LARGO — Any hopes parents may have had about the development of a virtual-only learning model to start the school year were dashed Aug. 11 when Pinellas County School Board officials failed to join Hillsborough County in its bid to delay in-person classes.
School Board members met for roughly five hours to discuss in detail the district's efforts to mitigate COVID-19 within classrooms when school starts Aug. 24.
Within the last hour of that meeting, discussion moved to the decision by the Hillsborough County School Board to move learning to an online-only platform for the first four weeks of the school year.
In July, Florida Department of Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran issued an emergency order explicitly stating that when school were to reopen, districts must provide a brick-and-mortar option five days a week. If they didn't open schools, their funding from the state would be in jeopardy.
Hillsborough school officials have said the decision to move to the virtual platform was based on the advice of local health authorities.
Corcoran has since rejected Hillsborough County's plan, urging school officials to "follow the law."
There are currently two lawsuits against the FDOE seeking to overturn the brick-and-mortar mandate.
Pinellas County School Board attorney David Koperski told officials that while he felt Corcoran did overstep his authority when it comes to the direction of local school boards, he felt any challenge to the order would be fruitless.
"There are obviously arguments about what authority he (Corcoran) has to direct school boards to do certain things," Koperski said. "It's my position that he doesn't have much direction on the day-to-day running of public schools, if any. That's constitutionally reserved for the school boards."
Despite that, Koperski said an approved reopening plan will secure state funding for the district.
Deputy Superintendent William Corbett explained to board members the financial deficit the district would face without state funding would be disastrous for students and teachers.
According to Corbett, the district could face losing $167.2 million a year should it not provide a brick-and-mortar option for students.
"If we did not have the approved plan, we would not have that money," Corbett said.
He further explained that the lack of those funds would affect teachers the most.
"We spend about 85% of our operating budget on salaries," Corbett said. "That equates to 2,133 teachers. Clearly, we can't layoff 2,100 teachers, I'm not suggesting that. That's just what it would equate to."
That reality was simply not something the district should risk, Koperski said.
"At this point and time, we do not have any guidance from the court about the emergency order, and we certainly know what the response of the Department of Education is," he said. "As you've seen what happens across the Bay, if you don't take advantage of it (an approved plan) at this point, the DOE is saying 'we aren't bluffing.'"
But not all School Board members were on board with the district's reopening plan.
"I appreciate your thorough explanation, Mr. Koperski," Board member Nicole Carr said. "You have made it very clear where wiggle room does and doesn't exist.
"I don't think we are there yet, in terms of safety for students, particularly in the secondary level," she continued. "I think we still have work to do. I'm losing sleep, we're all getting emails, and ultimately it's up to the six of us."
Carr also said she was worried about the effect reopening may have on local communities.
"Yes, we are responsible for taking care of our students and our staff, but we're also responsible to this community," she said.
The School Board will have its next meeting Tuesday, Aug. 25.