By LINDA CHION KENNEY
With less than six weeks to go before Hillsborough County Public Schools are scheduled to reopen August 10 for the fall semester, a trio of models for bringing kids and teachers back to school safely has been drafted, including a hybrid plan that has students splitting their time between face-to-face instruction and e-learning at home.
“No matter where I go, whether it’s to the grocery store, whether it’s the workout facility, getting gas or walking in the community, everyone wants to know what the reopening plan may be,” said Hillsborough County School Superintendent Addison Davis at a June 23 reopening workshop with school board members. “This is going to be a fluid decision. We will not select one particular model because we are at a different place every single day.”
Mindful of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ phased-opening approach, Davis said school officials, with one notable exception, will make local decisions in the best interest of students and employees. Moreover, Davis said, “We will never shut down the school district again at scale unless it’s provided for by direction from the governor’s office and Florida Department of Education.”
Schools under such orders closed due to the coronavirus pandemic on March 13 and stayed closed through the end of the school year, prompting a quick switch to e-learning through which Davis said educators and school officials have “learned a lot” over the past nine weeks.
Moving forward, e-learning “will be significantly improved,” Davis said, “due to an understanding of what’s working, what didn’t and what we can do better.”
As for starting the fall semester Aug. 10, the three reopening models reviewed June 23 are linked to how fast the virus spreads in Hillsborough County.
Model A, linked to a low or mild spread, calls for face-to-face instruction in brick-and-mortar schools with the option to engage 100 percent with site-based educators in e-learning or to opt instead for Hillsborough Virtual School instruction.
Model B, linked to a moderate virus spread, is a “hybrid, rotational model,” with students attending school four days in a row followed by six days at home via e-learning hook-ups. Students would be split into two cohorts, most likely alphabetically by their surname, which is aimed to keep siblings on the same schedule to the greatest extent possible.
The first cohort of students would attend school Monday through Thursday, followed by e-learning at home Friday through the following week. Meanwhile, cohort two would attend school Tuesday through Friday, with e-learning at home the following week and Monday the week after that. Teachers two times a month would have both cohorts of students learning at home, which would give instructors time to plan, grade and upload lessons.
Model B allows for social distancing by “reducing the volume of traffic in our common areas and the volume of traffic in our classrooms,” Davis said, noting as well the reduced number of students riding the bus to school. While cutting class sizes in half on any given day, Model B also gives teachers an opportunity to have face-to-face “touch-points” with children, Davis said.
Under both models, health protocols include deep cleaning and personal protective equipment (PPE), including that each student would receive at least three reusable masks. Under Davis’ plan, masks are strongly recommended where social distancing guidelines cannot be accommodated. They would be mandatory only if required by state or county executive order.
Model C, linked to a substantial virus spread, requires e-learning for all students, which is the model that was used the fourth quarter of the 2019-20 school year. As with all models, students would continue to have the option to enroll in the Hillsborough Virtual School, whose growth Davis has prioritized.
According to school officials, applications to Hillsborough Virtual School jumped to 800 as of June 22, which is on pace to amount to a 300 percent increase over the prior year’s 363 applications. Students in 2019-20 completed 8,000 Hillsborough Virtual School courses, as compared to 53,000 courses through the state’s counterpart, the Florida Virtual School. At a cost per student of $250 per course, that amounts to a $13.25 million loss to the school district in FTE (full-time equivalent) funding based on student enrollment.
Meanwhile, Davis said, the three-model reopening plan is in line with the district’s parent and teacher reopening survey, which showed parents roughly split over their comfort level in sending their children back to school buildings in the fall. Staff members as well were similarly split.
Now, with the models in place, a new online survey is set to launch on or about July 1, which Davis said would help school officials deepen their planning efforts.
The one great unknown, however, is the spread of the virus locally.
On March 1, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis announced the first two cases of COVID-19 in Florida, including a 29-year-old Hillsborough County woman who had recently traveled to Italy. As of Sunday, June 28, Florida Department of Health officials reported 10,237 cases in Hillsborough, representing 7 percent of the state’s 146,341 cases. Of those infected in Hillsborough, 23.5 percent were between the ages 5 and 24, while 11.2 percent were age 65 or older.
Statewide, the number of cases spiked from 54,332 cases May 28 to 146,341 cases June 28, a 169 percent increase. There were 59 cases March 13, the day Hillsborough schools closed as the country itself went into a lockdown to deal with the unknowns of the advancing virus.
For school reopening survey results and to take the upcoming parent and staff survey, visit: www.sdhc.k12.fl.us. To view the school board reopening workshop, which includes the superintendent’s slide presentation and plans for health protocols, including deep cleaning and PPE, visit: http://schoolboard.hcpswebcasts.com. A transcript of the June 23 meeting is available as well.