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Coronavirus still dominates back-to-school planning

A roundup of Florida education news from around the state.
Students across Florida are set to resume classes before the end of August. Whether they'll do the work in person or online remains to be seen.
Students across Florida are set to resume classes before the end of August. Whether they'll do the work in person or online remains to be seen. [ DIRK SHADD | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Jul. 27, 2020
Updated Jul. 27, 2020

And we’re back after a week’s respite. What could we possibly have missed? It looks like school boards across Florida went on a meeting binge, choosing to delay the start of classes by a week or two while further considering whether in-person lessons are a good idea, and if they have the standing to fight the state’s insistence that at least some campuses be open to students whose families want that option. Meanwhile, the governor gave a short speech positing that children are less at risk from COVID-19, and he’d send his own kids to school if they were old enough. In other words, more of the same. Are you ready for another week of this?

About that first day of classes ... The Department of Education said “in August,” so several districts decided to push theirs back from the usual Aug. 10. Hernando County went first, picking Aug. 31. Next came Pinellas and Pasco, followed soon after by Hillsborough, all of which picked Aug. 24 to get rolling. Other boards across the Sunshine State did much the same, Florida Phoenix reports, as did the prep sports world. With few exceptions, such as Miami-Dade (WSVN), each kept a bricks and mortar portion in its plans, even as some officials argued against the idea as unsafe. Private and charter schools are making their own preparations, the Santa Rosa Press-Gazette reports.

‘Fear doesn’t help us combat this virus.' Gov. Ron DeSantis gave a brief speech late in the week to try to convince Floridians that things are getting better, and that families should be asking how safe it is to keep schools closed. He took no questions, and said little new. • The Washington Post ran a searing weekend piece suggesting that DeSantis’ approach to the virus, including school reopening, is based on politics rather than science.

But was he convincing? An overwhelming number of respondents to a Tampa Bay Times informal survey said they remained uncomfortable sending their children back to school. • Florida’s two Republican U.S. senators offered their opinions on their kids and grandkids, too. • After all, schools are experiencing COVID-19 cases over the summer, with only limited activities. And school workers died in Leon County (Tallahassee Democrat) and Manatee County (Bradenton Herald). • For some student-athletes, the decision to return or not could affect their future plans, the Ledger reports. • With all that to take in, many parents continue to delay making a choice, the Orlando Sentinel reports.

The CDC’s shifting advice didn’t necessarily help matters. Other well-respected infectious disease specialists without political pressure continued to offer some advice. The Washington Post shared the views of three top experts about school reopening, and how it might be accomplished.

With concerns mounting, the president backed away (a bit) from his aggressive demand that schools open their doors. He suggested that virus “hotspots” might need to remain closed longer. Much of Florida fits the federal definition of “hotspot,” Education Week reports.

The Florida Education Association aimed to push the matter. The state’s teacher union didn’t wait for districts to choose a path. It sued the state over its reopening order, seeking to block in-person instruction until the virus spread calms down. The hashtag version: #Onlineontime.

Amid all that, districts continued to debate the details. Volusia County School Board members debated whether their mask mandate would be strong enough to make a difference, the Daytona Beach News-Journal reports. • Initially reluctant to require them, the Palm Beach County school district has shifted its position on masks, the Palm Beach Post reports.

Next up: Teachers plan to join Democrats in further advancing their position Monday, before VP Pence arrives in Miami. Holding a virtual press conference at 10 a.m. will be U.S. Rep. Donna Shalala, state Sen. José Javier Rodríguez, state Rep. Javier Fernández, United Teachers of Dade president Karla Hernández-Mats, Hillsborough County teacher Jessica Harrington and Orange County teacher Keegan Schlake, with the stated goal to “highlight the Trump administration’s failure to properly address the COVID-19 pandemic and their willingness to further endanger Floridian lives by pushing for schools to fully reopen despite a surge in new coronavirus cases.”

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during a meeting with Vice President Mike Pence at USF Health's Center for Advanced Medical Learning and Simulation on Thursday, July 2, 2020, in Tampa. Pence returns to Florida this week.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during a meeting with Vice President Mike Pence at USF Health's Center for Advanced Medical Learning and Simulation on Thursday, July 2, 2020, in Tampa. Pence returns to Florida this week. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

So what else is going on?

Most states including Florida got federal waivers to cancel student testing this spring. Don’t look for that to happen again in 2021, Education Week reports.

Education budgets remain tight. Indian River County school district officials are hopeful voters there will renew a local property tax to ease the crunch, TC Palm reports.

Kids have spent a lot of time sitting in front of screens. Some medical experts provide tips on how to protect their backs, eyes and psyches from the stresses, the Miami Herald reports.

Achievement gaps remain. The North Brevard NAACP has developed a reading program to help, Florida Today reports.

Brevard County teachers returned to the bargaining table. Disagreements over COVID-19 leave and classroom cleaning supplies proved major hurdles, Florida Today reports.

A Broward County elementary school teacher and aide are fired. They’re accused of abusing students, and there’s a recording, the Sun-Sentinel reports.

From the police blotter ... A former Palm Beach County high school teacher is arrested on accusations of having sex with a student, the Palm Beach Post reports.

Before you go ... In all, the situation might seem bleak. So please, be sure to take your moment of Zen wherever you can find it.

The sun rises over the mountains in northern Georgia in July 2020.
The sun rises over the mountains in northern Georgia in July 2020. [ JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK | Times ]

Join our daily Facebook conversation to share your views. And be sure to share this roundup with your friends and colleagues. Know someone who might want to sign up for the Gradebook newsletter? Share this link. Are we missing something in this reopening debate? Send an e-mail to jsolochek@tampabay.com. - Jeff