As school districts in coronavirus hotspots threaten to defy the state’s order to reopen schools full time in August, Gov. Ron DeSantis doubled down Thursday, saying that because students are less at risk, schoolteachers must return to work.
“We spent months saying that there were certain things that were essential that included fast-food restaurants. It included Walmart and Home Depot and Lowe’s,” DeSantis said at a news conference in Jacksonville with U.S. Secretary of Labor Eugene Scalia. “If all that is essential, then educating our kids is absolutely essential, and they have been put to the back of the line in some respects.”
DeSantis’ remarks echo those of President Donald Trump and U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos who have said they want all schools to reopen full time in the fall. On Monday, Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran ordered public schools to reopen in August.
But neither the governor, nor the White House, can force school districts to open in Florida. Corcoran acknowledged in his order that the decision is ultimately the job of local school boards, and DeSantis said nothing about what should happen if school districts defy the order.
Since then, Miami-Dade County Public Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho has said schools would not reopen and would offer classes online only if the county does not experience a steady decline in new coronavirus cases to pull it out of Phase 1 reopening stage.
Broward County Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie said the district does “not see a realistic path to opening all district schools with 100 percent full enrollment every day. And on Wednesday, Palm Beach County school officials said their students will likely be learning online instead of in the classroom when the school year begins next month.
Under the emergency order, school districts are being told to reopen in August for at least five days a week and to provide the full array of services required by law, including in-person instruction and services for students with special needs. The Miami-Dade School Board unanimously approved a phased reopening plan last week that calls for a mix of in-person, online and hybrid courses, giving parents the option of having their child taught in school, through online courses or a mixture of both.
The governor did not address what impact reopening schools will have on the health vulnerability of staff and administrators or what accommodations will be offered to allow for them to have access to personal protective equipment. He did acknowledge that districts should be flexible. But he said he does not believe that students “serve as significant vectors for this like they do with influenza, for whatever reason. And when they do get infected it’s usually an adult affecting the children.”
“I have no doubt that we can do this safely,” he governor said, adding that if his pre-school-age children were old enough, “I would not hesitate putting them in, in terms of the risk.” He said children under age 18 who test positive for COVID-19 are “substantially less likely to be hospitalized for coronavirus than for seasonal influenza.”
”Obviously, if you have a kid that’s got significant health issues, we absolutely need to make accommodations for that,” he said, adding: “Different parents have different calculations. If a parent wants to opt for virtual education, they should absolutely be able to do that,” he said. “We shouldn’t be forcing them to do any types of decisions.”
Speaking in Jacksonville, which is still scheduled to host the Republican National Convention at the urging of the president, the governor for the first time suggested that the event be held outdoors.
“Safety is not negotiable,” DeSantis said. “Delegates need to be comfortable ... Looking at something outdoors makes sense.”
DeSantis also continued to shift his message. When he argued for reopening the state in May, loosening stay-home orders in May and expanding them in June, he argued that encouraging people to return to work and move about again was justified because the number of people testing positive for the disease was declining.
This week, DeSantis’ message changed. He now acknowledges that the virus may be more prevalent than the state acknowledged, but he argues that is not a problem as long as people are not dying from it.
“A case doesn’t mean somebody is necessarily in the hospital, it just means they tested positive,” he said.
However, on Thursday, Florida’s rate of daily new coronavirus COVID-19 deaths began to trend up again, nearly matching early May levels from the height of the pandemic. The Florida Department of Health confirmed 8,935 additional cases of the disease and 120 new deaths, bringing the statewide death toll to 4,009 and total cases to 232,718, a number that has more than doubled in three weeks.
The governor attributed the surge in new cases to the abundance of testing.
“If the country was testing this much in March, you would have seen huge numbers in Florida and across the country,” he said.
The governor also announced that the federal government is sending 100 contract employees to both Miami and Tampa to help staff hospitals in facing staffing shortages. He said the state will also receive additional deliveries of Remdesivir, the antiviral medication used to treat COVID-19 patients.
Meanwhile, testing will continue with the addition of offering antibody testing for people at the state testing sites, the governor said. These sites also will start offering dedicated lanes for symptomatic people with the goal of limiting their wait time for results to three days, he said.