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Hillsborough County Schools leaders request flexibility with the state amid COVID challenges

There's been a more than 10-percent increase of students with 10 days or more missed this school year over last.

TAMPA, Fla. — In a letter to Florida's education commissioner, Hillsborough County Public Schools leaders are requesting the state to once again allow schools to opt-in to "A to F" grades for the latest academic year.

This especially was "prudent," reads the letter co-signed by superintendent Addison Davis and school board chair Nadia Combs, during the 2020-21 school year when COVID-19 interrupted learning across the district. The opt-in process holds districts and schools harmless given the disruption to classrooms.

Davis and Combs thanked Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran for his efforts to return to in-person learning at the beginning of this latest school year. But as it unfolded, the delta and omicron variants have "significantly" impacted the "ability to provide equitable learning opportunities consistently."

“COVID has brought a number of barriers to us," Davis echoed during a press conference Tuesday.

District leaders say there has been a more than 10-percent increase of students with 10 days or more missed during the 2021-22 school year compared to the previous year. Teacher absences, the letter reads, already have surpassed 10 percent compared to last year, and it's expected to increase.

"When accounted for the increased vacancies and historically low substitute fill rate, you can see how the challenges are, in many ways, even more, insurmountable than when we first entered this pandemic," the letter said.

In January alone, Davis said the school district has had more than 10,000 employees and students impacted by COVID-19, adding that this school year has been the "toughest year that we’ve experienced.” 

Staff across several departments are also said to be working overtime to help cover their co-workers as that district is heavily impacted by COVID absences.

The school leaders write they support extending state assessments as they are "essential in evaluating educational goals," though COVID-related challenges will affect those results. They fear the results will not "accurately reflect" school and teacher progress; another potential spike in cases would impact the overall 95 percent assessment participation and result in "incomplete" school grades.

"...This year should not be about sanctioning schools according to the state accountability rules. Instead, it must center on using student performance information to support further building the capacity of all learnings through prescribed educational pathways," the letter reads.

If the Department of Education strikes down the school district's ask for grace, Davis says the outcome could lead to an inaccurate reflection of students and carry an impact on teacher compensation. 

"It’s really not a true reflection of our ability and skillsets of our learners. And at the same token – it impacts our teachers for those who are, you know, evaluated and compensated based on their evaluation," he said. "So, not having a true reflection of time on task, not having a true reflection of the consistency of students in their classroom could negatively impact not only their compensation but their overall evaluation, as well."

According to Davis, schools will still receive analytics if held harmless and the act will not lead to an impact on the district's funding.

Outside of wanting to opt-in to school grades, Hillsborough County Public Schools is asking for the Department to focus on providing funding for both new teachers and veteran staff. 

"I think Tallahassee got it right to try to be able to create a longer, stronger bench of educators. But holistically it puts us in a disadvantage as school districts not to be able to have additional funding to be able to compensate, you know, the majority of the staff who has been here year after year being able to do some special things with our school district," Davis said.

Two-thirds of the school district's instructional staff is made up of veteran teachers.