Florida won’t change in-person, 5-day-a-week school order, education commissioner says

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Orlando Sentinel | by Leslie Postal | July 15, 2020

Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran said Wednesday that in-person instruction is best for kids, and he would not alter his order requiring public schools to give parents that choice when the new school year starts.

“They absolutely should have that option, and it will not come out of the emergency order,” Corcoran said, speaking at the State Board of Education meeting in Hillsborough County.

Corcoran said schools have “complete flexibility” to offer families online options, too, but must open “brick and mortar schools” for those who want or need their children back on campus.

“It’s the most efficacious way to get that child a world class education,” he said.

Corcoran’s July 6 order requires school districts to offer a five-day-a-week, traditional school option, unless state or local health departments say that isn’t safe. The order has provided the framework for school districts hashing out how to reopen next month as Florida experiences a rise in coronavirus cases. Most in Central Florida are looking at offering options for parents to send their children back to school, have them study online at home or do a combination.

But those decisions have been contentious, and the order has provoked a lot of anger from teachers, who argue it is not safe to reopen schools. They note the state shuttered campuses in March to stop the spread of the virus when there were far fewer cases than there are now.

The Orange County School Board on Tuesday heard from more than 100 speakers, most of them teachers who urged them not to open schools for in-person instruction next month. Some pushed them to defy the state’s order and approve only online options, though school leaders said that under the order doing that could mean Orange schools lose state education funding.

School board officials also expressed frustration with Dr. Raul Pino, health officer at the Florida Department of Health in Orange County, because they say he hasn’t given them guidance on whether reopening campuses is safe.

Pino has said the “difficult” decision of opening schools rests with the school board. “I don’t set policy,” he said last week.

The Orange board will vote on a reopening plan — at this point the proposals include in-person and online options — on Friday.

The Seminole County School Board approved its reopening plan Tuesday and will offer parents both on-campus and online choices. Dozens of Seminole teachers protested reopening during a car rally ahead of the meeting.

Seminole teachers protest state mandate
Jessica Kollas, the band director at South Seminole Academy, holds a sign as teachers parade in front of the Seminole County Public Schools headquarters in Sanford, Fla., Tuesday, July 14, 2020. SCPS teachers are protesting the decision by Gov. Ron DeSantis and the state education commissioner mandating that all public schools open in August despite the spike in coronavirus cases in Florida. (Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel) (Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel)

The Lake and Osceola county school districts have adopted similar plans that reopen campuses but give parents the option to have their children learn at home.

Michael Olenick, a member of the state board, on Wednesday urged Corcoran to rescind the five-day-a-week mandate, saying “that is what caused the confusion and that is what causes the fear.

The rest of the order “makes sense,” providing school districts guidance on academic options and funding given the unusual circumstances, he said.

“What needs to be rescinded is that aspect that all schools must open,” Olenick said, so that school leaders can make decisions that make sense in their county.

Olenick also said the order should have been presented to the board before it was issued.

No other member of the seven-member board supported his position, however, and his effort to alter the order failed.

Olenick, noting that the order was issued the same day President Donald Trump tweeted, “SCHOOLS MUST OPEN IN THE FALL!!!”, said the document had become political.

Corcoran said the timing was a coincidence. “I cannot control what or when the president tweets.”

Other board members said in-person instruction was best for students — a view most educators support — and praised the order for the “flexibility” it provides districts.

“All kids are harmed by not being in school,” said board member Tom Grady.

Board member Marva Johnson said some parents need schools to open so they can return to work. “There are families who absolutely need that option,” she said.

Gov. Ron DeSantis, the meeting’s first speaker, reiterated his belief that schools can open safely but also acknowledged that parents and educators are anxious about returning to campuses as coronavirus cases surge.

For that reason, the online options make sense, too, he said.

“I know folks are antsy,” DeSantis said.

“I think it’s important that parents have an ability to make a choice,” he said. “The last thing you want to do is just shove people back in, if they’re not comfortable.”

He also said that while he thought schools could open safely, he knew some employees were at “high risk” of illness if they contracted the virus and said school districts need to make “special accommodations” for them.

“I think it’s paramount there’s a safe environment for everybody,” he said. “I’m confident it can be done.”

Many teachers, however, fear opening campuses would not be safe given the prevalence of the virus and would put their health, or the health of their family members, at risk. They note that choices for parents might not translate into choices for employees, who could be assigned to in-person classes based on parent demand.

Teachers union leaders in 10 counties, including all of Central Florida’s, on Monday called the order “reckless” and “tone-deaf” and said there should be no statewide demand to open “without consideration of community spread.” The order it added, “could endanger the health and lives of students, parents, family members at home, educators, and the community at large.”

But DeSantis, the father of three young children, said children are at low risk of getting ill and young children are not significant spreaders of the virus. He noted that Florida daycare centers have remained open and have not seen outbreaks.

“We do have data to go on. We can say , fortunately, our school children are at low risk,” he added.