MIAMI — Of all the ways to describe the fraught decision to reopen schools during a pandemic, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, a former Navy prosecutor, chose an especially dramatic example when he compared the commitment of teachers and administrators to the resolve of Navy SEALs given the mission to go after Osama bin Laden.
“Just as the SEALs surmounted obstacles to bring Osama bin Laden to justice, so, too, would the Martin County school system find a way to provide parents with a meaningful choice of in-person instruction or continued distance learning — all in, all the time,” he said, citing the leader of a local school district.
He meant for the line to be inspirational. But perhaps unintentionally, DeSantis also highlighted an undeniable truth in Florida since students began returning to classrooms last week: There will be virus casualties.
In one of the states hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic, 13 counties reopened their schools last week in accordance with a statewide order for all schools to offer in-person instruction by the end of the month. At least three districts soon reported positive coronavirus tests among students or teachers, and with the state expected to hit the 10,000-death mark this week, there is a move among some local school officials to try to delay reopenings — a pushback that has been met with threats of a loss in state funding and a reminder that the road back will not be an easy one.
“If you have a COVID case or you have symptoms, don’t panic,” the state education commissioner, Richard Corcoran, told Florida school superintendents last week. “We are going to have cases, and that’s OK.”
The state allowed just the three largest districts — in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties, where the virus has been most entrenched — to remain online-only after Aug. 31. That has left many other local school officials juggling a complex mix of political, parental and public health concerns over a reopening mandate that has led to confusion and confrontation with a Republican governor who has long been a proponent of local control.
In Tampa, the Hillsborough County school board became convinced that reopening right away would lead to so much contagion that the schools would inevitably be forced to close again.
But when the school board changed its original reopening plan and elected to begin with four weeks of remote instruction, the state threatened to withhold $200 million in funding.
Addison Davis, the Hillsborough superintendent, drove from Tampa to Tallahassee, the state capital, to try to find a compromise and eventually settled on a plan to offer remote instruction for one week and then open classroom doors on Aug. 31.
“I was beyond surprised — I was really shocked,” Karen Perez, a school board member in Hillsborough and a clinical social worker, said about the state’s power to effectively override the board’s vote. “Imagine what’s going to happen in those classrooms. They’re going to be petri dishes for COVID.”
DeSantis has spent weeks promoting school openings, holding events with administrators, teachers and parents who say they are eager to go back to the classroom. The benefits of opening outweigh the health risks in most of the state, DeSantis says, and it is up to each district to decide how its reopening will work in practice.
“Some of this stuff is just not debatable anymore,” he said last week at a charter school in Riverview, near Tampa. “We’re going in a good direction in this area, and that’s just the reality.”
About a third of districts will be open for in-person instruction by the end of the week, and nearly all of the rest by the end of the month.
Parents in most districts have the choice to keep their children learning remotely from home. The families of about 54% of public school students — some 1.6 million children — have said they want to attend school in person, a lawyer for the Department of Education said last week.
School board members initially looked to county health officers to provide advice on whether their schools were safe to reopen and were outraged when the health officials, who are employed by the Florida Department of Health, told them they were not authorized by the state to recommend school openings or closures. Marc Dodd, a school board member in Lake County, near Orlando, said the local health officer did tell them the county did not meet the conditions to reopen.
“I received a call from another school board member in Brevard County asking, ‘How did you succeed? How did you get your local health department to give such specific advice?’” he said. “I guess we were lucky to ask early.”
Because of the state reopening order, the district is bringing back students anyway, though it delayed the first day of school until Aug. 24. Districts have had to secure their own protective and cleaning supplies and draft plans for what happens when students and employees inevitably get sick.
“At this point, the state is just so full steam ahead, they’re just not willing to listen or to look at various situations county by county,” Dodd said. “I think it’s irresponsible.”
A hearing is scheduled for Wednesday in a lawsuit filed by the American Federation of Teachers, the second-largest teachers’ union in the country, and one of its affiliates, the Florida Education Association. The union argues that the reopening mandate violates a requirement in Florida law that schools be “safe.”
When students returned to classrooms last week in Suwannee County, about midway between Jacksonville and Tallahassee, the district did not require facial coverings or social distancing, said Eric Rodriguez, 47, a high school teacher.
The district, where masks are voluntary, said it encouraged social distancing “to the greatest extent possible.” But that seems insufficient to Rodriguez, a Spanish and computer teacher who is the president of the local teachers’ union.
“What I don’t understand is why there would be any reluctance to make the reopening as safe as you possibly could,” he said.
In Martin County on Florida’s Treasure Coast, which prompted DeSantis’ Navy SEAL analogy, 310 students have been told to quarantine for 14 days since classes reopened on Aug. 11, with people in six schools developing coronavirus symptoms.
A student also tested positive for the virus in Wakulla County in North Florida.
And in Seminole County in Central Florida, a fifth-grade teacher tested positive for the virus, the district said.
Another state with an enormous coronavirus caseload, Texas, is also struggling to reopen its schools this month and next month. Gov. Greg Abbott has clearly told local school officials they are in charge of the decision. But the state has come down hard against any attempts by local public health officials to force schools to remain closed.
Late last month, Abbott and other top Republicans released a joint statement saying that local health authorities did not have the power to issue “preemptive, blanket” closures and could close individual schools only if an actual outbreak on campus warranted a shutdown.
The state has also supported school districts that wanted to reopen for in-person teacher trainings before the start of the school year.
In the suburb of Cypress, about 30 miles northwest of downtown Houston, the teachers’ union sued the district superintendent on Friday, seeking to halt three weeks of in-person training sessions for nearly 8,000 teachers and other school employees that began that day. The local chapter of the American Federation of Teachers said the sessions put employees’ health at risk, violated the county’s public health rules and could be done virtually.
The case quickly went to the Texas Supreme Court, which allowed the Cypress-Fairbanks district to require teachers to return for in-person training while the case is pending.
Ken Paxton, the state’s Republican attorney general, backed the district, stating in a letter to the court on Monday that the case had statewide implications.
“If this court allows the trial court’s order below to stand,” he wrote, “any number of trial courts may follow suit and further usurp the type of operational decisions best left to the districts themselves.”
Back in Tampa, the Hillsborough school district’s back-and-forth prompted misgivings for one parent, Earlishia Oates, who is unconvinced that her children, in fifth and 10th grades, should return to school.
“If you guys can’t even get that right — when we’re going to start — why would I believe that you’re going to have the things in school that we need to be safe?” she said.
She described remote learning in the spring as chaotic — she had three children in school at the time and only one working laptop — but Oates, who has since bought a second laptop, still plans to keep her remaining two children at home for now.
Her oldest daughter, who graduated high school in the spring, was hospitalized for a week this summer with COVID-19. Her daughter’s godparents were both sick, too, and one of Oates’ uncles died from the virus.
“I know what it can do,” she said. “I’ve seen it firsthand. And it’s scary.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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