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Joe Henderson: It’s time for a decision from Hillsborough County School Board

Many Hillsborough teachers fear for their safety if they are forced to return to in-person instruction.

Thursday has the making of a showdown for the ages at the Hillsborough County School Board. And whatever decision the Board reaches, about the only thing we know for sure is that a lot of people will be mad.

The seven Board members can decide on one of three things: Open the classrooms for in-person instruction, which will infuriate many teachers.

Or start the new school year in the nation’s seventh-largest district the way the old one ended with online-only classes. That will leave many parents sputtering and furious.

Or, please no, kick the can and leave everyone hanging.

Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that because Board members should have all the information they need to make a decision. Teachers, parents, and most importantly students need to know the deal.

I recently wrote that I hope the Board goes online-only for the first nine weeks, and I’ve seen nothing that would change my mind.  If anything, I feel that even stronger than before.

There is anecdotal evidence all over social media that many schools aren’t ready to greet students in-person on Aug. 24. That’s the tentative starting date for the new year.

Some teachers say they’ve been told by administrators there aren’t enough protective items to go around. That includes packages of sterilized wipes that are supposed to be used on each desk after a class.

Ryan Haczynski, a teacher at Strawberry Crest High School, on Wednesday, penned an open letter to the Board. He speaks frequently at Board meetings, but won’t attend Thursday because of caution about his personal safety.

“Our second most sacred American historical document, The Declaration of Independence, contains the famous line concerning certain inalienable rights, and ‘that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness,'” Haczynski wrote in his letter.

“Notice the order in which those three fundamental rights are listed. Does liberty come before life? Absolutely not.”

That’s the crux of the open/don’t argument.

The state has closed bars and restricted access to many other businesses during this pandemic, but it’s safe to go back to school?

This just in: It’s not, and it probably won’t be for a while.

“This simple idea underscores how perplexed I and many of my fellow Americans have been about these claims regarding the use of masks, social distancing, and why we must offer enlightened individuals a choice to send their children to schools in the midst of a public health crisis,” Haczynski’s letter continued.

“But if preservation of life is the highest good, the ultimate aim of what a democratic government is to provide to its citizens, why must some continue to elevate the idol of free choice over the lives of our children, our educators and their families?”

Did you see the picture of that school in Georgia earlier this week? TMZ obtained a photo of a hallway at the school crowded with students changing classes, and there weren’t many masks in sight.

That will happen here, too, if the Board goes ahead with in-person attendance. And it won’t be long before COVID-19 cases spike, and we’ll be back where things stood last March when the schools closed.

Sure, kids will have options in that case. They can choose in-person or online, but most teachers and support staff aren’t so lucky.

I mentioned up top that Thursday’s meeting should be a showdown for the ages. That’s because there appear to be three hard votes to reopen, and two hard votes for online-only, and two others who could go either way.

It leaves Cindy Stuart and Lynn Gray as the likely swing votes.

At a recent meeting, Stuart said, “We cannot meet CDC guidelines. We cannot effectively protect children the way we need to.”

Even so, she voted with the majority to reopen schools on Aug. 24 – but with a caveat. She said she voted that way because staying closed could have jeopardized state funding.

Gov. Ron DeSantis backed off his hardline stance about how a reopening should happen. He said it’s up to the local boards to decide.

So, decide already.

The arguments for reopening classrooms are strong.

Kids learn better in-person; point conceded.

Many of them need the services schools can provide, such as free breakfasts and lunches. Some need counseling.

Working parents are pulled in a thousand directions if the kids stay home.

I get it.

But for the last word, we return to Ryan Haczynski. He and thousands of others will be on the front lines of a potential catastrophe if schools reopen in-person.

“I will go so far as to state,” he wrote, “that anything short of a unanimous vote in favor of keeping our schools closed in order to maximize the preservation of life … is a dereliction of your duty as a constitutional officer of Florida.”

Written By

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.

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