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Hillsborough County school leaders push back after state said district 'needs to follow the law'

The Florida Department of Education said it has "grave concerns" over the district's plans to start online only.

TAMPA, Fla. — Hillsborough County Schools says it "explicitly" followed the Florida Department of Education's emergency order, which wants districts to reopen school buildings for in-person learning amid the coronavirus pandemic.

It comes as Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran announced Friday he has "grave concerns" over the district's vote to only offer eLearning for the first four weeks of school.

The catch? The district appears to be pointing to a section of the order that appears to give school officials some leeway on whether to reopen their buildings -- and do so safely.

In a statement Monday, district spokeswoman Tanya Arja said, "The order provides school districts the options of not opening brick and mortar 'subject to advice or orders of the Florida Department of Health, (or) local departments of health.'"

She says its board made the "informed decision" to start the school year online-only after hearing from public health experts. 

"...Not one medical professional could recommend opening today," said Arja, adding, ultimately, the day-to-day decision to open or close a school "always rests locally."

Here's what Florida's emergency order says:

"Upon reopening in August, all school boards and charter school governing boards must open brick and mortar schools at least five days per week for all students, subject to advice and orders of the Florida Department of Health, local departments of health, Executive Order 20-149 and subsequent executive orders. 

"Absent these directives, the day-to-day decision to open or close a school must always rest locally with the board or executive most closely associated with a school, the superintendent or school board in the case of a district-run school, the charter governing board in the case of a public charter school or the private school principal, director or governing board in the case of a nonpublic school."

Corcoran's letter to the district last week gave officials three options, saying the school board "needs to follow the law." 

  1. Following the planned previously approved by the FLDOE.
  2. Submitting an amended plan that follows guidelines laid out by the state.
  3. Withdrawing the original plan and proceeding "under the existing statutory framework."

According to the Florida Department of Health's latest pediatric dataset, Hillsborough County has reported 2,993 cases of COVID-19 in children under 18 with a 14.4 percent positivity. 

Florida's overall percentage of positive cases is 13.36 percent, the department's dashboard shows. The World Health Organization recommends rates of positivity in testing should remain at 5 percent or lower for a least two weeks.

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