Some Hillsborough parents upset as district plans for indoor graduation, no masks when schools return

Coronavirus

HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY, Fla. (WFLA) – Many parents of students in the Hillsborough County school district are upset that masks are not being required for students and teachers who return to schools in the fall, and at the district’s plan to hold graduation ceremonies indoors next month.

Dozens of parents commented on the Facebook livestream of Hillsborough’s work session Tuesday afternoon, where Superintendent Addison Davis reviewed preliminary plans to return the district’s 200,000-plus students to schools in the fall. The plans also included options for virtual learning for students who need or want to stay home.

Dr. Mary Anderson is a professor at University of Tampa, and a mom to three school-aged children in the Hillsborough system. She understands the science and knows the risk of serious outcomes of coronavirus to children is low — but said it’s not all about the kids.

“Maybe the 11-year-old isn’t going to get that sick, Anderson said, “but grandma could get very sick. So we need to protect. And I’m also concerned about teachers.”

Teachers could have some bargaining power when it comes to requirements to return to work, according to Stephanie Baxter-Jenkins, Executive Director of the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association.

But she says many are just concerned about their safety and anxious to see what the final requirements will be. If 90-100% of kids return to schools, then social distancing will be impossible, and that could be concerning.

“The reality is there’s a teacher shortage in Florida,” Baxter-Jenkins said. “Every year, in the last several years, we do not have enough teachers on the best of days.”

“So what we don’t want to do is get into a scenario where we’re not as safe as we can be, and we have people continually out for two weeks at a time,” said Baxter-Jenkins. “Because the reality is we won’t have enough people to fill those positions.”

“Schools are a scenario where community spread, a ‘super spreader’-type event, can happen at any given time. Because they are enclosed and at close proximity.”

Superintendent Addison Davis, still in his first year on the job, told 8 On Your Side that the district is providing parents with options, so they can choose the best course for their children.

He said enforcing a mask policy is not feasible.

“If we’re mandating masks every day, what happens if they lose them?” Davis said. “What if they don’t want to wear them? What if a parent says they don’t want them to wear them? Are we going to discipline the child? Our job is not to get into that type of decision making.”

Anderson said the virtual learning option the district is providing don’t work for her or many other families, because both parents work.

“I need my children to go to school, but I also want them to be safe,” Anderson said. “I am already a bereaved parent. I have lost a child before in my life, and it was a very small percentage — the probability of her getting sick was 1 in 100,000. So that idea that 1 out of 250 could result in a death, those are not odds I want to take with my children. At all.”

She and other parents who reached out to 8 On Your Side are also upset that Hillsborough is planning to hold graduation ceremonies indoors at the Expo Hall of the Florida State Fairgrounds.

The district sent out a letter to students late Wednesday afternoon with the details, which include:

  • Masks required
  • Students socially distanced on the expo floor
  • Two guests max per student, socially distanced between families in upper bleacher seats
  • No seating in lower bleachers
  • Cleaning between ceremonies
  • Live-streaming for those who can’t attend
  • Plan could change “if we continue to see spikes with COVID-19 in our community”

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