Hillsborough school district says virtual start follows state order as DeSantis promotes choices for parents

Education

RIVERVIEW, Fla. (WFLA) – A battle between Florida and one of its biggest school districts continued brewing Monday as Gov. Ron DeSantis was in town to emphasize his stance that parents should be able to make choices that are best for their children when it comes to starting school again later this month.

During a roundtable discussion on education in Riverview Monday afternoon, Gov. DeSantis and Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran stressed the importance of giving parents options but also leaving local decisions up to districts.

“Here in the State of Florida, we really believe in empowering parents to having a choice about the upcoming school year,” Gov. DeSantis said. “There are going to be some parents who prefer to remain in distance learning, and they have the right to do that. There’s a lot of parents who really want their kids to have an opportunity to get back to in-person instruction.”

Most districts in the Tampa Bay area have offered parents options to either send their children back for in-person learning or keep their kids home to continue virtual learning. Most school districts in the area have also pushed back the first day of school.

Last week, the school board of Hillsborough County Public Schools – the third-largest district in Florida – voted to start school with four weeks of online learning. The next day, however, Corcoran sent the school board a letter rebuking that plan, essentially forcing the school district to pump the brakes.

In his letter, Corcoran said the district’s plan to start virtually violated an emergency order signed in July that directed all brick and mortar to reopen in August and provide “the full panoply of services” five days a week.

But a spokesperson for the school district argued Monday that the decision to start virtually does not violate the 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 district says the school board made an informed decision last week after hearing from public health officials and local infectious disease experts.

“The panel was asked if we should open our doors and not one medical professional could recommend opening today,” the statement said. “The state’s order goes on to say the day-to-day decision to open or close a school always rests locally.”

Both Corcoran and DeSantis on Monday stressed that decisions are left to the districts.

“I said from the very beginning of this there is going to be flexibility, I told school districts if you don’t think you’re ready on your normal date, you need to move it back, move it back,” DeSantis said Monday in response to 8 On Your Side’s Mahsa Saeidi’s question about Friday’s letter. “And I think we should be flexible and you should be attuned to the circumstances on the ground. But at the same time, some of this stuff’s just not debatable anymore.”

During the roundtable, DeSantis pointed out the recent trends that he says shows a slow in the spread of coronavirus the past few weeks. The state reported 4,155 new cases on Monday, the lowest single-day total since June.

“Obviously we want to continue to see that, but we’re also mindful that nothing is – this is an uncertain time,” he said. “But I think when you see these things over more than just a few days, you can see that these trends have been strong.”

DeSantis also noted that, “this is a marathon, not a sprint.”

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