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Coronavirus Evening Update: DeSantis Undecided On Return To School


Florida saw its biggest daily increase in deaths Thursday after the Department of Health reported 48 more deaths overnight, bringing Florida's death toll to 371, according to the latest numbers from the COVID Tracking Project. In other numbers, cases of coronavirus amongst inmates at a Northwest Florida prison have soared to 30, and Gov. Ron DeSantis reported in his Thursday briefing that there was a net reduction of 104 hospitalizations statewide.

DeSantis said Friday is the last day FEMA will run remote testing sites in Jacksonville, Orlando and Miami. The state will take over operations and support for the three sites. Under new state guidelines, DeSantis said he plans to expand the testing criteria for the drive-thru locations at TIAA Bank Field, Orange County Convention Center and Hard Rock Stadium, respectively.

However, NPR reported late Thursday that in a reversal, the Department of Health and Human Services had decided to extend its support deadline for their testing sites across the country, and will allow local authorities to choose whether they want to operate the sites themselves or continue with the federal oversight.

DeSantis is expected to speak further about testing sites at noon Friday in Jacksonville.

The governor used Thursday’s press conference to highlight education, and said Vice President Mike Pence praised the state for “leading the way in distance learning.”

Florida Virtual School will offer 100 courses online for free that are available to the public. By May 4, they hope to have 2.7 million students registered.

The Florida Department of Education purchased over 32,000 laptops for smaller and rural counties. Commissioner Richard Corcoran said the department is also trying to reduce the number of students without internet or technology access from 15% to 1% statewide by providing portable hotspots.

Khanh-Lien Banko, an Alachua County Public Schools PTA board member and mother of four, was part of a panel discussing the transition to virtual learning.

“With my school district, I don’t feel alone,” Banko told DeSantis. “I still have partnership and engagement with the school, everyone’s been trying to meet the needs of the kids.”

Corcoran said the state will provide virtual access to guidance counselors and social workers to make sure the students’ mental health needs are met so they can continue to focus on education.

DeSantis said he's unsure whether the state would consider reopening schools before they close for the summer.

If we get to the point where people think we’re on the other side of this, then we think there’d be value in going back to school," he said. "But only if it’s safe." 

Florida education officials called for each district to close its school doors and move classes online until May 1, but DeSantis said Thursday it's possible each county might return to school at different times.

"There is nothing wrong with that. If the problem is different in certain parts of the state, we should recognize that," DeSantis said.

DeSantis said that he'd look at data and evidence before making a decision to reopen schools and take into consideration the risk posed to students.

The novel coronavirus is also spreading within prisons including Blackwater River Correctional Facility in Santa Rosa County in the Panhandle where inmate cases rose from four on Wednesday to 30 on Thursday. Five employees have also tested positive.

The University of Florida confirmed one new case today: a facility and building services employee for Smathers Library and Library West. This brings the total of positive cases at UF up to 33.

Here are the latest COVID-19 updates by the Florida Department of Health, as of Thursday evening:

  • 16,826 total cases in Florida
  • 2,298 hospitalizations in Florida
  • 371 deaths in Florida

Alachua County:

  • 154 total cases
  • 21 hospitalizations
  • Zero deaths

Find the full FDOH coronavirus dashboard here.

Kristen is a web editor and reporter for WUFT News. She can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing kaltus@ufl.edu. Follow her on social media @kristenaltus.