — in hallways, media centers, cafeterias, buses …”

That said, school board member and former teacher Lynn Gray said she can’t endorse reopening schools when coronavirus cases are on the increase in Hillsborough County.

“I’m openly concerned as an educational leader for our students and employees,” she said. “If we continue to see an upward trajectory, we might not be able to do it.”

School board member Karen Perez, who works in the health care field, agreed.

“Health care officials are anxious,” she said. “I can’t imagine the angst of our teachers, our parents, our staff and our students.”

The inability to meet CDC social distancing standards also concerns Stuart.

“It’s unconscionable for us to have to make this decision for our families,” she said. “It is just more responsible for us to take a little more time for this community to heal.”

She proposed keeping schools closed for at least three more months.

“It’s just overwhelming right now with the numbers we’re at,” Stuart said. “I would like us to push off the opening of brick-and-mortar schools for another nine weeks and allow us to get this virus under control. We can’t suppress this virus in our own community. How do we think we can suppress it in our schools? Learning loss can be corrected, but life loss can’t.”

This article originally appeared on the Tampa Patch

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