TAMPA, Fla. - After a months-long saga, school district officials made it official for classrooms to open to students on Monday.
During a Friday emergency meeting, Hillsborough County Superintendent Addison Davis recommended for the school district to backtrack on their August 6 vote to have online learning for four full weeks, to reopen brick-and-mortar schools on August 31.
"It's time for us to stand together and continue to offer opportunities for every learner in this community," he said during the meeting. "This decision is truly difficult to make. It's weighed on our hearts and your hearts for many months."
The majority of the school board agreed, voting 5-2 in favor of reopening the physical classrooms.
No medical experts gave in-person testimony during Friday's meeting. However, during the discussion on the superintendent's recommendation, board member Cindy Stuart opened by relaying an email from Dr. Douglas Holt with the Florida Department of Health, which said he is more confident that reopening schools is safe based on the recent trends.
On August 6, however, during the school board's special meeting, he refused to give any recommendations.
Board members Tamara Shamburger and Karen Perez questioned why Dr. Holt gave a recommendation Friday, and didn't earlier this month. He was the only one on the medical panel who declined to say if schools should reopen during the August 6th meeting.
Superintendent Davis said he didn't have answer, but said, "we do have new information. I created the ask and he provided the response." Davis added that having cases below the 5% positive test rate was just a recommendation, and not a nationwide threshold.
"The data has changed and I focus on the data," said Dr. Stacy Hahn, a school board member. "We are not below 5% but they said that is the sweet spot. Dr. Holt chiming in, providing his expert opinion, provides some weight to this conversation. Here I am today, making another decision and certainly using that data
The Leon County judge lifted a stay of his earlier ruling that a state order requiring schools to reopen in August is unconstitutional -- thus allowing school districts in Florida to stay closed without a penalty from the state, but some parents told FOX 13 they fear that could spell more changes.
The back-and-forth between the state and teachers began during the summer. The largest teacher's union, the Florida Education Association, filed a lawsuit against Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran's emergency order, filed on July 6.
The union alleged that the order requiring brick-and-mortar schools to reopen five days a week in August violates the state Constitution’s guarantee of “safe” and “secure” public education. Schools risk losing funding if they don’t comply with Corcoran’s order, which teachers’ attorneys called “financial bullying.”
But lawyers representing Gov. Ron DeSantis, Corcoran and state education officials, who were defendants in the case, maintain that the Constitution also requires the state to provide “high-quality education” to Florida schoolchildren.
On August 6, Hillsborough County school district consulted seven doctors during a special meeting on whether to reopen.
School board members asked each of the doctors if they believed it was safe to reopen classrooms. Five of the seven doctors said it was not safe at the time. One physician said it was not safe that day but it might be in a few weeks. The seventh doctor, who serves as the director of the local health department, refused to give an opinion.
Based on the doctors’ responses, the school board decided to delay the first day of in-person instruction from Aug. 24 to Sept 14. Distance learning was still slated to begin on Aug. 24.
However, after Corcoran told Hillsborough school officials they would lose funding if they did not reopen classrooms in August, Superintendent Addison Davis announced the county will follow the state’s mandate and reopen schools to students who want to return on August 31.
On Thursday, another wrench was thrown into the saga when Judge Charles Dodson lifted a stay of his earlier ruling that a state order requiring schools to reopen in August is unconstitutional.
Right after the ruling came down, Hillsborough school officials called for a last-minute emergency meeting for Friday morning to formally vote on whether or not to reopen classrooms Monday.
School board member Lynn Gray said decisions change based on the virus, and asks parents to exercise patience.
"The decision we made four weeks ago and the decision we made today, you can see how things change," she said. "I ask the parents to be patient. As the virus changes, we as board members, we have to alter our statements accordingly…please be patient with the board members. We are doing our best to help do the best for all welfare of our children."
The emergency meeting began at 8 a.m., which can be viewed here.
Davis said with schools reopening Monday, he wants teachers and staff to reach out to the school district with any concerns or ideas.
"I would tell teachers thank you so very much for their willingness to do great things…we're going to be here along the way," he said, adding he promised to "flood" schools with PPE.
"You will see me in schools."
Help from the community will be key in keeping schools open for in-person classes, said Dr. Hahn.
"We will need our community's help in keeping them open…so we don't have schools opening and closing, opening and closing," she said during Friday's meeting. "So. those individuals who are choosing brick and mortar, we will have to make decisions that impact your family's decisions. That is a consequence of where we are right now in the world."