Educating students during a pandemic was never going to be easy. Weighing the best educational practices with the need for safety has been a delicate balancing act. But Florida’s public schools have functioned reasonably well this first semester, with a blend of limited in-person instruction and distance learning. The Florida Department of Education made that possible by agreeing to fully fund districts so long as they offered an in-person option to all students. That decision has worked well, and it should continue for the second semester.
During the pandemic, the state created funding rules that didn’t penalize schools if students weren’t attending in person, as long as the schools offered face-to-face classes for anyone who wanted them. Such reasonable accommodations allowed districts to offer robust online learning programs to families who did not want their children attending brick-and-mortar schools. This is no time to force parents to send their children back to a classroom if they feel it’s unsafe.
Around the state, COVID-19 infection rates are rising, and the death toll approaches 18,000. Schools, though, are doing a decent job of keeping school-borne infections in check. This is possible, in no small part, because many students are still attending classes online. That means physical classrooms are not crowded, so social-distancing and other safety measures are easier to implement. Students, teachers and staff have adapted to wearing masks. Even so, nearly 2,300 students and staffers have tested positive in Tampa Bay school systems through the middle of this month.
As state officials are fond of pointing out, parents should have a choice, and indeed they should. Parents, students and school districts should be able to base their decisions on what’s best for the student’s education and safety, not be forced to make decisions as a result of state orders that could strip money away from districts.
State Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran has promised to announce his plans before Thanksgiving, and it’s anticipated he will reveal his order at Wednesday’s state Board of Education meeting in Tallahassee. It is often argued that lower-income families and students of color suffer disproportionately from lack of in-person instruction. But these are the same families hit unduly hard by the pandemic. Who is better positioned to decide what is best for them? The families themselves? Or bureaucrats in Tallahassee?
Giving students the option of continued distance learning doesn’t mean they can’t rejoin a classroom. Many school districts have allowed students who were learning online to rejoin in-person classes at various intervals during the first semester. But Corcoran should leave that decision where it belongs: with the local school districts and the families they serve. Districts are learning as they go, and a second semester should roll out better than the first.
For those who truly believe in school choice, this is an easy call: Let families — parents and students — decide what is best for themselves. Keep the current options in place for the second semester. A tough winter lies ahead. The promise of two vaccines is tantalizingly close but still months away from being widely available. This is no time to change a system that is working fairly well.
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Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Times Chairman and CEO Paul Tash, Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, and editorial writers Elizabeth Djinis, John Hill and Jim Verhulst. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news