Do Florida school buildings have to be open in August?

The answer isn't so clear.
Florida Senate President Bill Galvano speaks about school reopening during a July 11, 2020, press conference in Bradenton.
Florida Senate President Bill Galvano speaks about school reopening during a July 11, 2020, press conference in Bradenton. [ The Florida Channel ]
Published July 13, 2020|Updated July 14, 2020

The language of the Department of Education’s emergency order on school reopening uses the phrase just once.

“Upon reopening in August,” it states, districts and charters must make bricks and mortar buildings available five days a week for all students to receive all services.

But are the schools mandated to open in August? Or is that just a desire?

The question came up a couple of times at Gov. Ron DeSantis’ weekend press conference in Bradenton, and the answer never completely materialized.

That despite Senate President Bill Galvano’s declaration that “the DOE order cannot be ignored. It must be adhered to.”

Galvano focused his attention on the language discussing five-day-per-week accessibility, but not the two words “in August.” And he made his remarks after DeSantis spoke for a few minutes about the important role local officials must play in making the decisions relating to school reopening.

“The school boards need to be involved, the superintendents,” DeSantis said. “It’s got to be a collaborative effort.”

The governor repeated his frequent talking points about how important it is for children to get back to in-person learning, and how children face fewer health risks from the virus than adults. Then he reiterated the need for local judgment in the schools.

“I do think the local folks are going to have to fashion things,” he said.

And the state law makes clear that one item school boards are responsible for is setting their own academic calendars. The only thing the law dictates is that classes may not begin before Aug. 10.

It doesn’t set a date afterward.

The law also sets forth the number of days, or equivalent hours, that students must receive instruction.

Notably, though, the emergency order waives strict compliance with both those sections of law to allow districts flexibility in their reopening plans. And, the resumption of in-person classes is dependent on advice from local health experts.

Why mention August, then?

Department spokeswoman Taryn Fenske said the state wants schools to reopen — at the very least for any students who need or want to be there daily — and observed that all school boards already had submitted their 2020-21 calendars. Each indicated plans to begin classes in August, she noted, so using the month in the order was no stretch.

Still, some observers suggested, boards could go back and vote in new starting dates and shift their instructional days or hours, as permitted in the order and in law. A handful of districts are actively discussing doing exactly that.

Which makes the entire conversation hazy at best, said Ron Meyer, the Tallahassee lawyer who has contended the state cannot supersede school boards’ constitutional authority to supervise and operate district schools.

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“It’s at least ambiguous,” Meyer said, adding that confusion is the last thing anyone needs when dealing with such an important issue.

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