DeSantis praises charter school as Hillsborough delays public school openings

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The state’s other 66 districts managed to offer families a choice, the governor and education commissioner said.

Tampa Bay Times | by Marlene Sokol and Jeffrey S. Solocheck | August 10, 2020

RIVERVIEW — With the Hillsborough County School District locked in a battle with the state over how soon it must open schools to students, top state leaders toured a Riverview charter school and praised it for offering families that choice.

“Here in the state of Florida, we really believe in empowering parents,” Gov. Ron DeSantis said, speaking at Winthrop College Prep Academy, which he commended for its innovative methods in blending in-person and remote instruction.

“I think what Winthrop is doing really shows a great path forward, and I commend you for what you’re doing,” he said.

With teachers unions challenging state leaders in two court cases, Monday’s live-streamed session was a chance to strike back in what has emerged as the state’s school reopening battleground.

DeSantis and Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran noted that 66 out of 67 districts were able to come up with plans that met their communities’ diverse needs. Hillsborough submitted a plan as well, which called for both in-person and virtual instruction.

But on Thursday, after hearing from a panel of medical experts, the Hillsborough School Board reversed its vote from two weeks earlier and decided all school will be virtual until September at the earliest.

Corcoran responded Friday with a letter, demanding that Hillsborough either stick with its original plan or indicate, in writing, how it will serve those families who need in-person school.

On Monday, both men reiterated statements they have made before to support their position.

DeSantis made the case that the coronavirus spread is abating and children face a relatively low risk of becoming seriously ill, should they contract the virus. He said that, for children, COVID-19 is less dangerous than the seasonal flu. And he rejected comparisons to harder-hit parts of the state. “Do not say that they are in the same boat as what is happening in South Florida,” he said, visibly impatient. “The facts do matter on this.”

Corcoran, for his part, pushed back against the idea that he is stifling local school districts’ decision making. “We gave them complete flexibility,” he said. He argued that the risks children face when they are not in school are, perhaps, worse than the risk from catching COVID. And Corcoran asserted that “most teachers want to come back, most students want to come back.”

That last part, like so many other issues surrounding COVID-19, is a matter of debate. Teachers’ unions say most of their members fear a return to school before the coronavirus is under control.

Monday’s event was organized at one of a half-dozen Hillsborough schools that are managed by Charter Schools USA, a Fort Lauderdale-based business whose majority owner, Jon Hage, was a member of DeSantis’s Re-Open Florida Task Force.

Appearing in the roundtable discussion along with several teachers and parents, Hage said, “we think we can do this and we know we can do this safely… We believe we can be an example for doing this appropriately and putting kids first.”

School leaders said they will check students’ temperatures as they arrive, and students will have the opportunity to move seamlessly from in-person to remote instruction as preferences and circumstances change. Video technology, using a 360-degree camera, will make it possible for the lesson to reach students in school and at home, simultaneously.

Local public school districts, however, have elected not to subject students to temperature checks. School leaders say those checks are not practical because most children who have COVID-19, are asymptomatic; and clustering them together for their temperature checks poses its own risk of contagion.

School districts are also not allowing students to move freely between the in-person and virtual models. Instead, to avoid an overly complex staffing situation, they are asking families to commit for a quarter or a semester.

District leaders on Monday said they were still contemplating how they will respond to Corcoran’s new demand letter.

At stake are tens of millions of dollars, should the state agency decide not to grant waivers of funding guidelines during the hours students spend at home.

But Jim Porter said he feels confident that the School Board had the legal right to keep school buildings closed four more weeks.

“I’m comfortable with our legal position, because we relied on input from the local health department and other local medical professionals,” he said.

Photo: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during a roundtable discussion Monday at Winthrop College Prep Academy in Riverview. [DIRK SHADD | Times]