Joe Henderson: Hillsborough schools should do online-only for first nine weeks
Image via AP.

school bus
The Republican National Convention was scrubbed in Jacksonville over COVID-19 concerns, but it's safe to reopen schools? Get real.

I agreed when Hillsborough County’s schools recently pushed the start of the new learning year back two weeks to Aug. 24. I believed then a short delay would give leaders time to make a more informed decision.

Well, they’ve had enough time, and here’s what they should do.

While many Florida districts delayed the start of the school year, Hillsborough needs to take it to the next level. Keep the doors shut and conduct classes online only for the first nine weeks.

It’s not ideal, of course, but it’s the safest thing for teachers, support staff, and students.

I don’t see how anyone can argue against that, but some will do it anyway.

Board Chair Melissa Snively, for instance, is a vocal advocate for returning students to the classroom.

But answer this: Why would anyone believe it is safer to open school buildings now than it was on March 17, when Gov. Ron DeSantis ordered all state schools closed?

Four Floridians had died from COVID-19 infections by that date. More than 6,000 have died in Florida since then, and the number of confirmed cases is approaching 500,000. Hospitals are strained to the breaking point.

The state routinely sets records for the number of deaths and infections.

And if classrooms reopen as normal in August, what happens when a teacher tests positive; you know it will happen. Will all the students taught by that teacher go into quarantine?

The economic and emotional hardship of the pandemic on parents is real, but I don’t buy the rationale that schools should open so parents can return to work. Are those people saying teachers need to be surrogate babysitters for households in a tough spot?

It doesn’t work like that.

Hillsborough’s current plan – which can be amended by the Board – allows parents to choose traditional classrooms, e-learning, or virtual school. The numbers have been running about 50-50 between online and in-person.

So, against the backdrop of a deadly virus, how do teachers pull that off if they have to be in the classroom and available online?

Oh, and those safety rules the district has in place are largely a fantasy. One-way hallways, for instance. Are you kidding me? People don’t even follow that rule at Publix, and leaders want us to believe a few hundred kids rushing to change classes will do any better?

There are simply too many moving parts and too much risk for school buildings to reopen this soon.

“If we lose a teacher because of COVID, that teacher can no longer teach,” Board member Karen Perez said at a recent meeting. “And if we lose a student because of COVID, that student can no longer learn. So where do we go from here?”

Yes, it’s inconvenient for some.

It’s also inconvenient to spend time in an ICU. Or to lose a child, spouse, or other loved one because the schools caved to political and social pressure to reopen when safety is at risk.

The Republican National Convention was scrubbed in Jacksonville over COVID-19 concerns, but it’s safe to reopen schools?

A Citizens Advisory Committee recommended that buildings should stay closed for at least the first nine weeks. The National Teachers Union told members it is OK to go on strike if they face a forced reopening.

Also, there is this: What happens when many teachers decide to walk away instead of returning to the classroom?

It could happen, you know. That could be devastating for Hillsborough, which faces a hiring freeze over a shortfall in budget reserves.

The choice is obvious.

Waiting nine more weeks won’t kill anyone.

Rushing too soon, though, just might.

Joe Henderson

I have a 45-year career in newspapers, including nearly 42 years at The Tampa Tribune. Florida is wacky, wonderful, unpredictable and a national force. It's a treat to have a front-row seat for it all.


  • Paul

    July 29, 2020 at 10:03 pm

    I have a better idea, let the governor and all his supporters continue to not wear masks, ignore social distancing among themselves, keep traveling and getting out among their faithful for the next nine months and if they are still around after that, maybe it will be a good time to open up the state but me and my family don’t want to be a part of their experiment!

  • Adria Medina

    July 30, 2020 at 1:59 am

    Well said Joe. Miami-Dade and Broward have already decided to start schools with e-learning since it is too dangerous to start brick and mortar. I am ashamed that our county- Hillsborough- is putting politics ahead of the lives of our children and school personnel.

  • Deborah Noles-Garcia

    July 30, 2020 at 7:48 am

    I am one of those teachers, although with a medical condition, opted for brick and mortar because other teachers are dealing with family members that are high risk at home daily giving them a better chance at online learning.

    I have an idea fir subs. All downtown personnel and admin, the SI, school board members, area district liaisons, area subject leaders, etc… should all volunteer once a week to sub. That way the county would save money to replenish those millions that have been misplaced saving money not having to hire subs. That money could go towards a teacher fund to support them financially when they contract Covid and out of work for more than 10 days or flowers for funerals.

    • Karen Carnes

      July 30, 2020 at 9:53 am

      Love the idea for substitute teachers! If it is so safe in our classrooms, all of those big wigs shouldn’t have any concerns with spending 8 hours in a classroom with 25 kids all day or with 100 kids coming and going in middle and high school! It would prove they really believe what they are spewing.

    • Heather

      July 30, 2020 at 5:40 pm

      Agreed! My only suggestion… the board shouldn’t volunteer to sub, it should be mandatory! Even without a pandemic, it should be required for them to have a minimum of 2-3 days per month in a district classroom in order to retain a position on a school board!

  • Mike

    July 30, 2020 at 11:53 am

    If the schools don’t open their doors, and virtually school our children, the county should be responsible for providing internet access for all students in their homes. Some can’t afford the internet and for some it’s not available for the area that they live in, without paying exponentially for it. One size does not fit all as some, like mr. Henderson suggests.

  • Adria Medina

    July 30, 2020 at 3:07 pm

    For those student that either can’t afford or can’t get internet there is always the option of paper copies of lessons. You are right not one size fits all but we have to stick to the safes option.

  • Sonja Fitch

    July 30, 2020 at 3:08 pm

    Think out of the box. There are 365 day’s a year ! Most curriculums are set up with six weeks or some three weeks. It will take the community to teach our kids! No bs I can’t! If you can tell time you can teach someone how to tell time! think. No brick and mortar til the state is shut down and curve flattens back to January trumpvirus numbers!

  • Mike

    July 30, 2020 at 5:18 pm

    Hey Joe, since you have a 45 years under your belt as writer.. i’m assuming you don’t have kids in school.. how about you take one for team USA and come watch my kids and not work or get get paid for 9 weeks while I goto work. Why are you discriminating against school aged parents as this likely has no negative impact on you at your age. I assume you know kids under 18 are at the absolute lowest risk group of dying and spreading COVID-19.

    • Kim

      July 31, 2020 at 9:26 pm


      Teachers are not babysitters. If you need a babysitter hire someone to supervise your children while they attend virtually. It will save many teachers’
      , staff members’, and other community members’ lives.

  • Kirk

    July 31, 2020 at 5:42 pm

    Hey Mike, if your kid gives a teacher COVID and they die, are you going to support their family

  • Tom

    August 1, 2020 at 4:55 pm

    I can’t help but think about the students who lose a teacher to the virus, and it will happen somewhere in this state, maybe here in Hillsborough, and it will happen again and again. Imagine a class of fourth graders having a sub one day, and then subs for the next two weeks, and then the news: your teacher is not coming back. Perhaps for reasons of privacy they won’t be told the teacher is dead. But they’ll find out, and some of them will wonder if they brought the virus into the classroom. Some of them will wonder if they are at fault. Loss of life and a cruel sense of guilt for ten year olds. All because the Governor, a Trump loyalist, insists on following orders from a Trump who hopes to boost the economy just before the election, knowing damn well that more lives will be lost and the economy will tank again. All just so that he wins.

Comments are closed.


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