RIVERVIEW — Locked in a battle with Hillsborough County officials over how soon to reopen schools, top state leaders appeared at a Riverview charter school Monday with a message: Giving students the option of in-person classes is the right thing to do.
“Here in the state of Florida, we really believe in empowering parents,” Gov. Ron DeSantis said, speaking at Winthrop College Prep Academy, which he congratulated for its innovative methods in blending in-person and remote instruction.
"I think what Winthrop is doing really shows a great path forward, and I commend you for what you're doing," he said.
With two pending lawsuits challenging the state’s reopening order, the live-streamed session was a chance for state leaders to strike back in Hillsborough, which finds itself at the center of a debate over when and how to open Florida campuses during the pandemic.
DeSantis and Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran said 66 out of 67 districts were able to come up with plans that met their communities’ diverse needs. Hillsborough submitted a plan as well, which called for both in-person and virtual instruction.
But on Thursday, after hearing from a panel of medical experts, the Hillsborough School Board reversed its position from two weeks earlier and decided all school will be virtual until September at the earliest.
Corcoran responded Friday with a letter, demanding that Hillsborough either stick with its original plan or indicate, in writing, how it will serve those families who need in-person school.
On Monday, both men reiterated statements they have made before to support their position.
DeSantis made the case that the coronavirus’ spread is abating and children face a low risk of becoming seriously ill, should they contract the virus. He said that, for children, COVID-19 is “lower risk than seasonal influenza.” And he rejected comparisons between Tampa Bay and harder-hit parts of the state.
“Do not say that they are in the same boat as what is happening in South Florida,” he said, visibly impatient. “The facts do matter on this.”
Corcoran, for his part, pushed back against the idea that he is stifling local school districts’ decision-making. “We gave them complete flexibility,” he said. He argued that the risks children face when they are not in school are, perhaps, worse than the risk from catching COVID. And Corcoran asserted that “most teachers want to come back, most students want to come back.”
That last part, like so many other issues surrounding COVID-19, is a matter of debate. Teachers’ unions say most of their members fear a return to school before the coronavirus is under control if it cannot be done safely, and that is not possible under the current level of funding.
As for the Hillsborough district, communications chief Tanya Arja said Monday in a statement that the school system followed Corcoran’s July 6 reopening order explicitly.
“The order provides school districts the option of not opening (campuses) ‘subject to advice or orders of the Florida Department of Health, (or) local departments of health,‘” Arja said. “Our School Board made an informed decision after hearing from the local public health authority and local infectious disease experts. The panel was asked if we should open our doors and not one medical professional could recommend opening today.”
Monday’s event was organized at one of a half-dozen Hillsborough schools that are managed by Charter Schools USA, a Fort Lauderdale-based business whose majority owner, Jon Hage, was a member of DeSantis’s Re-Open Florida Task Force.
Appearing in the roundtable discussion along with teachers and parents, Hage said, “we think we can do this and we know we can do this safely. ... We believe we can be an example for doing this appropriately and putting kids first.”
School leaders said they will check students’ temperatures as they arrive, and students will have the opportunity to move from in-person to remote instruction as preferences and circumstances change. Video technology, using a 360-degree camera, will make it possible for the lesson to reach students in school and at home, simultaneously.
Local public school districts, however, have elected not to subject students to temperature checks. School leaders say those checks are not practical because most children who have COVID-19 are asymptomatic, and clustering them together for their temperature checks poses its own risk of contagion.
School districts are also not allowing students to move freely between the in-person and virtual models. Instead, to avoid an overly complex staffing situation, they are asking families to commit for a quarter or a semester. And they don’t all have the same video technology that Charter Schools USA has invested in.
District leaders on Monday said they were still contemplating how they will respond to Corcoran’s new demand letter.
At stake are tens of millions of dollars should the state decide not to waive funding guidelines during the hours students spend at home.
But School Board Attorney Jim Porter said he feels confident that the board had the legal right to keep school buildings closed four more weeks.
Having watched the debate unfold, at least one member of the neighboring Pinellas County School Board said she has more questions than ever as her board heads to its Tuesday morning meeting.
Board member Eileen Long, who previously signaled she wanted to follow Hillsborough’s lead, said Monday she was researching a board’s legal authority. She also wanted to know much more about why the details emerging about the district’s e-learning program aren’t looking the same as the proposal the board approved.
“I just don’t see how this is going to work, and I want it explained,” Long said, suggesting she still might move to delay the start of school without good answers. “I don’t think they’re ready.”
Board member Nicole Carr said she wasn’t ready to adopt a blanket delay without any plan in place. But she also indicated that the state’s response to Hillsborough wouldn’t shake her conviction for any action she deems appropriate.
“If we can’t offer a safe, socially distanced classroom to students and staff, then we’re not ready to offer a face-to-face option,” Carr said.
She noted the state’s directive to Hillsborough did leave some room for that move. It just might mean looking more carefully at individual schools and justifying the need one by one.
“It may be that some schools are ready and some schools are not,” Carr said. “We need to look at the numbers for each school.”
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