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Schools Will Open Monday, Hillsborough School Board Decides in 5-2 Vote

The Hillsborough School Board voted 5-2 to go ahead with reopening on Monday, as cases of coronavirus decline
The Hillsborough School Board voted 5-2 to go ahead with reopening on Monday, as cases of coronavirus decline

The school board of the nation's seventh largest district voted Friday to press on with plans to open brick-and-mortar schools Aug. 31, reversing course on a plan it adopted earlier this month to delay reopening by four weeks due to coronavirus concerns.

During about two hours of discussion at the board meeting, concerns were raised about the chaos of changing course just days before school would start, and the desire of about half of parents to send their children to school.

School board members also discussed declining COVID-19 cases in the area.

When the board met on Aug. 6, the positive test rate for coronavirus in the county was near 11%. On Friday, it was 7.27%, according to Hillsborough County's official dashboard.

A panel of medical experts from USF Health, the Moffitt Cancer Center and Morsani College of Medicine advised the board earlier this month that the timing of reopening is key, and that it should happen when the level of positive tests in an area is between 3 and 5% and on a steady decline.

All the experts that day said they would not advise reopening under current conditions, except Douglas Holt, the director of Hillsborough County's Health Department. Holt said he did not think it was his role to give that advice.

But on Friday, board member Cindy Stuart read an email exchange aloud, in which Superintendent Addison Davis asked Wednesday for Holt's input as to if he believed the county was "in a safer place to open schools next Monday," due to declining positive tests and planned operation at 45-65% capacity.

“Given the data that was presented on Aug. 6, 2020, I believe the school board made an informed decision then and given the noticeable improvement with the decline in new cases reported and percent positivity for tests on both a 14 and 7-day average –- proceeding with the opening plan at this time is supported by the data,” said Holt on Thursday afternoon, according to Stuart's reading.

Holt's words were also quoted in a statement issued by Hillsborough School Board spokeswoman Tanya Arja after the meeting.

The superintendent cited Holt's recommendation when he urged the board to stick to plans to reopen.

"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 and they planned for us to be open in brick and mortar," said Davis.

"The childcare issues would be tremendous right now if we made any additional adjustments," he said.

Davis also pointed to the ongoing legal battle over the Florida Education Association's lawsuit. A judge in Leon County found in favor of the teachers' union, saying that the state's emergency order to reopen schools in the midst of a pandemic is unconstitutional because Florida must provide a "safe" education for all students.

The state appealed, triggering an automatic stay which meant that decision was on hold until the appeals process could play out.

Then, on Thursday, the judge lifted that automatic stay, which would have allowed for the Hillsborough School Board to continue the plan it voted to follow Aug. 6, delaying the opening of school buildings for another few weeks.

"Today the stay is released, tomorrow the stay may be put back on. And this is going to be a back-and-forth," said Davis, who has warned the district stands to lose $200 million if it goes against the state Department of Education's order that all schools offer a brick-and-mortar option by Aug. 31.

"So as this continues to forecast and transition up to the potential of the Supreme Court, it could be at the end of the day, it could be that the emergency order stands, that it is constitutional, and that puts us in a really bad spot financially," Davis said.

At the end of Friday's meeting, the board voted 5-2 to rescind its earlier recommendation to delay the opening of school buildings, meaning that in-person classes will proceed on Monday.

Board members Karen Perez and Tamara Shamburger dissented. Shamburger, who has herself been ill with COVID-19 and has recovered, accused the superintendent of failing to get enough information to the board.

"My request to you was to get an update from the medical experts who gave an opinion, the six that gave an opinion, not to cherry-pick the one who didn't give an opinion that fits your narrative," Shamburger said to Davis.

"We know that we are going to be closing schools. The board — the majority of this board, who have now voted to open these schools on Monday, the superintendent and whomever — are going to take responsibility for what happens," she said.

Shamburger also asked for an updated opinion from each of the experts who spoke before the board earlier this month. Davis said he would provide it by Monday.

"I just want to be very clear about us moving forward against medical advice," Shamburger said.

Board member Lynn Gray, who was among those who voted with the majority for schools to reopen, said at the end of the meeting that Davis should consider expanding a planned COVID-19 dashboard aimed at informing parents and the community of cases in schools.

"I hate to even say it. There may be a death rate," Gray said.

Copyright 2020 WUSF Public Media - WUSF 89.7

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