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Hillsborough County Schools will start online, then begin offering in-person learning on Aug. 31

The school board previously voted last week to start the school year online-only for four weeks, but that led to a battle with the Florida Department of Education.

Hillsborough County Public Schools will begin eLearning for all students on Aug. 24, then transition to in-person instruction for families wanting to come back on Aug. 31. Students who wish to continue learning remotely will be allowed to keep taking classes online.

"Please know our learners will be returning to classrooms with enhanced safety protocols," Superintendent Addison Davis wrote in an email to parents. "Students will be provided PPE and will practice social distancing. In addition, our district will employ contact tracing through the local health department in the event of any positive COVID-19 cases."

That first week of ELearning will be called "Smart Start Week" and provide a "jumpstart" for students to get them used to new health and safety procedures during the coronavirus pandemic.

Davis held a news conference Thursday afternoon to update parents on the district's options for the 2020-21 school year. Parents won't have to send their kids back to class if they'd rather do a form of remote learning. But, in-person learning will be offered this fall.

"We are going to focus on making connections with our students...setting up expectations for the school year," Davis said of the "Smart Start Week."

Deputy Superintendent of Instruction Terry Connor said all students will be eLearning the first week of classes, working online through the Canvas system with their teachers and classmates. 

"Attendance is not optional; this is the first day of school," Connor said.

Connor acknowledged how much students have been through over the last six months of the coronavirus pandemic and said guidance counselors will be available to connect with families.

Davis also spoke about the worries felt among students, families and teachers over the last week as the district tried to work with the state on an approved reopening plan.

"Everyone's been frustrated; we've all been trying...to fix this," Davis said. "We know there are going to be bumps in the road...there are going to be barriers."

"We're here for children; we're also here to protect the working conditions of our adults," Davis said.

Tracye Brown, chief of climate and culture with Hillsborough Schools, detailed the steps that would be taken if a student or staff member tests positive for COVID-19. Brown said the first thing that person should do is contact their principal, who will then contact the "COVID commander" and then the regional superintendent.

Brown said contact tracing will include tracking where that person had been (including classrooms, transportation and other rooms), as well as if that person was part of any extra-curricular activities. 

"As we work to make school a safe place for our students and our staff...we will continue to work closely with the Department of Health," Brown said.

When asked if the district is satisfied that the FLDOH has enough resources to do effective contact tracing, Brown said there will be "eight teams that are hired specifically to support contact tracing with Hillsborough County Public Schools."

Davis was asked if the district could potentially shut down again and go back to all-online learning if there was a severe outbreak of coronavirus in the county. He said they would not close down district schools unless they received such guidance from the governor.

If there are outbreaks at schools, Davis said decisions would be made at individual schools.

The decision to do some eLearning but then open brick-and-mortar buildings for interested families comes after the district submitted an amended plan to the Florida Department of Education, in an effort to try to start school totally online for the first four weeks of class. But, 10 Tampa Bay learned that addendum had been rejected.

Two school board members, Karen Perez and Steve Cona, confirmed to 10 Tampa Bay that Florida has rejected the district's addendum to go online-only for the first month of the school year. Now, only that short timeframe leading up to Aug. 31 will be remote-only.

Board member Tamara Shamburger, a COVID survivor has been a longtime proponent of keeping schools closed until the virus is under control.

She's outraged with the new decision.

"The state’s threat to withhold hundreds of millions of dollars is nothing short of black mail and a perverse twisting of the law," said Shamburger.

Cindy Stuart was one of the two board members to vote against the virtual start to the school year. She said she wasn't surprised by the reversed decision saying, "A lot of people have said this is the school district's role and the school district's decision, it really wasn't. The executive order is very detailed and it says you will open by August 31st. You will open brick and mortar five days a week for all students."

Following the superintendent's announcement and response from the school board, a Florida Department of Education spokesperson sent 10 Tampa Bay this statement:

 We’re glad Superintendent Davis working hard to ensure the Hillsborough County School District could provide a choice and flexibility to families and students. The key principle we’ve said time and time again was to give a real choice and flexibility to families and students to provide for the needs of all students, and we’re glad they accomplished that.

The school district was at odds with the state after the school board voted last week to try to go online-only for those first four weeks, beginning Aug. 24. What ensued was a battle with the FLDOE, which said the district “needs to follow the law” and guidelines set in the state’s emergency order.

That order requires all districts to offer in-person learning at brick-and-mortar school buildings. The FLDOE said Hillsborough’s earlier vote violates the order and in a letter sent Friday evening gave the district three options to move forward:

  1. Follow the plan previously approved
  2. Submit an amended plan that follows the guidelines laid out by the state
  3. Withdraw the original plan and proceed “under the existing statutory framework”

The district submitted its amendment plan to go online-only. Now, school board members said the amended plan has been rejected. And, the district has since updated its plans to fall more closely in line with the state order.

The district had previously pointed to a section of the state’s order that appeared to give school officials some leeway on whether to reopen their buildings. District spokeswoman Tanya Arja said “the order provides the options of not opening brick and mortar ‘subject to advice or orders of the Florida Department of Health, (or) local departments of health.’”

Arja said the board previously made the “informed decision” to start the school year online-only after hearing from public health experts about the impact of COVID-19 in the area. Now, the district is changing course again and offering in-person learning for students who want it on Aug. 31.

The district was informed this week that it could lose $23 million worth of funding from the FLDOE if it continued with its other plan to reopen school online-only for the first month. A spokesperson for the Department of Education said the figure was the difference between funding for students in traditional schools versus students who are learning full time in a remote situation.

Superintendent Davis traveled to Tallahassee on Tuesday to advocate for the district's case for reopening online-only for four weeks. The trip came a day after the district said it "explicitly" followed the state's emergency order.

The next day, Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran appeared at a discussion on reopening schools at the White House, boasting to President Donald Trump of the state's order to let kids back into classrooms.

Corcoran has said that all of his children will be returning to in-person learning. He and Gov. Ron DeSantis have emphasized wanting to give families the choice in how to send students back to school.

Noting that Florida has the largest virtual school system in the country, Corcoran said he respects the decisions of parents who want to keep their children learning at home for now. But, he also called it a "second-tier education."

"Virtual is just not as good as being there," Trump said.