An empty school classroom. Photo: Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock.com
A teachers union on Tuesday, April 14 called on Florida Governor Ron DeSantis to keep schools closed for the remainder of the school year. The Florida Education Association wants schools closed because the COVID-19 outbreak “presents a threat we cannot control.” Fedrick Ingram, president of the Florida Education Association, said in a letter to the governor that teachers have “risen to the challenge” of conducting their classes online since campuses closed last month and there is no reason to reopen them until the virus is under control.
DeSantis mentioned last week that he was considering reopening schools next month because children have little risk of dying from the disease. This has drawn criticism from people who oppose this because such a move would put staff members and parents who are older or have health problems at risk.
“As much as our students and educators want the opportunity to be back at our schools, returning prematurely will threaten the safety and well-being of all on campus,” Ingram wrote in a letter. It was sent to the governor and state education commission Richard Corcoran on behalf of the union’s 145,000 members. About 20% of Florida schools average more than 1,000 students in attendance on a daily basis, Ingram said in his letter to the Florida Governor.
Florida has more than 4,500 public schools serving 2.7 million children. Florida public schools employ 180,000 teachers.
DeSantis extended school closures on March 17 while suspending standardized state testing. Students have since transitioned to distance learning, a feat that schools accomplished in a limited time. Online-only learning will continue through at least May 1.
Because a school campus is virtually impossible to practice social distancing in, Ingram doesn’t see the benefits or the point of sending kids back to school if there is still the threat of the coronavirus going on. Ingram called COVID-19 an uncontrollable threat in his letter to DeSantis. According to Ingram, the damage it could cause outweighs the inconvenience of remote learning.
DeSantis said at a briefing in Tallahassee that any decision on reopening schools would be based on safety recommendations from health experts. Parent’s opinions will also be considered when it comes time to reopen schools to students and teachers. Governor DeSantis also said he planned to announce a task force this week that would examine what he called “Phase 2” of the coronavirus crisis in Florida. Whether to reopen schools or not will also be part of this plan the task force will announce this week.
“It’s not just about going back to school at the end of May for a couple of weeks,” DeSantis said. “We’re talking about what the fall semester is going to look like for K-12, what’s it going to look like for our universities. … We’re assuming, maybe there will be an antiviral developed. Is there going to be this wave and then a second wave that comes back in the fall? So there’s a lot of things you need to be prepared for.”
In recent interviews, some local school officials seemed to agree that it’s too soon to reopen campuses. Pasco County school superintendent Kurt Browning on Monday suggested there isn’t enough left of the school year to merit doing so. “You have employees out there who will say, ‘I don’t want to come back because it’s too soon,’” he said. “I’ve got parents who will say, ‘I’m not sending my children back.’
Browning cautioned that allowing people to return to “normalcy” right away might run the risk of getting people infected or sick with coronavirus. The disease is still out there after all. Browning added: “The worst thing that could happen for us is to get back to some level of normalcy and then have a spike because we jumped the gun.”
Manatee County school superintendent Cynthia Saunders also does not feel comfortable about kids returning to school so soon as well. Bringing students back too early this year is a risk that could delay the start of next school year, she said. “All of us are eager to return to our normal way of life that we were accustomed to,” she wrote in an email. “However, the safety of our students, employees, and community must be our top priority at this time.”
Governor DeSantis has not yet replied to Ingram’s letter.