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Florida public schools to remain closed until May

The move, recommended by education commissioner Richard Corcoran, follows President Trump’s call for an extension of social distancing to April 30.
Pasco County Schools distributed  computer and technological equipment Monday for students needing technology to participate in distance learning beginning Tuesday. Here Rushe Middle School principal David Salerno provides a safe way for parents to drop signed paperwork. Public schools in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Hernando counties started distance learning on Monday.
Pasco County Schools distributed computer and technological equipment Monday for students needing technology to participate in distance learning beginning Tuesday. Here Rushe Middle School principal David Salerno provides a safe way for parents to drop signed paperwork. Public schools in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Hernando counties started distance learning on Monday. [ MICHELE MILLER | Times ]
Published Mar. 30, 2020
Updated Mar. 30, 2020

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The day after President Trump extended his social distancing guidelines through April 30, Florida’s education commissioner on Monday called on school districts to remain closed until May 1.

The move applies to district and charter schools.

In-person classes already had been called off through April 15, with all spring testing canceled. Distance learning began in earnest Monday morning for most schools, after an extended spring break.

By mid-afternoon, commissioner Richard Corcoran was on the phone with superintendents telling them that he was recommending the closure be extended. The state does not have the formal authority to shut down schools, which are constitutionally operated by school boards.

Pasco school superintendent Kurt Browning
Pasco school superintendent Kurt Browning

“I think it’s pretty clear that when he makes a recommendation, that’s what he wants,” said Pasco County school superintendent Kurt Browning, also president of the state superintendents association. “So there’s not a school district in this state that’s going to reopen April 16.”

The news was expected, given the president’s weekend comments.

As a result, district officials said they’re ready to go. They will continue their remote learning plans and free meal services.

“Our district stands ready to support our students through their educational endeavors, by providing nutritious meals, and extending comfort to our students and staff,” Hillsborough County school superintendent Addison Davis said in an email statement. "We are here for our families and we appreciate their continued flexibility as we continue to navigate this uncharted territory.”

Athletic and other extracurricular activities also will remain canceled until further notice.

Browning said he, too, expected things to go as planned.

“We have our systems in place. Teachers have been trained,” he said. “The curriculum is pushed out and we expect students to be engaged in their learning.”

Pinellas County officials said they would follow the directive as well.

“Nothing really changes for us,” spokeswoman Isabel Mascareñas said. “We’ve got our digital learning in play, so we will continue with that digital learning until further notice.”

The district, like many across Florida, struggled with connectivity issues during its first full run with distance learning Monday. Students had trouble logging in and downloading materials.

Pinellas officials told parents in an evening call that the district is working to “refine and improve” online learning processes.

“Today was our first day of full implementation, and while there were some bumps, the transition was successful thanks to your cooperation and support," the message stated.

Related: Get Florida education news delivered to your inbox. Sign up for the Gradebook newsletter.

The decision for a longer shutdown did not come without some criticism.

Stephanie Baxter-Jenkins, executive director of the Hillsborough teachers union, expressed frustration with Gov. Ron DeSantis’ piecemeal approach.

“We’re probably not going back to school,” she said. “Let’s just settle into it. It seems to me we’re delaying making a call on the inevitable, and people would have more comfort if they knew.”

That sentiment was echoed by other officials, including Hernando School Board chairwoman Susan Duval, as well as parents and others who quickly started questioning why the state didn’t go all the way.

State Rep. Anna Eskamani
State Rep. Anna Eskamani

State Rep. Anna Eskamani, an Orlando Democrat, also has called on the state to be more aggressive in curtailing the coronavirus spread with even more enforced distancing.

She, too, took issue with DeSantis, saying he was blindly following Trump. She said Florida should do more to ensure a quality education for students.

“We need to do a lot better in delivering distance learning to our students,” Eskamani said, noting the lack of access to services that many had encountered already. “We’ve got to step up when it comes to resources.”

Pinellas School Board member Carol Cook
Pinellas School Board member Carol Cook

Pinellas County School Board member Carol Cook said she listened in on a conference call Monday with U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, D-St. Petersburg, where he talked about possible funding for Florida education programs “to try and make up for some of what might be a backslide.”

Cook said that could mean more money for programs like Summer Bridge, which helps kids boost their academic skills while school is out to prepare for the next grade.

“We’re going to meet (students) where they are when they come back,” she added. “We are going to do everything we can to move them along.”

Staff writers Megan Reeves and Marlene Sokol contributed to this report.

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