Gov. DeSantis and education chief order schools to stay open through end of school year

By: - November 30, 2020 2:44 pm

FL Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran and Gov. Ron DeSantis ordered public schools to remain open for in-person classes. Screenshot: The Florida Channel

Arguing that schools are the safest place for children during the pandemic, Gov. Ron DeSantis and Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran on Monday ordered the state’s public schools to remain open for in-person instruction for the rest of the 2020-21 school year.

Parents still may choose remote learning for their children, as roughly one-third are doing now, according to Education Department estimates.

Read the order here.

The Florida Education Association, Florida’s public school teachers union, was “cautiously optimistic” that the pledge means support and funding are safe for both in-person and remote learning, as recommended by the FEA and others involved in the schools.

“The commissioner appears to have listened to the many educators, parents and superintendents calling out for stability for our students,” said FEA President Andrew Spar in a statement released after the press conference.

From Nov. 15 to 21, the last full school week before Thanksgiving, nearly 2,200 K-12 students tested positive for COVID-19, according to state data analyzed by the Phoenix. More than 70,000 COVID-19 cases have been reported in school-age children in Florida since the pandemic began, according to the Florida Department of Health’s last pediatric report, with roughly 2.8 million students enrolled. About 600 of the infected children were hospitalized, and nine died.

DeSantis asserted that face-to-face schooling is best for students and will give parents, especially working parents, “peace of mind” about how to manage their home and work lives in coming months. He called people who disagree with his assessment “flat-earthers.”

DeSantis and Corcoran needled the state teachers union and national epidemiologists who called for longer closures and continue to call for restrictions to protect students, teachers and staff.

“Closing schools due to coronavirus is probably the biggest public health blunder in modern American history,” DeSantis said.

“The harm from this is going to reverberate in those communities for years and years to come,” he continued. “The evidence has been remarkably clear since the spring that closing schools offers virtually nothing in terms of virus mitigation but imposes huge costs on our kids, on our parents, and on our society.”

Schools will not be required to enforce distancing or masking, DeSantis and Corcoran said, insisting there is no proof those measures are useful on school campuses.

The Florida Education Association reports that 11 K-12 schools that reopened in the fall for in-person learning closed down again, including one in Leon County that closed down twice.

Although parents may still choose remote learning for their children, there will be  a new condition, DeSantis said. Teachers who conclude a student doing virtual learning is “struggling” will now implement “interventions” to get the student back on campus unless the parent formally opts out.

The televised press conference at Boggy Creek Elementary School in Kissimmee, in Osceola County, was DeSantis’ first since Election Day, Nov. 3.

When asked by a reporter what had kept him from making public appearances for nearly a month, DeSantis seized the moment to give a lengthy answer: that he had been visiting Washington, D.C., to learn about the development of COVID-19 vaccines and prepare for distributing them in Florida.

He said 1 million to 2 million doses of one kind or another could be available in several weeks, and that health-care workers and nursing-home residents remain his top priorities for being immunized. He also seized the moment to bash criticism about him lifting all statewide coronavirus restrictions on Sept. 25 and forbidding local governments to enforce their local masking mandates against individuals. Florida is one of only 16 states that do not require masks to be worn in public.

DeSantis ruled out speculation that he might call for reform of Florida’s faulty unemployment system, saying the federal government was responsible for shuttering businesses and causing mass unemployment, so it should shoulder the burden of paying unemployment — which it is no longer doing. In October, 659,000 people were still jobless in Florida, where the unemployment rate was 6.5 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. At its worse, in May, more than 1.3 million people were jobless in Florida and qualified for state and federal unemployment insurance benefits. November unemployment rates will be released in December.

Federal unemployment supplements to Florida’s meager benefits of $275 weekly for only 13 weeks, at most, expired in August.

The governor did not address whether he is interacting with President-Elect Joe Biden’s transition team, how he feels about his ally President Donald Trump refusing to concede defeat, nor his nationally reported suggestion to lawmakers in battleground states to disregard Biden wins and cast their electoral ballots for Trump.

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Laura Cassels
Laura Cassels

Laura Cassels is a reporter, former statehouse bureau chief, and former city editor. She is a classical pianist, a Florida State University graduate and proud alum of the Florida Flambeau, an independent college newspaper.