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At what peril or cost do we reopen schools — or not

Published on: August 21, 2020

Thinking It Through
At what peril or cost do we reopen schools — or not

After months of planning, debating, surveying, public hearings and more, Hillsborough public schools are set to open Aug. 24 with one week of virtual instruction for all students.

Meanwhile, brick-and-mortar schools are set to open Monday, Aug. 31, in compliance with the state’s emergency order to have campuses open by month’s end.

State education officials nixed Hillsborough’s school board decision to employ eLearning for all students for the first four weeks of school, saying it was not in compliance with the emergency order, which is being contested in court on grounds that the order is unconstitutional because it cannot guarantee safe schools and it undermines local control of schools.

That’s a mouthful, but it boils down to this: We’re ready to go, but be ready to pivot, as the virus remains a formidable foe and nothing is set in stone.

When campuses reopen, here’s hoping infections stay in check. That bathrooms have soap, classrooms are sanitized, students wear masks and social distance and teachers and staff are not too overwhelmed. Imagine being torn between making a living and writing a will, knowing your age and underlying health conditions increase the odds of infection.

There is nothing easy about this. Our nation struggles to address a public health crisis mired in divisive political discourse while the very nature and existence of public education sits in the crosshairs, with funding deeply tied to every decision made, debated, denounced, and declared.

One could argue that without public schools the economy cannot get back on track, if for no other reason than in most cities and counties, school districts are the largest employers, and working parents can’t afford to give up their jobs to supervise their children learning at home.

That parents want and deserve choice has become the rallying cry for the side that wants schools open despite the risks involved. And yet it’s hard to see that there isn’t choice, because it’s pretty evident that there is.

Take Hillsborough County, for example, the school district that has become the poster child for bringing the hammer down on those who would keep our campuses closed.

On July 23, after public hearings, informed testimony, school board debates and a broad-reaching survey of students/parents and teachers, the school board approved Superintendent Addison Davis’ plan for reopening schools.

It allows parents to choose from among three levels of delivery: in-person instruction at brick-and-mortar schools, eLearning with school-based instructors, or Hillsborough Virtual K-12, a school choice option in the digital space using a web-based curriculum.

Davis sent this plan to state education officials and received a stamp of approval.

On Aug. 6, the Hillsborough school board, hearing again from the community and from a panel of local medical and public health professionals, voted to require eLearning for all students for the first four weeks of school, with plans to reassess the situation Sept. 8.

On Aug. 7, Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran, hammer in hand, signed a letter addressed to superintendent Davis, which said the board’s Aug. 6 vote put Hillsborough’s funding in jeopardy if brick-and-mortar schools were not reopened before month’s end.

Three days later, on Aug. 10, DeSantis and Corcoran traveled to Hillsborough and attended a roundtable discussion on the matter at Winthrop Academy College Prep, a charter school in Riverview. Superintendent Davis was not in attendance (and it’s not certain if he was invited or not).

“Here in the state of Florida, we really believe in empowering parents,” DeSantis reportedly said. “I think what Winthrop is doing [a hybrid model, not unlike Hillsborough’s] really shows a great path forward, and I commend you for what you’re doing.”

Corcoran reported that 66 of Florida’s 67 school districts were “very content” with the reopening plans they submitted for state approval. Yet one district, Hillsborough, “liked their plan, and then suddenly went back,” Corcoran added. “Is it right by parents? Is it right by students? Is it right by teachers? No, it’s not.”

In his defense, Davis traveled to the state’s capital Aug. 11 to advocate for Hillsborough’s reopening decisions.

State education officials “made it clear that any model outside the emergency order would result in a negative financial impact,” Davis said, in a news release dated Aug. 13. Such a reduction in state funds “would be detrimental to students’ learning and our organization.”

According to Davis, Hillsborough school board members “made an informed decision substantiated after hearing from local public health authorities.” And as the district moves forward, “for those families who choose to come back to brick-and-mortar school, we stand ready with our protocols and procedures using PPE [personal protective equipment], social distancing and contact tracing through the local health department.”

Meanwhile, the issue continues to play out in court, where among other things, Article 9 of the state Constitution comes to bear. It notes that the state has a paramount duty to ensure “safe and secure, free public schools,” and that local school boards shall operate, control and supervise these schools.

“We’re faced with serious, imminent, irreparable damage” should schools reopen at this time during this pandemic, argued counsel for the plaintiffs, at an Aug. 13 hearing. And that local officials must be able to make those decisions without the threat of losing public funding.

At the same court hearing, counsel for the other side argued that all students receive less from a virtual education. And that yes, while you “have to take into consideration, obviously, safety,” Article 9 makes it clear that “a paramount goal is for a high quality education.”

So, we continue to dig in and debate what we’ve been addressing for months: At what peril or cost do we reopen our brick-and-mortar schools — or not.

To review the superintendent’s approved school reopening plan, visit: https://bit.ly/315UDWN. To follow on YouTube the Florida Education Association lawsuit against Gov. Ron DeSantis, Education Commissioner Corcoran, the Florida Department of Education and more, visit: https://bit.ly/3253pU9. To view and review transcripts for past Hillsborough school board meetings, visit: http://schoolboard.hcpswebcasts.com.

Linda Chion-Kenney is a freelance writer and columnist for The Observer News. Contact her at linda@observernews.net.

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