Arguing that Florida’s economy depends upon it, Gov. Ron DeSantis on Thursday unveiled a plan that expects K-12 schools to reopen in August at "full capacity.”
What that looks like will rely on decisions made by local leaders who know their communities best, he said during a news conference in Melbourne. To help them, the state offered a lengthy set of suggestions based on discussions with experts and other advisers.
The effort must make safety a priority, DeSantis said. Families and employees have to feel confident that returning to campus will not create health risks. The plan includes many ideas about disinfecting, cleaning and social distancing — as well as possibilities for when distancing is not possible, such as on buses.
At the same time, schools must operate with a clear sense of purpose as they get back to business, DeSantis and education commissioner Richard Corcoran said. Closing achievement gaps among groups of students, many of whom likely suffered learning losses during a spring of distance schooling, should drive that moral imperative, they said.
“We have a great opportunity to get back on good footing,” DeSantis said. “I know our kids have been in difficult circumstances. ... Getting back to the school year is going to be really, really important to the well-being of our kids.”
Accomplishing the task at hand will cost money. DeSantis discussed how the state plans to use nearly $1 billion in federal CARES Act funds for education. Schools have 12 options for spending the money they receive, including using it for cleaning supplies and providing mental health services and supports.
The governor also had a plan for some of the flexible money in the program, with a goal of targeting the achievement gap and learning losses. That includes initiatives to bolster literacy instruction in prekindergarten through third grade, as well as programs to boost workforce training.
“Going after the achievement gap in the way he is, is a game changer,” Corcoran said.
Also attending the announcement were school superintendents from Pinellas and Pasco counties, Mike Grego and Kurt Browning. The Pinellas leader, Grego, is the incoming chair of the state superintendents association.
Browning, the group’s current leader, said he was pleased with the plan’s two overriding principles of safety and academic achievement.
“We are using those two guiding principles as we do our planning to reopen the schools in August,” he said, noting a 50-person team was working out details in Land O’Lakes while he attended the governor’s event.
He expected Pasco to present its plan by July 1.
Grego, who spoke at the Brevard County press conference, praised the state for providing strong guidelines while also leaving it up to districts to decide what works best locally.
He said districts must leverage this time of unprecedented change to innovate and find better ways to teach and provide services.
”It is time that we eliminate the digital divide and use this as an opportunity to do so," Grego said, adding that the initiatives should allow schools to better engage students and provide an equitable education to all children.
Pinellas is planning to conduct focus groups for community feedback on reopening, and plans to present its plan around July 14.
In Hillsborough, district leaders have been working on multiple reopening scenarios. A draft plan calls for three approaches: All virtual instruction, a blended model in which students take turns attending classes on campus, and conventional school with extensive cleaning. All are contingent on state guidance, superintendent Addison Davis told the Tampa Bay Times in an interview earlier Thursday.
Hillsborough’s plan calls for at least $18 million in additional spending to clean school buildings, and far more if the district must purchase more buses for social distancing. Millions more would be spent on single-use masks for the staff and students.
Davis is also concerned about lost enrollment, based on surveys that show nearly half of the district’s parents and staff are wary of being exposed to COVID-19. To stem the losses of those students and the state funds that follow them, he pledged to beef up the Hillsborough Virtual School.
After the governor’s announcement, social media lit up with responses. Some of it was favorable, as parents look to get their children back to marching band, sports and other activities.
One mom simply wrote, “YES!!!” on a Facebook post that shared the information.
But criticism and questions also emerged. Some people noted that the state’s COVID-19 cases continue to rise, and raised concerns that fully-packed schools could be unhealthy.
The state plan makes several recommendations to address such worries. Among them, it proposes placing desks as far away from each other as possible; avoiding the sharing of textbooks, supplies and toys; creating a disinfection protocol for throughout the day; and converting cafeterias, libraries, gymnasiums, auditoriums and outdoor areas into classroom space as feasible.
“Many of the guidelines about spacing out students, multiple entrances/exits, repurposing various places on campus will clash with campus security issues (school shootings),” Volusia County teacher Brandon Haught noted on Twitter.
Some suggested the state was pandering to parents who depend on schools as child care for their children. Others contended that the drive to eliminate the achievement gap is code for a return to testing, where those gaps are determined.
Corcoran said the state’s approach is measured, with a goal of getting children into the learning environment that works best.
"We’re going to be smart, we’re going to be safe, we’re going to do it step by step,” Corcoran said. “We want schools fully opened in the fall because there is no better way to educate our children than to have that teacher in front of that child.”
Staff writer Marlene Sokol contributed to this report.