Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran sent a letter no-going Hillsborough County’s plan to start the school year online.
In the letter addressed to Superintendent Addison Davis and obtained by Florida Politics, Corcoran writes the decision to start schools online contradicts the district’s reopening plan, which had already been approved by the Florida Department of Education as required by Corcoran’s emergency order.
The letter was delivered late Friday after the Hillsborough County School Board voted 5-2 Thursday to start the first four weeks of the school year online.
“The Emergency Order gives school districts guaranteed funding at levels beyond what would otherwise be available in order to empower school districts to meet the diverse needs of students and families during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Corcoran wrote in the letter. “This delay is extremely difficult for the students with individualized educational plans whose families count on the public education system for critical specialized services.”
In early July, Corcoran issued an emergency order requiring school districts to give parents the option to send students to brick-and-mortar schools five days a week. The order sparked backlash from teachers across the state who are not yet comfortable going back to school because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The order required districts to send a reopening plan to the Florida Department of Education for approval, which Hillsborough County did. However, the district moved to delay the plan’s implementation Thursday after consulting with health experts.
The district-wide reopening delay does not comply with the Emergency Order, Corcoran wrote in the letter. For districts past “phase 1,” these decisions must be made on a school-by-school basis.
“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,” Corcoran’s letter read, quoting from his executive order.
Corcoran gave the district three options to move forward. The district can follow the approved plan, it can submit an amended plan to the Department for approval by next Friday, or the district can withdraw the plan and proceed without the additional funding, as stated in the order.
In a statement to Florida Politics, Corcoran criticized the board’s decision.
“The Hillsborough County School Board needs to follow the law, it’s that simple,” he said. “What they did yesterday completely eliminated the flexible options for their families and students and ignored how harmful it can be for students who are experiencing violence, abuse, and food insecurity in their homes, many of whom are already struggling to close achievement gaps. These are urgent circumstances and we cannot, and will not, ignore it.”
Davis said the district is currently reviewing the letter with the board’s legal team.
“Yesterday, the School Board made an informed decision after receiving data and hearing from the Florida Department of Health in Hillsborough County, along with hearing the advice of other local infectious disease and public health authorities,” Davis said in a statement to Florida Politics. “The Board acted after serious deliberations and with all due diligence. Our district understood the possibility that such a response from the state might come and it has been clear that the district could face negative implications. We will use this information to have discussions about where we go from here.”