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Florida schools are responding differently to the pandemic than other states

A massive push to keep instruction going online separates the Sunshine State from places like Michigan, Virginia, Alabama and Kansas. Was it the right call?

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Christina Ottersbach watches with a degree of disbelief as Florida embarks on its version of school closures during the coronavirus pandemic.

A special education teacher in Hernando County, she has concerns about how she will help her students, all of whom have individualized plans that might or might not work remotely. Her inability to get a steady internet signal at her rural home — made even more spotty by her middle school sons’ needs to get online for classes — only compounds her skepticism.

Add to that her limited family support system, personal anxiety and relative lack of training in distance teaching, and, well, it’s pretty clear. The veteran educator struggles to fathom how Florida’s plan to hold required, graded online education with a closure order that expires April 15 makes sense — especially in light of what other states are doing.

Michigan, where Ottersbach has friends teaching, ordered all its schools closed for three weeks and stated any distance learning that takes place during that time would not count toward required instructional time. Virginia closed its schools for the remainder of the academic year, and gave districts the option of providing additional teaching as long as they guarantee equitable opportunities for all students.

“Florida doesn’t seem to be in touch with reality,” said Ottersbach, who like many, preferred to just call off the current school year and pick up again when the pandemic has cooled. “They act almost like it’s not happening.”

Leaders in the state Department of Education don’t see it that way at all.

Commissioner Richard Corcoran said his team never gave a thought to shutting down the system for the remaining weeks of class.

“We’re following the CDC guidelines. We’re going to reevaluate it every 15 days,” said Corcoran, a lawyer and former House speaker was nominated for commissioner just over a year ago by Gov. Ron DeSantis.

If Florida were to see a significant “flattening of the curve” of the virus’ spread, he said, it could make sense to reopen schools in time to finish the academic year in actual classrooms. The next review is scheduled for April 15.

He hinted that a return isn’t out of the question, stating that Singapore didn’t send its students home, its leaders deciding the action would do more harm than good. Some people need to be isolated, and everyone should protect themselves, he said, but the rest of the population should be able to “go about living your life.”

Corcoran has agreed to call off all state testing for the year, along with all of the attached accountability measures. That way, he said, if and when in-person classes resume, teachers and students can spend their time on curriculum rather than worrying about assessments.

“They’ll be learning every day. That’s a great thing," he said, quickly adding that test-based accountability will return in normal times.

The state also has put out the word that the school year could be extended through June to get all the curriculum covered, though Corcoran had nothing but positives for the educators who ramped up a distance learning system that he deemed a “great solution to the predicament that we’ve found ourselves in.”

As for the Michigan model of shutting down school and not counting any of the work that students do until classes resume, that was a complete non-starter for the man making the call for Florida’s schools.

“That’s not who we are as Americans,” Corcoran said, suggesting such a move would sell students short and undervalue teachers. “What Michigan has done is throw up the white flag in surrender as no state should.”

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Like Florida, Michigan closed schools for several weeks, and sought a federal waiver to call off required annual tests.

But unlike Florida, Michigan has a Democrat as governor. Its actions have taken a different tone than those who have looked for ways to stem the virus’ spread with something less than a full-blown shutdown.

Shortly after classrooms shut down, the Michigan Department of Education issued a memo that encouraged distance learning, but didn’t require it as Florida has. And it stated that the lessons would be for enrichment.

“There is no mechanism to earn instructional time during a period of mandated school closure," the department stated. “However, schools can and are encouraged to offer supplemental learning opportunities to students using distance learning methods as they see fit."

A spokesman for the department said officials there are “staying within the memos” rather than making additional comments. He noted that the situation remains fluid, and the state is changing its approach as needed.

The memos coming out of the Michigan agency stress the importance of access for everyone before any transition to full online instruction. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer did say she would take steps to ensure seniors graduate on time, and no child is held back because of the situation.

“We do not know what the future will hold, but we are absolutely committed to ensuring the needs of our students, parents, and families are met as we navigate these uncharted waters,” Whitmer said in a statement.

Virginia, which also has a Democratic governor but in a more “purple” state, went a different direction.

It closed all schools for the remainder of the academic year — an action similar to Kansas and Alabama — and then gave its districts options for how to provide students “with equitable opportunities and instruction covering required course content ... without disrupting their academic progress.”

That includes while classrooms are closed, over the summer or into the next school year.

Like Florida, Virginia waived some graduation requirements for high school seniors who were on track to a diploma. It canceled its spring exams, as well.

And in a move between Florida and Michigan, Virginia has encouraged individual districts — which the state calls divisions — to provide students with opportunities to keep learning.

“We are advising school divisions not to grade that work ... unless they are able to do that in a way that is equitable for all students,” Virginia Department of Education spokesman Charles Pyle said. “It has to include students with disabilities and English language learners. ... We want school divisions to keep students engaged, but we also want them to be mindful of their responsibility to serve all students.”

Virginia, as Florida, has a wide variety of communities from the small rural to the densely urban. So the state has tried not to prescribe a single approach for any one of them.

But one thing has become clear, Pyle said. Regardless of location, relative wealth, size or types of students served, none of the divisions appear able to provide the full equitable access that’s desired.

Three states, three approaches. Is any one of them more right than the other?

University of Wisconsin education professor Gloria Ladson-Billings, president of the National Academy of Education, is a strong advocate for accessibility and equity in education. She can speak at length about the challenges that poorer communities face just in annual summer learning loss, not to mention the disparities inherent between those families with technology and home stability vs. those without.

Her take on the entire situation: Who knows?

“I can see the arguments on both sides,” Ladson-Billings said.

Florida spent years investing in classroom technology, for instance, and might have enough equipment to bridge the divide by providing materials to families. Michigan might not have a similar ability. Both might change their efforts as they learn more, just as Philadelphia city schools did by at first declining to do any online distance instruction and then switching gears amid a community uproar, she said.

“We all know this is not the same as instruction in a classroom. I don’t think anybody is trying to make it that,” Ladson-Billings said. “What people are trying to do is ensure there are not learning losses.”

And truth be told, she said, no one really knows what will work in this new dynamic.

“That’s the most honest thing we can say,” she said. “We have never had anything like this before.”

She expressed hope that, as schools go about their business, they don’t lose track of the stress that isolation can cause, which could lead to potential child abuse.

“Some of our kids are going to be in some very difficult situations,” she said, as they no longer have the safe haven that school has provided up to now.

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