Gov. Ron DeSantis on Thursday would not rule out sending Florida’s schoolchildren back to their classrooms in May, if the conditions are right.
“We’re going to look at the evidence and make a decision," DeSantis said, when asked if he intended to keep schools closed for the remainder of the current academic year. "If it’s safe, we want kids to be in school. ... Even if it’s for a couple of weeks, we think there would be value in that.”
He made his comments toward the end of a 75-minute education roundtable that featured teachers and parents alongside government leaders. DeSantis said he wanted to focus on the issue because schooling, which affects millions of Floridians, has undergone such rapid and fundamental change due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
DeSantis cheered the state’s generally positive approach to a daunting switch away from school buildings and into learning from home. Difficulties certainly exist, he acknowledged, and he said his administration is attempting to address those.
For instance, he noted that the Department of Education had purchased about 32,000 laptop computers to distribute in small, rural districts that lacked the capacity to provide enough technology for all their students. The Florida Virtual School also is offering schools free access to 100 online courses, to make the curriculum easily available, while also ramping up to serve millions more children if needed, he added.
But DeSantis also recognized that the change to distance learning has come with a social downside for students who miss their daily interactions with friends and teachers. Seniors who might not have prom or graduation might feel the hit extra hard, he said.
That’s why he wanted to take the decision on reopening campuses in two-week increments, based on federal and health recommendations, rather than jump straight to the end point. He also signaled that, while some districts might need to remain shuttered, others don’t have similar virus concerns and could be viewed differently.
“It may be that not every county is going to be treated the same in all this,” DeSantis said, adding that whatever recommendation he makes, it will give everyone time to prepare.
The governor also spoke of the financial crisis that has hit the state as a result of all the closures, and said his administration is attempting to ease the crunch in areas such as unemployment benefit applications. One thing he said he’d like to protect is the teacher raises he advocated in the coming fiscal budget.
“We’re going to do the best we can to make sure that sticks,” he said.
The governor praised teachers, superintendents and others in the schools for their efforts during the pandemic, and had several speak during the roundtable. The group included Pinellas County school superintendent Mike Grego, Lakewood Elementary principal Stephanie Woodford and Lakewood teacher Ruth Morales.
State officials have touted Lakewood, previously one of Florida’s lowest performing schools, for its turnaround successes. Education commissioner Richard Corcoran said he frequently seeks insights from Grego, who once served as the state’s K-12 chancellor.
Grego called the work accomplished so far “monumental,” and said learning is continuing even though buildings are closed. He said up to 97 percent of Pinellas students have logged in to do their work, and teachers and others are reaching out to find the children who haven’t participated.
Woodford said at her heavily low-income school in south St. Petersburg, just two students had yet to take part in the lessons. She said her assistant principal joined her to go to their homes to try to find those two “scholars,” but to no avail.
Most important, Grego said, is keeping perspective during these trying times.
“Less is more,” he said, adding that everyone should favor “quality over quantity ... patience before programs ... love before lessons.”
“Let’s continue to balance our lives and support one another,” he said.
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