Stories about the coronavirus pandemic are free to read as a public service at tampabay.com/coronavirus. Sign up for our DayStarter newsletter to receive updates weekday mornings. If this coverage is important to you, consider supporting local journalism by subscribing to the Tampa Bay Times at tampabay.com/subscribe.
• • •
TALLAHASSEE — All Florida school districts will shut down their schools for an extra week to prevent the spread of coronavirus, Florida Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran “strongly recommended” to superintendents Friday.
Corcoran told the Times/Herald that he made the recommendation on a 4 p.m. conference call with the officials. Earlier in the day, three of Florida’s largest districts, Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach, already said that they would be shuttered starting Monday. Gov. Ron DeSantis was also on the call.
This extra week off will be in addition to most districts’ spring breaks, which were already scheduled either for next week or the following week, so that students won’t be on campus for a total of weeks.
There were four districts — Duval, Collier, Union and Sumter — whose students have already taken or are currently on their spring break. Those districts have been asked to have their students take another week off, Corcoran said. Districts whose spring breaks were scheduled in April will move up the dates of their two weeks off to begin sooner. (A full schedule of districts’ two weeks off can be found here.)
As of Friday evening, Florida had reported a total number of 46 people who had tested positive for the virus. Several other states have also shut down schools in an effort to slow the spread of the flu-like pandemic.
“We’re always going to keeping our students safe, first and foremost,” he said. “But we’re also ... doing the best we can to make sure students are getting a full year’s worth of education. Hopefully it will be a short-term thing and we’ll get right back to work and kids close out the year in a fantastic fashion.”
All extracurricular activities will also be cancelled until further notice, and state testing will be pushed back two weeks.
The decision to close schools directly contradicted guidance from the Florida Department of Education to superintendents just earlier on Friday. The recommendations, posted on the department’s website, stated that even if a student, faculty or school staff member has been exposed to someone with coronavirus, “we still recommend that you NOT close the school/college/program, but we do recommend that you clear the classroom and take necessary steps to sanitize the room.”
Corcoran attributed that about-face to the fast-moving nature of this crisis, and said the change in tone was because of recommendations issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, though those were issued Thursday night.
“We’ve got to fight the coronavirus and we’ve also got to fight panic,” he said.
Because spring break had already been set, and some districts already had extra scheduled days off for planning, the disruption to learning will only be three to five days, Corcoran said. He added he has the authority to advise districts to take the extra time off under the state of emergency that DeSantis declared earlier this week.
If the state decides to make the break even longer, districts may begin to use virtual learning. Officials have been taking inventory, increasing server capacity and training more teachers on the technology in preparation.
But at least one district, Hillsborough, indicated they’re already starting virtual learning during this extra week. They launched a survey Thursday to determine how many students have access to computers and WiFi at home, and said teachers have already been updating their digital portals "with classroom and grade-specific assignments. These assignments will be accessible to students online starting on March 23.”
Tampa Bay-area school districts were all already planning to start spring break next week. That means they will have the week of the 23rd off as well, during which employees can deep clean.
“In light of everything that is going on, it’s a good idea,” said Pasco Superintendent Kurt Browning, who’s also the president of the superintendents association. “I appreciate the governor in being decisive.”
Beyond the loss of instruction, some school leaders worry about access to meals for low-income students who qualify for free lunch, plus child care for working parents.
Earlier this week, acting Hillsborough chief of schools Shaylia McRae said it was doubtful that the district would provide child care. She was more optimistic about having Student Nutrition Services open feeding centers, as they do in the summer.
In many districts, it was clear there are still details to be worked out.
“Thank you for your continued commitment and service to our community, children and families during this rapidly changing time,” wrote Pinellas superintendent Mike Grego in the notice sent to staff.
Times staff writers Marlene Sokol, Jeffrey S. Solochek and Megan Reeves contributed to this report.
This is a breaking story that will be updated.
• • •
Tampa Bay Times coronavirus guide
EVENT CANCELLATIONS: Get the latest updates on events planned in the Tampa Bay area in the coming weeks.
STOCK UP YOUR PANTRY: Foods that should always be in your kitchen, for emergencies and everyday life.
OTHER CORONAVIRUS WEBSITES:
We’re working hard to bring you the latest news on the coronavirus in Florida. This effort takes a lot of resources to gather and update. If you haven’t already subscribed, please consider buying a print or digital subscription.