DOVER — Hoping to send a message that returning to classrooms in August is safe in Florida, the State Board of Education held its first face-to-face meeting in months inside Hillsborough County’s Strawberry Crest High School on Wednesday.
A few dozen teachers, parents and students came out to offer a response: No thanks.
“I’m here because I just feel like it’s absolutely ridiculous to be considering putting our children in this unsafe environment,” said Vanessa Walters, a Folsom Elementary special education teacher, who plans to keep her own 10-year-old daughter in online schooling. “It has to be safe. We don’t have the measures in place.”
Karen Carnes, a Collins Elementary School third-grade teacher, said at almost 65 years old she worries about herself as well as her students. The coronavirus does not appear under control, Carnes said, and the peak looks likely to arrive no earlier than the day many schools are scheduled to resume classes.
“If we go back now, it’s completely irresponsible,” she said, noting that teachers haven’t been provided the same options for returning to classes that parents have received.
Teacher assignments are based on the numbers of students who request traditional or online courses. In many districts, the trend is about 60 percent or more saying they’ll return to campus, meaning schools will need teachers in the classrooms to meet that demand.
Some might not get what they want.
As the protesters rallied outside, calling for more protections from the state, Gov. Ron DeSantis showed up to address the State Board.
He opened by talking about how he pushed for teacher raises this year, despite the worsening economic picture because of the coronavirus, and again labeled the recent legislative session the “year of the teacher” — something those gathered outside questioned.
The governor acknowledged that some educators are worried about health concerns associated with being in classrooms again.
“I think it’s paramount that there’s a safe environment for everybody,” he said. “If you have an employee who is particularly at risk for this, then by all means, you have to have special accommodations that are provided. That would be true for a student too. It would also be true for an employee, an adult employee.”
For the most part, though, he spoke about the needs of parents and students. If they want in-person education, they should have it, he said. If they prefer virtual instruction, that should be their choice.
“The last thing you want to do is just shove people in if they’re not comfortable,” DeSantis said.
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Despite the rally outside, State Board members indicated they had no intention of changing the state’s direction for the reopening of schools on schedule.
“I’m a proponent of opening our schools back up,” chairman Andy Tuck told the Tampa Bay Times. “It’s time to give (students) the education they’re entitled to.”
The protesters don’t expect to back down, either, saying they would take their fight to the school districts, which so far have appeared more open to moves.
“This is a really important issue to us,” said Tony Panaccio, a political organizer who helped organize Wednesday’s event. “The state is trying to reopen schools to teach the students the science they deny.”
At one point, DeSantis suggested that the answers likely aren’t ripe, and when they are, the local officials will have them.
“As much as we’d like to have every decision made as far out as possible ... getting it right is probably the most important thing,” he said. “And I know these school districts are working hard to get it right.”
DeSantis continued, during the meeting, to praise the State Board and district staffs for the plans they are hammering out as the days tick off between their planned reopenings.
He insisted that, based on experience in summer camp and studies in the United States and overseas, young children tend not to suffer ill effects from COVID-19; nor do they appear to be “super spreaders” to adults.
Remarks from DeSantis and state education leaders focused mostly on harm that the spring lock-down caused to children who fell behind in their academic and social skills, parents who were unable to go to their jobs, and the economy.
Hillsborough County school superintendent Addison Davis agreed, saying “these are times to work collectively to open our classrooms up.” He said those efforts involve consultation with health officials, medical experts, parents and the business community.
And, although he congratulated teachers on the work they did when they were thrust into distance-learning in the spring, Davis said, “the achievement gap is real” and “face-to-face is the best way to connect with our children.”
Davis will face his own opposition on Thursday, when the School Board meets at 1 p.m. for a workshop about Hillsborough’s planned Aug. 10 reopening. Protesters and others are flooding district emails with comments and questions.
As Wednesday’s meeting continued, it became a debate at times over the word “flexibility.”
Most of the State Board members commended education commissioner Richard Corcoran’s reopening order, as it allows districts to pursue a variety of plans while making sure each child has the option of attending a brick-and-mortar school five days a week.
But member Michael Olenick, who attended remotely, said true flexibility would allow districts to keep all of their school buildings closed until the pandemic is under control. He called for the order to be rescinded, and he called it “duplicitous.”
No one supported Olenick in his request.
Staff writer Marlene Sokol contributed to this report.