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Reopening Florida schools must be safe, equitable, says teachers union panel

The union convened its own task force after claiming state efforts ignored too many important voices.

Florida’s return to public schools must protect the health of all involved while also promoting the academic needs of children left behind during a hastily implemented period of remote learning this spring.

That sentiment is key to recommendations issued Tuesday by the Florida Education Association for how to reopen schools as the coronavirus pandemic continues. The ideas came from a task force whose members, the union said, were underrepresented when the state planned how it would undertake distance learning.

“Any plan to reopen schools that seeks a return to normal falls short,” the group wrote in the introduction to its 16-page report. “Almost seventy years after Brown vs. Board of Education, far too many students of color still attend separate and unequal schools. Therefore, a focus on equity is essential in any reopening plan.”

Related: Teachers union calls for experts to guide Florida’s school reopening

The task force included educators, parents, civic and government leaders from a variety of economic and racial backgrounds. The group met three times remotely to discuss five key areas, including safe working conditions, academic success and health.

FEA president Fed Ingram made clear early that, from his perspective, any reopening effort will have a better chance of success if the people affected by it participate and feel comfortable with the recommendations.

Several school districts have followed the lead, conducting surveys and collecting comments from their communities as they prepare their plans.

Related: When will Pinellas reopen schools? The virus will decide.

The FEA sought to add its perspective to that discussion. It aimed to look at the broader issues related to the concept, noting that individual districts and schools can have different demands.

Florida’s largest school, Cypress Bay High in Broward County, has almost four times more students than all of the Franklin County district, the group observed.

The group recommended that:

• Schools should have “fair, clear and consistent expectations across districts, particularly on physical distancing and health and safety measures.” Those should include regular testing and daily sanitizing.

• Instruction should continue “no matter what,” but a blend of models for providing lessons must be available. Those can include in-person and online initiatives, among others. But alternatives to distance learning must exist.

• Testing should be used only to diagnose student learning needs. Year-end testing for accountability should not occur for another year.

• All students should receive access to needed technology and internet service.

• The state should provide added funding for mental health and related services, to support students and staff who struggle. It also must increase the overall education budget to pay for the many changes ahead after the COVID-19 outbreak, the union said.

During a virtual news conference, Ingram stressed that money is key to many of the decisions. And yet little is known about how the state plans to use its own budget or the federal CARES funds coming into the school system.

“We are imploring our lawmakers to get serious and let’s get going, so we can open our schools with the zeal and fervor that we always have,” Ingram said. “We don’t want to go into the school year with question marks. ... And we all know it costs money to do that.”

He added that the system should not skimp on many of the recommended actions, including regular health testing of everyone in the schools. Keeping people healthy and safe while getting back to school is of utmost importance, he said.

Amid all the serious issues, Ingram ended the news conference saying everyone must keep in mind the reason for school — to prepare children for their lives afterward. As the planning progresses, he said, don’t lose track that “school must be fun. We have got to get this right, so our students have an interest.”

The group made clear it intends its paper to serve as a starting point for further discussion.

Read more of the recommendations here.

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