How and when will Florida reopen schools? Educators have ideas on that.

Close quarters in classrooms, hallways and buses will make a return to campuses tricky. One key will be giving local leaders flexibility to move quickly, educators say.
Conditions in schools could be much different whenever Florida kids return to campuses, say educators, who are starting to work through the details.
Conditions in schools could be much different whenever Florida kids return to campuses, say educators, who are starting to work through the details. [ CHRIS URSO | Times (2016) ]
Published May 8, 2020|Updated May 11, 2020

As Florida reopens from COVID-19 closures, K-12 schools play a key role in finding some degree of normalcy.

Gov. Ron DeSantis’ advisory task force envisions them preparing to “resume on-campus learning, full-time,” in August or September.

But getting there could prove a big ask. Because schools, with three-to-a-seat buses, elbow-to-elbow cafeterias and cramped corridors during passing periods do not lend themselves to the six-foot spacing that public health officials say should be the standard.

“Strict social distancing and group gathering protocols may be near impossible to implement due to the nature of the K-12 educational environment,” the Florida Association of District School Superintendents states in a report it will present to the state Board of Education on Wednesday.

The report is one of a growing number of position papers for how to proceed. Other organizations, including the Florida School Boards Association and the Florida Education Association, also are weighing in.

Leaders in each group acknowledge that solutions can be fleeting as more science becomes available. So, more than offering any specific attack, they share a common thread of seeking flexibility as they adjust to local needs.

That means being able to use money without worrying about restrictions, and making policy moves that might counter rules that no longer make sense in light of the virus.

“This is fluid,” said Jane Goodwin, president-elect of the school boards association. “We are not sure how things are going to be in the fall. We just want to work in partnership with the Department of Education and others to make sure we’re doing the best that we can for our kids.”

In its recommendations to DeSantis, the association stressed that school boards are responsible for the public schools, and focused largely on big picture items such as creating a state liaison to districts for mental health services. It left many on-the-ground specifics to the superintendents, who oversee daily operations.

The superintendents noted that schools must have clear plans regarding student-teacher ratios, space per person in classrooms and common areas such as cafeterias, screening of all who come to campus, cleaning routines and more.

They also talked about the need for masks, hand-washing routines, limitations on visitors, and steps for when someone associated with the school tests positive for the virus.

While creating safe conditions for learning, which everyone cites as a top priority, the schools also must establish guidelines for what could be a much different way of educating kids. Some students and teachers will return to buildings for in-person instruction, while others remain at home.

There might be a mix of both, as families and educators build on what worked during distance learning and during more usual times, said Andrea Messina, executive director of the school boards association.

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All the while, the superintendents stated, schools have to develop ways to tackle an expected gap in learning that students might have experienced during the distance learning of the final quarter.

All that could take added staffing and equipment, at a time when tax revenue is shrinking.

“We have to be as cautious as we possibly can, but also as realistic as we can,” said Pasco County’s Kurt Browning, president of the superintendents association.

He said superintendents have been consulting with the Florida Medical Association to determine the safest way forward.

At a roundtable event Friday, Pinellas County superintendent Mike Grego said he will be working with a “cross-functional planning team" made up of district leaders and health professionals from area hospitals and the county health department. The group has already toured some schools to better understand how students move through and gather on campuses, he said.

The Florida Education Association, meanwhile, again urged leaders to listen to students, parents, teachers and staff. Making plans for one-way hallways and staggered start times can get you only so far, suggested Fed Ingram, the group’s president.

“The only way to have their confidence is to involve them in the process,” Ingram said. “Everybody is trying to figure this out. ... What does this look like? If they believe they can do this in a vacuum, they are sadly mistaken, because they are going to miss out on confidence and trust.”

The teachers union has asked the education department to create a more inclusive task force to explore the ins and outs of reopening schools. Having received no response, Ingram said the organization planned to convene its own committee within two weeks to come up with recommendations.

Staff writer Megan Reeves contributed to this report.

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