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Hillsborough Commissioners Assail Early Reopening Of Public Schools

Members of the Hillsborough Emergency Policy Group
Members of the Hillsborough Emergency Policy Group

Hillsborough County schools Superintendent Addison Davis said Thursday the district's schools will be conducted entirely online for only the first week of school, instead of the first four weeks.

Davis agreed to a compromise with state Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran, who mandated all schools had to offer students the option to physically attend classes by the end of August. Corcoran threatened a cutoff in state funding if schools didn't comply.

"The Department of Education made it clear than any model outside the emergency order would result in a negative financial impact," Davis tweetedafter the decision. "That reduction in state funds would be detrimental to students' learning and our organization."

Several county commissioners assailed that decision during Thursday's meeting of the county's Emergency Policy Group.

They quoted studies saying the rate of coronavirus transmission should come down to 5 percent for two weeks before students resume face-to-face lessons. That rate is currently more than 9.3 percent in Hillsborough.

Commission Chairman Les Miller said he couldn't understand why schools are being forced to open in person on Aug. 31.

"We as a county commission, we can't control what the school board does," he said. "But we can have some major, major concerns because the mere fact is that in our oath we took to protect the well-being and safety and health and welfare of every person in this county."

His comments were echoed by Commissioner Mariella Smith. She said the decision to physically reopen schools after the first week of classes could leave students at risk for getting COVID-19.

"I was also shocked by the information that we're just seeing today that the superintendent is calling for an opening of the schools weeks earlier than the school board voted on," Smith said. "I cannot fathom that myself."

Commissioner Pat Kemp asked for a resolution in support of the school board's decision last week to keep schools virtual-only for the first four weeks after they open Aug. 24. But she was asked by Miller not to, so the commission wouldn't get caught in a spat between the school board and state education officials.

Commissioner Stacey White - who has opposed the group's mandatory face mask order - took the opposite view, saying brick-and-mortar schools are necessary for learning.

Board members also agreed on a split vote to lower the age for having to wear masks in public places indoors from 8 to 5 years old.

Corcoran's order for schools to physically reopen is being challenged in a lawsuit by the Florida Education Association teachers union. The Orange County teachers union has filed a similar lawsuit.

Gov. Ron DeSantis, Corcoran and state education officials are asking Leon County Circuit Judge Charles Dodson to dismiss the lawsuits, arguing that the unions want the judge to supersede the executive branch’s authority.

Dodson on Thursday consolidated the lawsuits and ordered a Friday morning hearing on the state’s dismissal request. The judge also ordered mediation among the parties on Tuesday and scheduled a two-day hearing next week, if he allows the case to proceed and the state and the unions don’t reach an agreement.

DeSantis and Corcoran have steadfastly asserted that families need to be able to choose whether to send their children back to school or to use distance learning, which began after classrooms were shuttered in March as COVID-19 began to spread throughout the country.

Schools in at least a dozen counties reopened this week, and nearly all of the state’s 67 school districts are expected to restart in-person instruction before the end of the month. Schools in Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties, which have been COVID-19 hotspots, are exempt from Corcoran’s reopening mandate.

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Steve Newborn is WUSF's assistant news director as well as a reporter and producer at WUSF covering environmental issues and politics in the Tampa Bay area.
News Service of Florida