Florida education commissioner rebukes Hillsborough’s plan to start school online, says district needs to follow law

Hillsborough County

TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — Just one day after the Hillsborough County School Board voted to have school start virtually for the first four weeks of the year in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, Florida’s education department is pumping the brakes on the plan.

Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran sent a letter to the Hillsborough County School Board on Friday saying the plan approved Thursday violates an emergency order he signed last month. In the letter, Corcoran added that he has “grave concerns” about the plan.

“This blanket district-wide decision directly contradicts the district’s reopening plan, which was approved because it was consistent with the purpose and framework of (the emergency order,)” Corcoran said.

The education department’s order signed in July states that all brick and mortar schools in Florida must reopen in August and provide “the full panoply of services.” After that emergency order was signed, most districts in Florida announced options for back to school – letting families choose whether their students would return to an in-person classroom or continue learning virtually.

Hillsborough County initially offered several options but ultimately decided to delay the in-person option at least until the school board reconvened again Sept. 8.

Hillsborough County Superintendent Addison Davis says the board is now in the process of reviewing and analyzing Corcoran’s letter with a legal team.

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

Corcoran says any district-wide delay of in-person learning past August requires an amended plan be submitted to the state.

“The whole reason the department created the emergency order was to grant districts maximum flexibly to do what is right for parents and school children,” Corcoran said. “We will not stand idly by while they trample over the majority of parents who want to do right by their children.”

In his statement, Corcoran accuses the school board of completely eliminating the “flexible options for their families and students.” He also says the district, “ignored how harmful it can be for students who are experiencing violence, abuse, and food insecurity in their homes.” He says many of those students are already struggling to close achievement gaps.

“These are urgent circumstances and we cannot, and will not, ignore it,” he said.

But Davis says the decision was made after careful consideration.

“Yesterday, the school board made an informed decision after receiving data and hearing from the Florida Department of Health in Hillsborough County, along with hearing the advice of other local infectious disease and public health authorities,” Davis said in a statement. “The board acted after serious deliberations and with all due diligence.”

Moving forward, Corcoran says Hillsborough’s school board has 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.”

“It’s not very often you throw a drowning man a life preserver and he throws it back at you,” he said.

FULL LETTER FROM EDUCATION COMMISSIONER CORCORAN:

FULL STATEMENT FROM SUPERINTENDENT DAVIS:

“I have received the letter from the Florida Department of Education and we are in the process of reviewing and analyzing the letter with our legal team. Yesterday, the School Board made an informed decision after receiving data and hearing from the Florida Department of Health in Hillsborough County, along with hearing the advice of other local infectious disease and public health authorities. The Board acted after serious deliberations and with all due diligence. Our district understood the possibility that such a response from the state might come and it has been clear that the district could face negative implications. We will use this information to have discussions about where we go from here.”

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