Back-to-school battle: How showdown between Hillsborough schools, Florida education leaders evolved

Back To School

TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — After a confusing showdown between county and state over the reopening of schools, students in one of Florida’s largest districts will spend one week learning online to begin the year.

Hillsborough County Public Schools had its sights set on four weeks of virtual learning to start the school year, but eventually settled on just one to compromise with Florida’s education department.

But how did the school district get to this point? Here’s a timeline of the battle between the district and Florida education officials:

June: Start of summer, start of planning

Shortly after the 2019-2020 school year wrapped up, finishing virtually due to the coronavirus pandemic, Gov. Ron DeSantis and his education department announced the state’s roadmap to reopen schools in the fall.

“The message should be loud and clear. What we are saying, with a strong recommendation to our great superintendents we work with, we want schools fully open in the fall because there is no better way to educate our kids than have that great teacher in front of that child,” Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran said at the time.

In mid-June, the Hillsborough County Public Schools district sent a survey out to parents that found families were split over whether or not they felt comfortable sending their children back into the classroom.

Hillsborough County Superintendent Addison Davis unveiled the school district’s initial proposal to reopen on June 23. The presentation to the school board included three different models and sought feedback from board members and the public.

July 6: Emergency education order

Corcoran signed an emergency order on July 6 saying all brick-and-mortar schools in Florida had to reopen in August and provide “the full panoply of services” at least five days a week.

The order noted that the reopening of schools was “subject to advice and orders of the Florida Department of Health, local departments of health” and executive orders from the governor.

July 7: Masks required

Superintendent Davis announced July 7 that face coverings would be required throughout the district for students and staff members returning to school in August. The decision came after Davis said he and other district officials “listened to concerns from across the county, confronted internal challenges and consulted medical experts.”

Davis said the district would provide three reusable masks to each student on the first day of school. Three reusable masks would also be provided to staff members.

July 15-23: Delayed start

Superintendent Davis submitted a recommendation to the school board on July 15 to delay the start of the school year by two weeks. His proposal, which was eventually voted on and approved on July 23, pushed the start of school back from Aug. 10 to Aug. 24.

“I think that if it starts to go up and we see it go in the wrong direction than our conversations go deeper. More than just starting at a different date,” said Superintendent Davis.

Davis’ announcement was made just hours after Gov. DeSantis met with state education leaders in Dover to talk about reopening schools. During that meeting, DeSantis said he believed schools would be able to open safely the following month.

Aug. 6: Virtual start

The Hillsborough County School Board voted Aug. 6 to start the school year with four weeks of distance learning. The decision pushed back the start of traditional in-person learning for those who chose it by a month, making only eLearning and virtual school available to students.

“I am here to protect all learners and our staff. The state’s executive order required districts to open up five days in our brick-and-mortar schools. This is why we gave our families options. The board has made an informed decision with input from public health authorities, and my team will work to make sure eLearning is dynamic and that our staff provides wrap around services for our children,” Superintendent Davis said after the plan was approved. “I look forward to the day we can bring students back to our school campuses.”

Aug. 7: Not so fast…

Just one day after the school board made its decision to start virtually for the first month of school, Corcoran pumped the brakes and rebuked the plan in a letter sent to the school board. In the letter, Corcoran said he had “grave concerns” about the plan and stated that it violated his emergency order.

“The Hillsborough County School Board needs to follow the law, it’s that simple,” he said.

Corcoran gave the school board three options: Follow the original plan approved by the state, submit a new plan for approval or withdraw their plan and “proceed under the existing statutory framework.”

After the letter was sent, Davis said he and the district were reviewing and analyzing it with a legal team.

Aug. 10: Not backing down

The Hillsborough County school district released a statement on Aug. 10 arguing that the plan to start virtually for four weeks did not violate the state’s order.

“Our district explicitly followed the state’s executive order,” the spokesperson said. “The order provides school districts the option of not opening brick and mortar ‘subject to advice or orders of the Florida Department of Health, (or) local departments of health.’”

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

The statement was released the same day Gov. DeSantis and Commissioner Corcoran were in town for an education roundtable. During the event, the state leaders stressed the importance of giving parents options but also leaving local decisions up to districts.

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,” Corcoran 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.”

The governor and commissioner did not answer whether following the virtual plan could result in a cut in state funding.

Aug. 11: A trip to Tallahassee

Superintendent Davis traveled to the state capital on Aug. 11 to speak with state education leaders about the district’s plan to start school online for four weeks.

In a tweet, the school district said Davis “continues to advocate for the safety and health of our students and staff.”

Aug. 12: Corcoran in DC

Corcoran attended a White House event on Aug. 12 to discuss the reopening of schools with President Donald Trump and U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. During the event, he addressed a lawsuit – unrelated to the Hillsborough County situation – that claims his emergency order endangers safety, which he denied.

“It does the opposite and cements the point that we’re giving maximum flexibility to teachers, students and parents,” he said.

And while he stated that Florida has the largest virtual school in the country, he referred to virtual school as a “second-tier education.”

“The best education is when you got a great teacher, a great mentor, someone who’s got great wisdom, all the peers together getting a great education,” Corcoran said.

Aug. 13: A compromise

On Aug. 13, a Hillsborough County school board member told 8 On Your Side that the state had rejected the district’s plan to start the school year with four weeks of online learning. Superintendent Davis announced the district would star the year with just one week of distance learning.

“I have been diligently working to come to a compromise with the Florida Department of Education regarding our reopening plans,” Davis said in a statement. “Unfortunately, FLDOE has rejected two different phased-in models our district proposed that would have delayed our brick-and-mortar opening while ensuring our most vulnerable student populations were served in a face-to-face capacity.”

Davis said in his statement that it came down to funding.

“The Department of Education made it clear that any model outside the emergency order would result in a negative financial impact,” he said. “That reduction in state funds would be detrimental to students’ learning and our organization.”

The school will now begin with eLearning on Aug. 24. Families who have opted to take part in traditional in-person learning will be able to send their kids back to brick-and-mortar school on Aug. 31.

Aug. 14: Congresswoman condemns state

In an interview with our Washington correspondent on Aug. 14, Democratic Congresswoman Kathy Castor, who represents Tampa, condemned the state’s actions in the back-to-school battle with Hillsborough County.

“You shouldn’t have the State of Florida threatening a local school board that listened to public health experts,” Rep. Kathy Castor (D-FL) said.

“Hillsborough County schools had it right. They listened to public health experts,” she added.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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