TAMPA, Fla. – The first week of school for Hillsborough County students started online, but Monday, about half of the school district’s students returned to brick-and-mortar classrooms. And just in time, the district set up a new online dashboard to help parents track COVID-19 cases.
About 100,000 students — roughly half of those enrolled — returned for the first time in nearly six months. Masks are required for everyone on school campuses, and water bottles must be brought from home because drinking fountains have been shut off.
Also, social distancing policies are being strictly enforced, according to Hillsborough County school officials.
One time when students will get a break from their masks will be for lunch, meaning cafeterias will be an area of particular focus for school administrators.
Monday morning, Superintendent Addison Davis announced a partnership between the school district and Tampa General Hospital to provide expedited testing for teachers and staff.
All Hillsborough students and teachers were able to familiarize themselves with online learning last week as the district began the school year from at a distance. It’s something everyone will need to be comfortable with just in case an exposure on campus ends up closing classrooms and students have to quarantine.
The school district said it invested $5 million in PPE, classroom cleaning supplies and hand sanitizer stations.
The first day of in-person lessons comes after a roller-coaster week following a lawsuit against the state. The Florida Education Association challenged the state’s executive order filed on July 6, which required all schools to reopen by the end of the month.
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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 Education Commissioner Richard 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.
A judge ruled the order is unconstitutional, lifted a stay of his earlier ruling that the order is unconstitutional — thus allowing school districts in Florida to stay closed without a penalty from the state.
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One day after the ruling, the majority of Hillsborough County School Board voted during an last-minute emergency hearing to stick with the current plan, which called for reopening schools Monday.
Previously, during a school board meeting on August 6, board members voted to have four weeks of online learning. However, after Corcoran told Hillsborough school officials they would lose funding if they did not reopen classrooms in August, Davis announced the county will follow the state’s mandate and reopen schools to students who want to return on August 31.
The lawsuit over the state’s reopening order is in the appeals process. The Hillsborough County School Board’s attorney said the case will likely end up in front of the state’s Supreme Court.
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Meanwhile, the district’s COVID-19 dashboard will show the total number of reported cases to Hillsborough County Public Schools since July 31, which is when teachers reported back to work.
The dashboard will be updated automatically every two hours from 7 a.m.through 7 p.m., seven days a week. Schools impacted by COVID-19 cases are listed,along with the number of employees and students.
LINK: The dashboard can be found at: https://hillsboroughschools.org/reopening/dashboard