Hillsborough School Board votes to reopen classrooms to students on Monday as planned

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HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY, Fla. (WFLA) — The Hillsborough County School Board voted 5-2 in their emergency meeting Friday to bring students who opted for in-person learning back to classrooms on Monday.

Superintendent Addison Davis and School Board Chair Melissa Snively called the emergency meeting Friday after a judge ruled that school districts can decide when to reopen schools.

Judge Charles Dodson made the ruling Monday, saying the state’s emergency order to reopen schools by Aug. 31 was unconstitutional. The state later appealed, which put the ruling on hold.

On Thursday, Dodson ordered to vacate the automatic stay, allowing districts to make their own decisions.

Dodson said the state’s response “drastically misstates what the temporary injunction order did and did not do.”

Hillsborough County Schools has been at the center of the school reopening debate.

On July 6, the Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran issued an order that required all school districts to submit a reopening plan to the state for approval. The plan needed to include a brick and mortar, or return to the classroom, option.

On July 23, Hillsborough County’s plan was approved by the state, according to the school board’s attorney, Jim Porter. However, on Aug. 6, the school board voted to delay students returning to the classroom for the first four weeks of the school year. That plan was denied by the state.

However, after pressure from the state and threats of losing almost $200 million in funding, the superintendent adjusted the district’s plans. The current plan in effect, and was voted on again Friday, has students studying virtually for the first week only, then they will resume in-person classes on Monday, Aug. 31.

Friday’s meeting, allowed school board members to either re-vote on their Aug. 6 plan and risk losing funding from the state or to vote to adopt Davis’ plan which reopens schools to students on Monday.

During the meeting, Davis addressed the concerns on if the district is ready to handle students back in schools.

“Are we going to have barriers, the answer is yes… Do you think everyone across the state is ready to deal with a pandemic they’ve never been exposed to before?” Davis said. “We’re learning along the way, we’re going to see barriers, we’re going to have hiccups but how we are prepared to address them, react to them, communicated through them and be honest and transparent with them, we will be there.”

During member comment in the meeting, School Board Member Cindy Stuart addressed how Davis reached out Florida Department of Health Hillsborough County Director Douglas Holt asking if the county was in a “safer place” to open schools on Monday.

“Due to the declining number of positive test rates, I have been asked to pose a question to you if you believe that we are in a safer place to open school next Monday?” Davis’ email read.

FULL EMERGENCY SCHOOL BOARD MEETING IN VIDEO PLAYER BELOW

Holt responded by saying, “Based on the latest data on COVID transmission, I can certainly say we are in a safer place going into the school opening on Monday. Given the data that was presented on Aug. 6, I believe the school board made an informed decision then and given the noticeable improvement with the decline in the new cases reported and the percent positivity for tests on both the 14- and seven-day average preceding with the opening plan at this time is supported by that data.”

However, other school board members disagreed with the superintendent reaching out to Holt for his opinion.

Tamara Shamburger expressed how she wanted an update from the medical experts that gave their opinion during the Aug. 6 meeting, not for the superintendent to “cherry-pick the one who didn’t give an opinion” and someone “that fits (his) narrative.”

She continued by saying how the experts were not present at the meeting to give follow-up opinions and did not feel she had enough information to make a vote.

“I think calling the question is political posturing at its best. I certainly didn’t get all my questions answered and have enough information to make an informed decision,” she said.

Karen Perez echoed Shamburger’s statement.

Shamburger also made note that the school board never met again between the Aug. 6 meeting and now.

“The board has clearly spoken period. On Aug. 6, this board voted, myself, member Hahn, member Cona, member Gray, member Perez to delay the opening of our schools by 20 school days,” she said. “That was based on sound and scientific medical advice. This board never reconvened itself after Aug. 6 to give the superintendent authority to make any alternative plans, including the one we have right now in place.”

Despite the ultimate decision to return on Monday, School Board Member Steve Cona III expressed to families that while COVID-19 cases could very well appear in schools once students return, the board had an obligation to give parents the option for in-person or online learning.

“We asked them what they wanted and they were clear when they said they wanted choice. We have to ensure that we provide that option that we told them we were going to give them,” Cona said.

Snively mentioned the district has about half of the families who want their students to go back to a classroom.

According to the school district, they have spent more than $5 million on PPE, including masks, gloves, signage, hand sanitizer, and disinfecting wipes to ensure a stockpile of materials for all schools.

As of Friday morning, Hillsborough County has 36,574 total coronavirus cases, 541 deaths and a 6.70 percent positivity rate.

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