Florida’s statewide teachers union called on Gov. Ron DeSantis Tuesday to “declare the previously unthinkable” and keep schools closed through the end of the school year due to the coronavirus.
“As much as our students and educators want the opportunity to be back at our schools, returning prematurely will threaten the safety and well-being of all on campus,” Florida Education Association president Fedrick Ingram wrote in a letter. It was sent to the governor and state education commission Richard Corcoran on behalf of the union’s 145,000 members.
The letter comes less than a week after DeSantis said he would not rule out reopening schools next month, if conditions are right.
In the letter, Ingram pointed out that teachers across the state have been asked to “rethink, refocus and redirect their classroom instruction” to teach students online since the state recommended campus closures last month. They’ve succeeded and are prepared to continue, he said.
“While we have concerns with distance learning and the inevitable inequities that result from it,” he wrote, “we are committed to serving the students and parents of Florida on the various platforms until the school year end.”
About one-fifth of schools in the state have more than 1,000 students in attendance each day, plus faculty and staff, Ingram wrote. That makes social distancing is impossible on many campuses.
Ingram called COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, an uncontrollable threat. The damage it could cause outweighs the inconvenience of remote learning, he said.
To end the letter, Ingram quoted Dr. Anthony Fauci, the country’s top infectious disease expert: "If it looks like you are overreacting, you are probably doing the right thing.” Some might accuse DeSantis of overreaction if he grants the union’s request, Ingram said, but the stakes are too high to do otherwise.
“Governor, we are calling on your leadership,” he wrote. “Now is the time to listen to the medical experts. Now is the time to provide clarity for students, parents and educators throughout the state.”
At a briefing Tuesday in Tallahassee, DeSantis said any decision on reopening schools would be based on safety considerations and input from superintendents and parents.
“It doesn’t mean that they’re not going back, but we just need to get down this road a little bit further,” he said.
He said he planned to announce a task force this week that would examine what he called “Phase 2” of the coronavirus crisis in Florida, including what to do about schools.
“It’s not just about going back to school at the end of May for a couple of weeks,” DeSantis said. "We’re talking about what the fall semester is going to look like for K-12, what’s it going to look like for our universities. ... We’re assuming, maybe there will be an anti-viral developed. Is there going to be this wave and then a second wave that comes back in the fall? So there’s a lot of things you need to be prepared for.”
In recent interviews before Ingram sent the letter, some local school officials seemed to agree that it’s too soon to reopen campuses. Pasco County school superintendent Kurt Browning on Monday suggested there isn’t enough left of the school year to merit doing so.
“You have employees out there who will say, ‘I don’t want to come back because it’s too soon,’" he said. "I’ve got parents who will say, ‘I’m not sending my children back.’
At that point, Browning said, a question arises: Should the district should offer two forms of schooling — one on campuses and another online? "No, I’m not going to do that,” he said.
Aside from logistics, it’s too dangerous to send kids back to schools, Browning added: “The worst thing that could happen for us is to get back to some level of normalcy and then have a spike because we jumped the gun."
Manatee County school superintendent Cynthia Saunders took a similar stance. Bringing students back too early this year is a risk that could delay the start of next school year, she said.
“All of us are eager to return to our normal way of life that we were accustomed to," she wrote in an email. “However, the safety of our students, employees, and community must be our top priority at this time."
After DeSantis mentioned the possibility of reopening schools in May, the pushback on social media was swift, and mostly negative.
Many parents and educators made clear they had no intention of compromising anyone’s health when they’re uncertain the virus has run its course.
Some union leaders wrote on Facebook that they had documents ready to demand to bargain on the subject, if the issue were to arise. There were also several people who said that if things were proven safe, they were more than ready to let the kids return and have a normal end to the school year.
Times Staff Writer Mike Van Sickler contributed to this report.
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