Classrooms will be empty for the first week of the school year, after which parents who want their children to learn in-person can send their kids to brick-and-mortar school.

School in Hillsborough County is starting on Monday, August 24, but instead of being online the first four weeks as voted on by the Hillsborough School Board and based on recommendations from local health experts, those wanting to send their children back to in-person classes can do so beginning Aug. 31.

Superintendent Addison Davis made the announcement Thursday in an email to parents.

To meet the state’s emergency order for all schools to open on August 31, Hillsborough County Public Schools will now begin eLearning for all students on August 24 and transition to brick and mortar a week later for those students whose parents want to come back on August 31,” the email said.

The district’s decision to start the school year online the first four weeks was rejected by Florida Department of Education (FLDOE) Commissioner Richard Corcoran, and the threat of losing more than $20 million in funding forced Davis to put a new plan — the first week online is being called the “The Smart Start Week” — into place to meet the state’s Aug. 31 deadline.

Those who chose eLearning can continue to have their kids learning online.

Davis said the district is spending $7-9 million on PPE to ensure the safety of students and teachers. He said schools would try to make social distancing work. “It is going to be hard to do,” he said, “but we’ll do it.”

Superintendent Addison Davis

Asked about a possible outbreak and how the district would react, as Florida’s Covid-19 numbers remain high — more than 6,500 positive tests and a 9.52 positive percentage in the latest numbers — Davis said unless it was a statewide decision by Governor Ron DeSantis, schools would be treated individually depending on the significance and spread of any outbreak.

“We will not be closing everything down,” he said.

Parents were given three choices back in July — to send their kids back to brick-and-mortar schools, keep them home for structured eLearning (that follows the typical daily bell schedule), or have them learn on their own schedules via virtual school.

Countywide, 49 percent of parents preferred the brick-and-mortar option for their children, compared to 42.7 percent for eLearning.

However, eLearning is the most popular choice of parents with kids going to New Tampa schools, according to results from Hillsborough County Public Schools.

Of the 9,322 declaration surveys returned from New Tampa, 5,080, or 52.3 percent, chose eLearning, or distance learning.

Roughly 39 percent, or 3,834, chose the brick-and-mortar option, with 759 parents (about 8 percent) selecting virtual school.

Pride Elementary had the highest rate of parents choosing eLearning — 66.8 percent.

In fact, elementary schools where, ironically, children are said to be the least affected by the virus, led the way when it came to parents choosing to keep their kids home — Clark Elementary (61 percent choosing eLearning) was second, and Tampa Palms Elementary (59.6) was third.

Freedom was the only New Tampa school where parents favored in-school to distance-learning, by a 46-41 percent margins. At Wharton, 695 parents chose eLearning, while 679 favored a return to the classroom.

* * * *

On Aug. 6, the Hillsborough School Board voted 5-2 to open the school year with eLearning for the first four weeks. The Board planned to meet again on Sept. 8 to see what the Covid-19 numbers were looking like.

And yes, the Board had already voted two weeks prior to approve Davis’ reopening plan, which offered the three choices for parents. But, it did so almost begrudgingly, due to a July 31 state-mandated deadline and concerns that it didn’t have enough medical data.

On Aug. 6, the Board brought in experts to help with that decision.

After listening to more than 50 mostly-impassioned public comments, a panel of medical experts from the USF Department of Health, the Moffitt Cancer Center and Tampa General Hospital and faced questions from the Board, with the most important one coming from District 5 School Board member Tamara Shamburger: 

“Yes or no?,” she asked, cutting to the chase. “Should our schools be reopened?”

One by one, the medical officials said no — with most citing the current community spread of the virus and the county’s already high positivity test rate. While five percent is considered safe, the county’s positive Covid test rate was nearly double that at the time.

Based on that medical advice, Shamburger and District 6 member Karen Perez pushed to open the school year with eLearning — originally for the first nine weeks — and when the vote was taken, everyone on the Board agreed to online-only for four weeks, with the exception of chairperson Melissa Snively and Cindy Stuart (who represents District 3, which includes all of New Tampa’s public schools).

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis expressed his displeasure at the county’s decision. Corcoran wrote a letter to Superintendent Davis, saying Hillsborough County couldn’t do eLearning for four weeks, because it went against his decree that parents must be given a choice of returning to school.

Meanwhile, Miami-Dade and Broward counties are among the districts being allowed to open online, because they are still in Phase One of DeSantis’ re-opening plan.

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