As state officials force in-person public school classes to begin by August 31 in Hillsborough County, teachers, parents and education activists fear that schools are woefully unprepared to deal with COVID-19.
It’s been weighing on Kathy Hockman’s mind all summer; she instructs a variety of science courses at Middleton High School in Tampa and has been a teacher for 30 years.
“I’ve never felt so much like walking away, and I’ve worked at some tough schools,” Hockman tells Creative Loafing Tampa Bay. “My granddaughter is immunocompromised. We’ve been doing everything we can to protect her, and this is so frustrating because it puts her at risk.”
Hockman is scheduled to teach through eLearning due to her family situation and a personal disability, but still received an email from her school saying that she might have to teach in-person classes. If that is demanded of her, she is considering walking away from her career.
Teachers like Hockman and their advocates are wondering why and how the state could force this situation upon them when the Hillsborough County School Board voted to host eLearning classes only for the first four weeks of school.
On August 13, that decision was challenged by Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran, with Gov. Ron DeSantis giving the decision his support. The state threatened to remove $23 million in funding in one month if schools refused to reopen for in-person classes. Hillsborough Schools Superintendent Addison Davis announced the decision with a positive spin in an August 13 press conference, calling the one week of eLearning beginning on August 24 the “start smart week”.
Schools are scheduled to open for families who sign up to return on August 31, which is estimated to be about 50% of students. This reopening is set to occur in a COVID-19 hotspot county, with over 33,000 confirmed cases and at least 458 deaths. Since March, 329 cases of COVID-19 have been reported at Hillsborough schools. On August 16, Florida recorded its deadliest week yet, despite reported infections being the lowest since June.
“The superintendent does not have a plan for a safe reopening of schools during COVID, yet he wants to pretend like everything is going to be OK,” Bianca Goolsby, a former Hillsborough school teacher, tells CL. “But, in reality, it’s not going to work. We have several schools where sanitation stations don’t exist, there’s not enough PPE equipment, and social distancing is impossible.”
The district has a 50-page state-approved plan for reopening that's been available for weeks; critics say that the plan and its execution are not safe.
Goolsby left her teaching career in 2019 because of unsafe conditions in her school that she claims were being ignored by the district. She founded Teaching For The Culture, an LLC that advocates for students and teachers.
Because educators are worried about losing their jobs for speaking out about their conditions, Goolsby created the forum, “Safe Space for Hillsborough County Educators”, where teachers can anonymously whistleblow on anything from lack of air conditioning in schools to sanitation problems and positive COVID-19 cases. She also hosts a show called “Morning Tea and Allegations”, where she highlights discrepancies and injustices within the local school system.
The uncertainty of what to expect when returning to school worries Valerie Chuchman, a Chemistry teacher at Riverview High School.
“Protocols for when students are on campus have either not been established or shared with staff. Class sizes won't be reduced," Chuchman tells CL. "We keep waiting for some direction, but all we hear is that information is coming soon. Time is running out."
Damaris Allen, former president of Hillsborough County Council PTA, points out that testing and contact tracing may be another issue with reopening safely.
“There’s not a lot of clarity around how available rapid testing will be and how they’re going to handle contact tracing of those who test positive,” Allen tells CL. “I feel like on every level some of our leadership assumed it [COVID-19] would be gone by now, so it seems like they hoped for the best instead of preparing for the worst.”
Another issue with tracking COVID-19 in schools is that younger people are often asymptomatic, and spread the virus without knowing it. Despite this knowledge, an attorney is suing Hillsborough County Schools on behalf of parents in an attempt to remove a mandatory mask rule for students.
Scott Hottenstein, teacher and candidate for Florida State Representative District 57, believes that the state’s decision to overrule the school board may be illegal.
“I teach Civics, so this type of situation is what I educate our kids about,” Hottenstein tells CL. “I don’t understand how the state and the superintendent can override the decision of the school board, the statutory authority for opening the schools lies with the board.”
The Florida Education Association (FEA) opened a lawsuit against the state over this alleged illegal decision by the state, which they say violates the Florida Constitution and Florida Statute 1001.42. On August 14, a Leon County circuit judge refused the state’s motion to remove the FEA’s lawsuit, suggesting that a compromise should be made between the state and the county. A ruling is expected next week.
Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran and Superintendent Addison Davis’ offices did not respond to CL’s requests for comment on the legality of the decision and details of the reopening plan (CL reached out to Davis directly via email, once, on Sun. August 16).
In an August 13 press conference discussing reopening, Davis said that the reason proper amounts of PPE and sanitation gear are not at schools yet is because the county wasn’t sure when schools would reopen. In the same press conference, Hillsborough County Schools' Safety and Risk Management Corries Culpepper says there are warehouses full of PPE, but added that the reason they had yet to ship was because sometimes the supplies "somehow get leg and walk."
In the time between when this story was edited and published, Hillsborough Schools posted a video of some of the PPE being delivered as well as clips of a school principal putting up social distancing and sanitation signs.
In an email to CL sent after this story was published, Erin Maloney, Department Manager for Media Outreach at Hillsborough County Public Schools said that so far, the district has distributed, 1,134,790 masks, 689,060 gloves, 31,515 hand sanitizers, and 481 thermometers.
"We have consistently been available to the press to talk about our PPE supplies, which we have spent over $2 million on so far," Maloney wrote. She anticipates that the district will spend $6 million per month and additional PPE and safety measures.
" ...we ordered so much soap that at one point it could not even fit in our warehouse," Malone added. "We delivered a first round of PPE supplies to schools the week teachers returned to class, and have been continually sending them ever since."
"It is irresponsible that your reporter misinformed your readers with inaccurate information. He did not take the time to contact the district or do any research on the vast amount of preparations we have taken for the safety of our students, staff and families," Maloney wrote. "Your reporter also misquoted Superintendent Davis saying that our district did not distribute PPE to schools.”
Teachers worry that speaking up about these issues publicly might risk their career, but they prefer that their voice be heard, rather than be left out of the decision making process. Teacher Ryan Haczynski created the website “Teacher Voice”, a blog and podcast that advocates for educators in Hillsborough County and across Florida.
“I think the biggest thing that myself and other teachers are worried about is the utter disconnect between what is being said by the officials and the actual experience of teachers in our schools,” Haczynski tells CL. “The superintendent says teachers are going to have PPE, but it seems like they’re going to give us a mask and pack of wipes and say, ‘Good luck!’.”
Since he teaches a specialized class called “Theory of Knowledge”, Haczynski was told that if even one student requests an in-person class, he will have to report to school on August 31. He is ready to take a leave of absence if this happens.
In Georgia, public schools reopened at the beginning of August. A student shared photos of packed hallways in her school, and was later suspended. Her school closed two days after opening due to an outbreak of COVID-19 cases. On August 13, Georgia reported 136 deaths, the state’s highest daily total.
When Hillsborough County teachers see scenarios like this unfold in other states, it becomes apparent that they are facing a situation of life and death.
“The decision completely disregards the advice of medical experts who told the school board not to open schools with current [COVID-19] rates as they are,” Haczynski says. “When hospitals in our county are filling up with patients and the state is still trying to force schools to open, that’s a real problem.”
UPDATED: 08/22/20 9:35 a.m. Updated to include comments from Erin Maloney, the Department Manager for Media Outreach at Hillsborough County schools, add dates to press conferences cited in the story, as well as add a presser quote from Hillsborough County Schools' Safety and Risk Management Corries Culpepper. In an email to CL, Maloney wrote: “Our district has a comprehensive reopening plan, approved by the state, that takes all aspects of safety for our students and staff into consideration. It is irresponsible that your reporter misinformed your readers with inaccurate information. He did not take the time to contact the district or do any research on the vast amount of preparations we have taken for the safety of our students, staff and families. Your reporter also misquoted Superintendent Davis saying that our district did not distribute PPE to schools.”
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