HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY, Fla. (WFLA) – Addison Davis became the superintendent of the seventh-largest school district in the United States one-year-ago as schools across the country moved out of the classroom because of coronavirus concerns.

In an exclusive interview with 8 On Your Side, Davis reflected on his first year in charge of Hillsborough County Public Schools, lessons learned from reopening schools during the pandemic and the tough choices ahead as the school board deals with a $100 million dollar budget shortfall.

“We’re going to have to make some additional changes,” Davis said. “But we are going to do this right. While it will impact district level personnel school based personnel we just don’t have a choice.”

Davis compared the staffing to student ratio in Hillsborough county schools with an even larger school district in the state.

“When you look at other school districts such as Broward County that has 219 thousand students outside of charter schools and we have 188 thousand students outside of charter schools, and we have the same number of employees, 25 thousand employees, and they have 30 thousand more students, that’s a concern,” Davis said. “It’s been difficult but we have to make some hard decisions that are unattractive to protect our organization not only for today but for 5, 10, 15 years down the road.”

Davis told 8 On Your Side ahead of the next school year, the district may need to cut close to 1,500 positions, including teachers and district staff. He said at this time school closures are not being considered.

“The good thing is we usually hire between 11 and 12 hundred teachers annually so we’ll be able to use that to protect people and not positions,” Davis said.

By now, Davis said about 75 percent of students in the district have returned to brick and mortar schools. He said providing families with the choice of in-person and e-learning options has been crucial.   

8 On Your Side asked Davis about the CDC’s revised social distancing guidelines from six to three feet in classrooms.

“Education is not built to social distance,” Davis said. “Our classrooms are not, our hallways are not, our common areas are not, but we had to work hard to modify and refine all of our efforts to be able to compete with that. So to be able to relax that to 3 feet allows us have greater connectivity to host small group instruction, especially for those who have experienced learning loss or unfinished learning.”

Davis said the mandatory mask policy, contact tracing and quarantine policies have all be crucial to help keep schools open. Throughout the school year, he said schools have relied on guidance form medical experts at Tampa General Hospital and USF Health.

The 30-minute sit-down interview covered the topic of whether the state of Florida should have allowed teachers to be vaccinated sooner.

“I do believe that being able to help and assist our elderly is definitely a solid strategy,” he said, “but openly if we are going to ask educators, support staff, school based leaders and district leaders to come to work every single day and to open our doors, you know what, they definitely should have been considered at an earlier stage.”

Superintendent Davis said he wrote a letter to Tallahassee back in September encouraging the need to vaccinate teachers.

“We’re so thankful now that gate has been open and it just sends a sense of comfort and sense of value for those who have been heroic in a very trying time,” Davis said.

Davis told 8 On Your Side that schools in other parts of the country that have yet to reopen should do so as soon as they can.

“I’ll tell you this when we have analytics that showed that ours students came in this school year behind in literacy and mathematics related to the 19-20 school year, the learning loss is real,” Davis said. “We missed so many standards and core concepts from March until the end of May that our children need, foundational skills, especially in Kindergarten. Not opening up I openly believe, they will see and suffer the learning losses are real.”

Florida public schools are expected to receive around $10 billion in aid from the American Rescue Plan and the relief package Congress approved in December.

Only on News Channel 8 at 11, Superintendent Davis discusses how much HCPS should receive and how they plan to allocate that funding.