TAMPA, Fla. - Hillsborough County schools will “make every effort” to socially distance students when they return to school, the superintendent says, though it’s still not certain exactly when that will be.
Superintendent Addison Davis admitted that there are still many details to be worked out – which is one of the reasons he is asking the school board to delay the start of the school year by two weeks – but his presentation Wednesday sought to reassure parents who are deciding whether to send their children back to campuses this fall amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
So far, Davis said, only 42% of the district’s parents have responded to the survey asking them to commit to either on-campus classes or virtual learning for the first half of the year; the deadline is Sunday.
Of those who responded so far, 56% selected classes at brick-and-mortar schools, while 44% have chosen online learning.
Speaking for just over an hour, Davis touched on several topics of the return-to-school plan. He outlined a partnership with Tampa General Hospital and USF Health, then proposed a COVID lead at each school, limiting campus visitors to those who give 24-hour notice, and requiring those guests to be screened before entry.
All students and staff will be required to wear face-coverings, with possible exceptions being lunch and snack times, plus recess and PE classes. Those with health and learning challenges would be granted exceptions.
If a student arrives at school without a mask, the school will provide a disposable one. The second time that happens, the school will contact parents. Should it happen a third time, the student will be sent home.
The district plans to maximize space as much as possible. Some classroom furniture will be removed to help create space, while common areas will be reconfigured to allow for open student movement. Drop-off and pick-up plans may also be changed.
Davis warned that these changes would need to be addressed on a school-by-school basis as each campus is different.
“In education, we are not built for social distancing,” he offered. “It is very complex and difficult to do, but we’ll make every effort.”
School cafeterias will be serving pre-packaged lunches only, with no sharing allowed. Students will no longer use keypads to enter their numbers. There will no water fountains available, so the schools will need to purchase bottled water for students.
Each classroom will have its own sanitation station. Custodians will receive extra training. Frequent touch-points will be cleaned throughout the day, with nightly school-wide deep cleaning. Schools will receive random inspections to make sure they are complying with new standards, and a rapid-response team will be on standby for schools where cases are detected.
RESPONDING TO CASES
Any students with suspected cases will be isolated, and the rest of the school will be made aware of likely cases. Contact-tracing will notify specific staff and students who were exposed.
Davis said the district was still deciding whether classrooms or entire schools would have to be closed in response to a known case, but he warned parents that they should be ready to pick up their students on very little notice.
The district will follow FHSAA guidelines, which includes a maximum of 40 athletes participating in an event at a time, along with social distancing.
“Locker rooms are not available and open at this time. We just cannot do it,” Davis added.
Social distancing on the busses is not possible, Davis said. "If we were going to social distance on the bus, we'd have to buy $190-million worth of busses," he said.
Students will be required to wear masks on busses, and the vehicles will be regularly cleaned. The district plans to refine routes in hopes of minimizing the number of kids onboard.
Meanwhile, Davis said a poll of the district's teachers and staff revealed 62% of them were comfortable returning to campus.
Following his presentation, several board members questioned how the district could practically reopen campuses given the increasing number of coronavirus cases and deaths in the county.
“We can’t control this in our own community. What makes you think we can control this in our schools?” Cindy Stuart asked.
Tamara Shamburger agreed that she was “open to any consequences” of ignoring the order from the state to reopen campuses.
But school board chair Melissa Snively pushed back against their calls for online-only leaning, in part citing her own kids’ poor transition to online classes in the spring.
"I have a contingent who I represent who are anxious to send their kids back to school,” she said. “We’re not forcing anybody to go back into a school if they do not choose to do so.”
Davis said the district would remain flexible as the pandemic continues to evolve.
“The best way to educate students is face to face,” he insisted. “But if we have to pivot, we will.”