The Hillsborough County School Board continued to show how divided they are about returning to in-person instruction during the coronavirus pandemic.
The comments came after Superintendent Addison Davis presented a plan on Thursday that includes three options for families: face-to-face instruction, e-learning through each school, or the district’s own virtual school.
“This pandemic has pushed every one of us as educators, it’s pushed teachers, it’s created angst for families,” Davis said, “and this really created a divide in the conversations about what we should do related to returning to school.”
During Wednesday's Florida Department of Education meeting, he announced a partnership with Tampa General Hospital and USF Health that included a two-week delay on the start date for students. The 2020-2021 school year was to have begun on August 10.
At Thursday's workshop, he said he hopes this will give faculty enough time to train and prepare for the new health protocols.
“We need teachers and school leaders to get into our schools to define how walkways will look, to find the flow patterns,” Davis said, “and how they're going to reconfigure not only the flow and the movement in the intake of our children, but how that classroom looks.”
During Thursday’s presentation, the district announced the creation of a new position to head its pandemic response effort.
Informally named the “COVID Commander,” this county employee will track sanitization supplies and lead contact tracing when a school receives a positive coronavirus test result.
Tracye Brown, the district’s Chief of Climate and Culture, added that all nurses will have additional training on how to identify symptoms of COVID-19 and procedures for isolating students who display them.
While parents will be conducting student health screenings at home, all faculty, staff, and visitors will have their temperatures checked daily before they may enter the school.
Masks will be mandated and enforced throughout the school day and every classroom will have a “sanitation station,” which includes gloves, disinfectant wipes, disposable masks, and hand sanitizer.
Both Davis and Chief Operating Officer Chris Farkas acknowledged that lunches and extracurricular activities will be the biggest challenges.
During lunch, students will be encouraged not to share food or move around between tables.
For extracurricular activities, locker rooms will be closed and only one restroom will be available.
Custodians will also be receiving training on new procedures related to COVID-19.
“Throughout the day, on a regular basis, we'll do high touch point cleaning,” Farkas said. "In addition to every single night, making sure that everything is clean within the school.”
“We're going to go inspect each one of those classrooms on a random basis. Quality assurance is going to be a key to this,” he added.
Despite praising Davis’ reopening plan, school board member Tamara Shamburger said she believes this plan is more appropriate for 2021 when students and teachers won't be in as much danger of contracting the virus.
“As the only person that's had COVID on this dais, let me tell you something. By time someone shows up with symptoms, it’s likely too late,” Shamburger said.
“So, while this is a magnificent, comprehensive plan, I am concerned that it is a little light on addressing the real risk.”
Board members Cindy Stuart and Karen Perez agreed.
They said that, as the 7th largest school district in the country, all eyes are on Hillsborough County and the district needs to set an example.
“We can't suppress this virus in our own community, how in the world do we think we're going to suppress it in our schools?” Stuart said. “I'm asking you now to consider, at the next meeting that we have next week, to consider E-learning for at least the first nine weeks.”
But Chairwoman Melissa Snively said she feels passionate about students having an option to go back to brick and mortar schools.
“We are not forcing anybody to go back into a school if they do not wish to do so,” she said. “And if we have to change things, guess what? We can.”
“If three weeks into school, all of a sudden the cases escalate and it becomes out of control, then we can close down the school and go with distance learning, if we have to.”
Also on the side of flexibility was board member Lynn Gray, who said she was sure the district would be ready to pivot if circumstances changed.
“I hope that we are flexible, but I have a lot of questions and I just want to end with this,” she said. “You see what's out there and you know, we are probably in for more reality than we would want to readily admit.”
To see the Hillsborough County Public School’s plan to reopen, click here.