Education Commissioner Says School Board Violated State Order

HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY, FL — Despite reprovals from the Florida Department of Education, the Hillsborough County School District is moving forward with its plans to offer online learning only for four weeks following the start of school on Aug. 24.

Following the school district’s 5-2 vote Thursday, Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran sent a letter to Hillsborough schools Superintendent Addison Davis and school board chairwoman Melissa Snively informing them that the school board’s decision “directly contradicts the district’s reopening plan.”

After Corcoran issued an executive order July 6 mandating that all Florida school districts reopen brick-and-mortar schools in August to receive state funding, each school district was required to submit a reopening plan to the state by July 31.

The Hillsborough County School District’s plan gave parents a choice of sending their children back to class or having them learn online through either an online class provided by the student’s school or through Hillsborough Virtual School.

However, after listening to a who’s who lineup of medical experts during a five-hour meeting Aug. 6, the school board decided to delay the opening of brick-and-mortar schools for four weeks and start the school year Aug. 24 with only online learning.

See related story: Hillsborough Board Votes To Delay School Reopening 4 More Weeks

In his letter on Friday, Corcoran said that decision “directly contradicts the district’s reopening plan, which was approved because it was consistent with the purpose and framework” of the July 6 order mandating that all schools reopen five days a week.

“The Hillsborough County School Board needs to follow the law; it’s that simple,” Corcoran wrote. “The whole reason the department created the emergency order was to grant districts maximum flexibility to do what is right for parents and school children. We will not stand idly by while they trample over the majority of parents who want to do right by their children. What they did … 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.”

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis also weighed in on the school board’s decision, saying he is “concerned with Hillsborough County’s decision as Florida law requires school districts to offer certain amount of in-person instruction.”

School board attorney Jim Porter, however, said the state’s own order gives the districts the leeway not to reopen schools if medical professionals advise against it.

At its Aug. 6 meeting, the school district heard from medical professionals at Tampa General Hospital, the University of South Florida Morsani College of Medicine and from Dr. Doug Holt, director of the Florida Department of Health in Hillsborough County. All but one of the experts told the school board they didn’t think the county should reopen schools on Aug. 24.

In response, Corcoran appeared to back off his disapproval of the school board’s decision during a round table discussion Monday in Riverview.

“So, we’ve given them that flexibility and they can absolutely make whatever decision they want,” Corcoran said. “We have 66 districts all very content with their plans that they’ve submitted. We have one district who submitted their plan, liked their plan, and then suddenly went back. And they have that right. Is it right by parents? Is it right by students? Is it right by teachers? No, it’s not.”

He added that the Hillsborough County School Board’s decision could impact the amount of state funding the school district receives.

That’s OK with school board member Tamara Shamburger who battled her own case of the coronavirus over the summer.

“It wasn’t until I was diagnosed that the symptoms became bad,” she said. In the meantime, she said she exposed an untold number of people to the coronavirus. “By the time someone shows up with symptoms, it’s too late.”

Rather than risk a teacher or student becoming seriously ill or dying, she said, “I’m willing to suffer the consequences of violating the order.”

This article originally appeared on the Tampa Patch

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