Hillsborough school board votes to delay start of school year

Students in Hillsborough County will indeed return to school later than planned thanks to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, but it's still not certain what form those classes will take.

The school board voted unanimously Thursday to endorse a request by Superintendent Addison Davis to move the start of school from August 10 to August 24. The delay gives schools two more weeks to tailor their individual COVID-19 response plans in anticipation of meeting the state’s order to reopen on-campus classes this fall.

The board also voted to approve the superintendent's plan for resuming on-campus classes, but they will reconvene before school begins to study the county's COVID-19 numbers and decide then whether to press forward with opening campuses or switch to an online-only model for everyone.

Parents have already had to decide whether to send their kids back to a brick-and-mortar school or go with a form of virtual learning. The district says only 67% of the county's families have responded; of those, 49% chose on-campus classes. Meanwhile 58% of teachers said they would choose to teach in-person; 22% remain undecided.

Last week, Davis outlined his vision for what return-to-school will look like -- a plan that included masks for everyone and rapid-response teams for outbreaks. But he acknowledged that social distancing was difficult to impossible in some situations, and warned that many details still needed to be worked out, which is one reason for the delay.

Thursday’s votes came after a lengthy public comment session in which most speakers opposed reopening campuses. Some parents wondered whether the extra two weeks would make much of a difference overall.

"The concerns are that they are going to spread this virus more in our community. The concerns are that they are going to bring this virus to people who are vulnerable, including their teachers and staff and administrators,” said Mary Anderson of the group Safe Schools, Safe Community.

Florida’s teachers association sued Monday to block what they call the “reckless and unsafe reopening” of public school campuses for face-to-face instruction.

But despite warnings from some experts, Gov. Ron DeSantis claims students are the least likely to catch and transmit the virus, while the move to online classes this spring penalized them disproportionality.

“Florida did better than most states with distance learning, but let’s be honest, it’s a far cry from in-person instruction and it places a tremendous burden on working parents,” DeSantis said Wednesday.

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The governor reiterated his desire that schools offer both online and on-campus options this fall, and he endorsed minor delays such as the one approved by Hillsborough County and other local districts.

“If a school district needs to delay the start of the school year for a few weeks so everything will be in good shape, have at it,” DeSantis said.

To meet state requirements, the plan outlined by Davis would end the first semester on January 15 rather than before winter break, but it keeps most of the early release days intact, along with the hurricane contingency days.

Two non-student days in 2021, March 22 and April 19, would be turned back into normal school days.

Status of Bay Area school districts:

Hillsborough: Start of school delayed by two weeks until August 24.

Pinellas: Superintendent Mike Grego recommended school year start August 24. The school board will vote next week.

Polk: Start of school delayed by two weeks until August 24.

Sarasota: Board voted to delay start of school to August 31, but still need approval from the state.

Manatee: Start of school delayed one week until Aug. 17.

Pasco: Start of school delayed until August 24.

Hernando: Start of school delayed until August 31.

Citrus: Start of school delayed until August 24.

Hardee: No change; school starts August 10.

Highlands: No change; school starts August 11.

DeSoto: No change; school starts August 10.