State may order students back to classrooms in January

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South Florida Sun Sentinel | by Lisa J. Huriash | October 28, 2020

The state of Florida may force all students to return to school buildings in January, even as COVID-19 cases are increasing.

About 37% percent of students in Florida are attending school virtually this year, many because they fear they won’t be safe at school. The state is deciding whether they will continue to have that option after the current semester.

Gov. Ron DeSantis closed school buildings in March as the coronavirus pandemic grew, but he ordered districts to offer the option of in-person learning for the current school year. His order allowing at-home learning will expire Jan. 8.

DeSantis has pressed repeatedly to reopen Florida to normal life, insisting that bars and restaurants, schools, travel, tourist attractions, elder living facilities and even major events are safe if precautions are followed.

COVID-19 cases have been rising steadily, however, since DeSantis lifted restrictions on businesses in September. The state listed 4,115 new infections on Wednesday, the fourth time in seven days that Florida has reported at least 4,000 new cases.

Taryn Fenske, the spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Education, said a decision will be made within a few weeks about whether parents will retain the ability to keep their children at home after January, based on enrollment data from individual school districts.

“Because Florida has reopened, we are looking at what we can do in the spring, based on numbers,” Fenske said. She said more parents every week are choosing to send their children back to classrooms.

Students in the voluntary pre-kindergarten program, known as VPK, have already been told they must return to school buildings in January. But the end of at-home learning would be a dramatic change for tens of thousands of other students.

In Broward County, only 37,162 students have returned to buildings, meaning 83% of the district’s 212,509 students are still learning at home, said school district spokeswoman Nadine Drew.

About 58% of Palm Beach County’s 170,000 students are learning online, a number that is expected to decline slightly next week, a spokeswoman said.

Broward Teachers Union President Anna Fusco is concerned that it’s too soon for the state to send all students back to classrooms, given the risk of the coronavirus.

“They have to be committed. They have to keep giving parents and students the choice,” Fusco said. “We’re concerned. Kids let their masks down; they’ve got to eat lunch. We’re very concerned about our staff contracting COVID and passing it onto their families.”

Fusco noted that hundreds of COVID-19 cases have arisen in school districts across the state. “Every day there are numbers coming in,” most recently in Deerfield Beach, Hollywood and Plantation, she said.

Broward County schools have reported 149 cases of COVID-19 among staff and students, according to the district, which updates the tallies twice a week. Palm Beach County has seen 212 cases among students and staff, and Miami-Dade has recorded 276, according to the school district’s dashboard.

The American Academy of Pediatrics reported in September that about 10% of COVID-19 cases in the U.S. struck children, up from 2.2% in April.

If the state mandates a return to campus, school districts could face a loss of state funding if they don’t comply.

The Palm Beach County district does not expect to resist the order, a spokeswoman said.

“If for the second semester, the FDOE does not provide the same level of … funding for those students participating in distance learning, as compared to brick and mortar, then school districts may be unable to provide this additional choice to parents due to budgetary constraints,” spokeswoman Claudia Shea said in an email.

A spokeswoman for Broward Schools said she could not comment about plans to return, saying only that the governor’s order on at-home learning lasts through January.

The fate of state universities is also still unclear. Renee’ Fargason, spokeswoman for the State University System of Florida Board of Governors, said in a prepared statement: “The Florida Board of Governors is strongly encouraging the state universities to resume as many face-to-face courses and activities in spring as they can safely do within CDC guidelines.”