Back-to-school showdown: Hillsborough schools, Florida education dept. battle over virtual start

8 On Your Side

TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — With the scheduled start of school just weeks away, a battle is brewing between the State of Florida and the Hillsborough County School Board over the district’s plan to start school online for the first four weeks.

The problem? State leaders say the plan to begin virtually violates Florida’s reopening orders. The school district disagrees, saying they explicitly followed the state’s order.

Christina Finn, a Hillsborough County teacher, says she survived coronavirus. Last week, she told school board members she doesn’t think it’s safe to be in the classroom right now.

“I am being asked to go back into the classroom and I am being asked to teach brick and mortar,” Finn said. “I’ve asked my principal and I’ve asked the district for help and we are not getting help.”

After hearing emotional pleas and talking with experts, the district decided to delay in-person learning. Just one day later, Florida’s education commissioner claimed that was illegal.

But the Hillsborough school district is not backing down. A district spokesperson released a statement Monday saying the school board “made an informed decision.”

“The panel was asked if we should open our doors and not one medical professional could recommend opening today,” the statement said.

8 On Your Side asked the governor about the back-and-forth between the district and the state while he was in town on Monday.

“Governor, shouldn’t decisions about education be made at the local level? The Hillsborough County School Board said they talked with health care professionals and they decided that it was best to delay in-person learning. Why is your commissioner going against that?” investigative reporter Mahsa Saeidi asked.

“I think that we should be flexible and you should be attuned to the circumstances on the ground,” DeSantis said. He added, “At the same time, some of this stuff is just not debatable anymore.”

Gov. DeSantis says the coronavirus risk to school kids is lower than the seasonal flu. He also stressed that parents should have a choice in Hillsborough County.

In his scathing letter to the district last week, Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran urged the county to follow the plan that had previously been approved by the state or submit an amended plan by Aug. 14.

“We’ve given them that flexibility and they can absolutely make whatever decision they want, they have that opportunity,” Corcoran said Monday during the roundtable.

The education commissioner noted that there are 66 other counties in the state that are “content with their plans” that have been submitted and approved.

“We have one district who submitted a plan, liked their plan and then suddenly went back,” he said. “And they have that right. Is it right by parents? Is it right by students? Is it right by teachers? No, it’s not.”

So if the Hillsborough County district stick to its plan, could it result in a cut in state funding? The governor and education commissioner did not give that answer on Monday, but 8 On Your Side will be following up to try and find out.

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