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Hillsborough Schools Delay In-Person Classes, First Four Weeks To Be Remote Only

Douglas Holt, HIllsborough County Health Department director, speaks at a special school board meeting August 6, 2020.
WUSF/Hillsborough County Schools
Douglas Holt, HIllsborough County Health Department director, speaks at a special school board meeting August 6, 2020.

Hillsborough County Schools, Florida's third-largest school district and among the nation's top 10 in size, decided Thursday to delay the opening of brick-and-mortar schools by four weeks due to coronavirus concerns.

The School Board voted 5-2 to begin remote learning August 24, after hearing from medical experts who said the positive test rate for COVID-19 should be five percent or lower. In Hillsborough County, the rate is currently 11 percent. 

"The risk of schools becoming an incubator for spread to our community is very real. You may have heard in the news today that Germany is experiencing a significant uptick in cases as a result of their school reopening," said Dr. Charles Lockwood, dean of the University of South Florida Morsani College of Medicine.

He acknowledged that the decision facing the board was difficult, given the outsized role that schools have in the community for healthcare, meals, childcare and educating those with special needs.

"I don't envy you," Lockwood said.

Dr. Seetha Lakshmi, an epidemiologist at Tampa General Hospital, described reopening as "building a house of cards on a moving platform."

"Its foundation is that we do it at the right time," she said. And that means percent positivity at "five percent... ideally less than three percent is going to be very helpful to make a sustainable program and make our efforts fruitful," she said.

Dr. John Greene of the Moffitt Cancer Center said the trend toward positive cases is going down in the Tampa area, but it's not yet where it needs to be.

He agreed that a three-to-five percent positive rate is a good indicator of when to open. Contact tracing, he added, is "impossible" at 10 percent or higher.

"If you have 10,000 students and teachers, one or two will get infected and die, and then there are going to be legal issues and the publicity will be terrible but these are the facts of life of opening up," Greene said.

Thursday's special school board meeting opened with 90 minutes of impassioned public comment. Speakers were equally divided between whether schools should reopen or stay closed.  They identified themselves as doctors, nurses, teachers, parents, business people, students and bus drivers.  

Those who favored a return to in-person learning spoke of the risk of achievement gaps, of children who cannot connect to remote learning, child abuse concerns, parents being forced out of work, and special needs children. Many described themselves as "pro-choice," meaning they believe parents should be allowed to exercise their option of in-person or remote schooling.

Speakers who favored a delay mainly cited health concerns, and the possibility of wider community transmission should schools reopen. One teacher wept as she described how she had recovered from COVID-19 and was fearful of returning to the classroom. Another said she was a bus driver and had received CPR training but no instructions on how to deal with COVID-19.

Later, board members had an opportunity to ask questions of the medical experts. Board member Tamara Shamburger, who said she has recently recovered from a COVID-19 infection herself, asked each to answer simply yes or no, would they advise reopening schools today?

All answered no, except for Hillsborough County health department official Douglas Holt, who said he did not have a position.

Board member Lynn Gray, who voted for the four-week delay, described it as "buying time" so the COVID-19 case count can go down further, to improve air conditioning systems at schools and allow teachers to get more training in delivering e-learning. 

"I'm struggling with the 42 percent of families who want to come back," said board member Cindy Stuart, who along with board chair Melissa Snively voted against the four-week remote start.

"This wonderful brick-and-mortar system that we know is the premier education standard does not exist under the current conditions in our community," said board member Stacy Hahn.

"We will have interrupted instruction. That is not good instruction," she added.

The board will meet again to discuss the issue on September 8.

Copyright 2020 WUSF Public Media - WUSF 89.7

Kerry Sheridan is a reporter and co-host of All Things Considered at WUSF Public Media.