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Hillsborough County School Board to reopen schools Monday despite lawsuit win

Parents showed up en masse to lament online learning.

Hillsborough County School Board voted 5-2 to rescind an Aug. 6 vote approving plans to start the first four weeks of the school year online at an emergency meeting on Friday morning.

School Board member Karen Perez and Tamara Shamburger voted against rescinding the plan.

The decision was made following an emergency motion filed by the Florida Education Association to overturn a stay on a lawsuit victory Monday. Leon County Judge Charles Dodson ruled Monday Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran’s executive order requiring schools to reopen five days per week was unconstitutional. The state immediately filed an intent to appeal, prompting a stay on the original ruling. With the stay overturned, school districts can now close in-person learning in favor of online without risking state funding.

However, the state is still appealing, meaning another reversal could come.

School board attorney Jim Porter levied the risks of the decision, saying the board could risk losing about $200 million in funding if they continued online if the order is kept following appeal.

This is the latest curve in a rollercoaster of school reopening decisions in Hillsborough amidst the coronavirus pandemic.

At a school board meeting Tuesday, the board relayed to the community that brick-and-mortar schools were still set to reopen this Monday, following a state appeal.

The back-and-forth in court has kept Hillsborough County students and teachers in limbo, since the county has been at the center of disputes between local districts and the state in control over reopening plans.

The school board members who voted to rescind the Aug. 6 agreement argued that another change would be too disruptive to the district’s preparation to start on Monday, especially among parents and teachers. Concerns over withheld funding were also a determining factor.

“Over the last few weeks you see, the community spread has decreased, as well as the logistical reality that tens and tens of thousands of individuals are counting on us to open on Monday,” Superintendent Addison Davis said. “And they planned for this to be open on brick and mortar, the childcare issues would be tremendous right now if we made any additional adjustments.”

School Board member Perez, who voted against rescinding the plan, brought up the numbers of positive cases within the county school system on Tuesday: between July 24 and Aug. 25, the system has seen 155 new cases, or about 39 cases per week. And that’s without students in classrooms.

The district is looking to finalize threshold rates that will require schools to shut down. As of Tuesday, the board estimated the threshold will be between 15% to 20% of the school quarantined to require a school to shut down.

The first week of the school year was pushed online after Corcoran and Hillsborough County Superintendent Davis reached a compromise following the rejected plan of postponing opening in-person classes for the first four weeks of the school year.

Davis announced Tuesday that 175,000 students — about 80% of the district’s student body — logged into e-Learning on the first day of the school year, which was Monday.

This “Smart Start Week” is meant to get students comfortable with e-Learning, especially if the student will have to move to online classes if forced to quarantine. Attendance this week is mandatory.

Hillsborough was originally poised to start the first four weeks of the school year online, but the state rejected two proposals that would have delayed brick-and-mortar learning.

The district’s plan quickly changed following a letter from Corcoran to Superintendent Davis. The letter rejected the district’s delayed reopening, threatening to withhold funding if the board did not follow the emergency order.

After Davis met with Corcoran, the state and district came to a compromise: Hillsborough would start the school year as planned on Aug. 24 online, but transition back to brick-and-mortar classes Monday, Aug. 31.

Written By

Kelly Hayes studied journalism and political science at the University of Florida. Kelly was born and raised in Tampa Bay. A recent graduate, she enjoys government and legal reporting. She has experience covering the Florida Legislature as well as local government, and is a proud Alligator alum. You can reach Kelly at kelly@floridapolitics.com.

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