TAMPA, Fla. - Faced with a cautious panel of top local doctors, the Hillsborough County School Board struck a compromise of sorts Thursday, voting to delay the opening of public school campuses by four weeks.
School will still resume on August 24, but all students will start with online classes. Assuming the county’s COVID-19 numbers continue to drop, on-campus classes could resume four weeks after that.
Like the community, the board was evenly split. Several members wanted to press forward with Superintendent Addison Davis’ plan to reopen campuses right away, but others pushed for a full nine weeks of online-only learning.
Ultimately, the board voted 5-2 to delay the state-approved plan by at least four weeks. They’ll reconvene September 8 to discuss any further delays.
“Me and my team will work immediately to try and phase this in,” Superintendent Davis offered after the vote.
The vote followed an hours-long meeting in which some of the county’s leading doctors and public health experts told the board that the county’s COVID-19 cases are still in “sustained uncontrolled transmission” and a return to school would be premature.
As of Wednesday, the county’s positivity rate for new coronavirus tests was at 6.8%, the lowest number in two weeks and trending down. But Dr. Charles
Lockwood, dean of USF Health, said the rate should be at a sustained 5% before opening, and “ideally” at 3% or below.
Board member Tamara Shamburger directly asked the doctors whether schools should be reopened for on-campus learning. Of those who answered, five said that with the current rate of transmission in the county, they would recommend only e-learning to start the year.
A sixth doctor said he agreed with them as of today, but suggested that by August 24, his opinion could change.
Parents had already been asked to choose between e-learning, virtual school, and on-campus classes for their students this fall. The superintendent said 42% had chosen on-campus classes, 42% had chosen an online option, and 16% did not respond.
The board says 20 to 30 percent of the county’s students do not have reliable internet access. In the spring, the district partnered with Spectrum to provide free wifi for those families; it wasn’t clear if that arrangement would again be available.
Status of Bay Area school districts:
Hillsborough: Start of school delayed by two weeks until August 24; will start online only
Pinellas: Start of school delayed by two weeks until August 24.
Polk: Start of school delayed by two weeks until August 24.
Sarasota: Start of school delayed until August 31..
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.