BOCA RATON – To go or not to go? Parents across Florida are days from the grueling decision whether it’s safe to send their children during the pandemic back to school for face-to-face classes. Some schools planned to reopen as early as this week.
Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis has mirrored President Donald Trump’s urgent calls to reopen schools, even as the state surged past 510,000 virus cases last week and one of Florida’s largest teachers’ unions sued in state circuit court in Tallahassee to allow districts to conduct virtual classes or further delay reopenings. “School safety is a critical public health and constitutional imperative,” the lawsuit said.
Meanwhile, the governor stressed the importance of public school sports returning, saying at a press conference in Jacksonville last week that extracurricular activities were critical to teach discipline and earn college scholarships.
Arguments about reopening schools were colored by politics in a fierce election year in Florida, a battleground state that may determine the next U.S. president. Republicans worry about the optics of the president managing the pandemic and the economic consequences of a drawn-out shutdown.
Parents worried about the safety of their children – and anyone else in their homes who kids might infect – as well as how they can manage to work themselves if students must remain home.
Michael Patrick, 39, of Fernandina Beach north of Jacksonville, said he and his wife decided to keep their two daughters at home from high school for at least the first quarter of the school year. Nassau County was offering an online option.
“I don’t think they should open brick-and-mortar at all,” Patrick said. “There’s just no way to do social-distancing at schools right now.”
Patrick’s daughters weren’t happy with the idea of staying home. They miss their classmates.
“I have to put my foot down,” he said.
Florida’s education commissioner, Richard Corcoran, ordered all schools to offer in-person learning at least in some capacity this fall, although some districts – such as in Hillsborough County, which includes Tampa – were planning only for remote classes starting Aug. 24, at least initially.
Corcoran wrote late Friday in a letter that he had grave concerns and said Hillsborough’s decision was “harmful for students who are experiencing violence, abuse and food insecurity in their homes going unnoticed.”
Many districts across Florida already delayed the start of classes until late August. Miami-Dade delayed Day 1 until the end of the month and said in-person classes might resume in early October.
Richard Ocampo, 37, a social studies teacher at William H. Turner Technical Arts High there, lobbied earlier in the summer to keep students outside classrooms to keep them safe. He said teachers will need to stay on top of assignments and deadlines to hold students accountable.
“We think we can catch up and recover a child’s academics,” Ocampo said.
Broward County online-only classes resume Aug. 19 with no immediate plans to resume face-to-face classes until the spread of the pandemic slows.
The principal of Falcon Cove Middle School in Weston, Steven Carruth, said Broward’s decision buys educators more time to prepare for in-person classes later when it’s safe. His own school doesn’t have enough hand-sanitizer dispensers or protective acrylic glass for offices to be safe, he said.
“There’s a lot of dissension,” Carruth said. “There are some narratives out there that are kind of dangerous. I hope we move past that and start working towards solutions. People are trying to do the right thing in a very scary and uncertain situation.”
Classes in Orange County, which includes Orlando, were starting Monday with in-person classes – with face masks required for students and teachers – plus remote options with lessons online.
Palm Beach County planned to reopen with online classes at the end of the month.
“I have sat with children who came into school the day after they lost a parent and there is no learning to be done,” said Andrea Teal Pfeifer, 37, an English teacher at Santaluces High in Lantana in the district. “People around these kids are hospitalized, or on ventilators, or already dead.”
Pfeifer, who has two children, said she was worried about the health of her daughters and her own health: “People want to have a highly functioning society,” she said. “Here’s a thought: Don’t put their caregivers’ lives at risk.”
Smaller districts in Florida were reopening, too: Baker County, west of Jacksonville, was opening Monday with in-person classes and no option to learn from home. The county has recorded just over 500 cases. The superintendent there, Sherrie Raulerson, said she reached the decision “after much prayer, consideration, and consultation with stakeholders.” Students won’t be required to wear masks. Trump won the 2016 election there with 81 percent of the vote.
Dixie County, west of Gainesville on the Gulf Coast, also was reopening Monday with in-person classes at its four schools. Students also won’t be required to wear masks. It reported fewer than 400 cases countywide. Trump won 80 percent of the vote there in 2016.
In Alachua County, home to the University of Florida, parent Amber Crossman, 38, said there wasn’t enough information to determine whether in-person classes might reopen safely. Alachua said it will offer online and face-to-face classes – “with extensive health and safety precautions” – when students start Aug. 24. The county has reported roughly 4,000 cases there.
“Several months into the pandemic and it seems like the school district doesn’t have a solid policy in place regarding contact tracing, notification and making sure the public is aware of what’s going on,” Crossman said.
Eva Ruiz and Susan Patti, both educators in southwest Florida, are founders of Lee Educators for Safe Schools, a Fort Myers-based organization intended to raise awareness about health and safety issues. They noted the lack of funding for safety measures like sanitizer dispensers and cleaning machines.
“We want to go back brick-and-mortar when it’s safe,” Patti said. “Numbers right now don’t indicate that you can be back safely.”
This story was produced by Fresh Take Florida, a news service of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. The reporter can be reached at email@example.com