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Gov. DeSantis, education commissioner talk Hillsborough schools after state rejects online plan

Gov. Ron DeSantis and Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran held a roundtable discussion at Winthrop Prep Academy in Riverview.

RIVERVIEW, Fla. — After rejecting Hillsborough County schools' online reopening plan and giving the district an ultimatum on Friday, Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran sat down with Gov. Ron DeSantis for a roundtable discussion on reopening schools in Florida.

Last week, the Hillsborough County School Board vote to tweak its reopening plan to have online-only learning for the first four weeks of the school year with a start date of Aug. 24. Late Friday, the Florida Department of Education sent a letter to the board essentially barring it from moving forward with this option, saying it "directly contradicts" the district's original plan that was approved by the FLDOE.

The letter, signed by Corcoran, also accused the district of not following the law and an emergency order requiring all districts in Florida to offer in-person learning options for the new school year amid the pandemic.

Corcoran's ultimatum gave the district three options: Follow the previously-approved plan, submit an amended plan or withdraw the original plan and proceed "under the existing statutory framework."

RELATED: Education commissioner rejects Hillsborough County's effort to start school entirely online

During Monday's roundtable, DeSantis and Corcoran touted Winthrop Academy College Prep's plans to welcome students back to school. Winthrop College Prep is a tuition-free charter school in Hillsborough County. Its reopening plans include options for a flexible schedule of distance learning and in-person learning.

The group heard from several parents and teachers, who said they are excited to get students back in classrooms with new health and safety procedures. Both recognized it can be a difficult decision for parents, especially those whose children may not do as well with learning from home.

"There are going to be some parents that would prefer to remain in distance learning. They have a right to do that," DeSantis said. "And, there's a lot of parents who really want their kids to have an opportunity to get back to in-person instruction."

DeSantis said he believes parents should have a choice for in-person or distance or virtual learning, saying the developmental part of going to school is important as well.

"I've heard from a lot of parents about, yes that the academic component, which is very important, but also just the social and developmental aspects of being in school compared to always having to be at home," he said.

When asked about giving power to local leaders to come up with the best reopening options, DeSantis and Corcoran said the state's emergency order gave school boards flexibility to balance what's best for their respective districts during the pandemic and the need to get students back to school.

When asked about the battle with Hillsborough, Corcoran said the emergency order was created to make sure districts would get the maximum amount of funding available.

Corcoran said Hillsborough County is the only district in Florida not in Phase One of reopening that is "not doing what the emergency order gave them the flexibility to do."

School districts in Phase One of the state's reopening plan are allowed to reopen with online-only learning, and the FLDOE already approved remote reopening plans for Broward and Miami-Date counties.

DeSantis said parents and families have every right to chose to do virtual learning, as there are different levels of apprehension when it comes to putting students back in school buildings during the pandemic. 

DeSantis again talked about the "low risk" of transmitting coronavirus among school-aged children, saying kids and schools "are not the driver of community spread." He also said to look at the mental health toll on students not able to go to school and socialize.

10 Tampa Bay reached out to the members of the Hillsborough County School Board. Tamara Shamburger and Lynn Gray explained that a special meeting is expected to be scheduled this week to discuss next steps.

RELATED: Hillsborough County schools will start the first 4 weeks with e-learning

According to a new report published by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children's Hospital Association, more than 97,000 kids tested positive for COVID-19 during the last two weeks of July. The report also found that, up until the end of that month, there were nearly 339,000 childhood coronavirus cases reported – 8.8 percent of all cases in the United States.

Pediatric doctors in Florida also said delaying the start of the school year "isn't enough." As state leaders, including DeSantis and Corcoran, continue to say schools are safe, doctors recommend any school within a country that has a COVID-19 infection rate above 5 percent to stay closed.

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