Pointing to closing ‘blunder,’ DeSantis says schools should bring struggling students back in-person

Tallahassee Democrat | by CD Davidson-Hiers | November 30, 2020

Florida public schools will remain open in 2021 and families will continue to have the option to keep students at home during the COVID-19 pandemic, Gov. Ron DeSantis announced on Monday. 

But the news came with one caveat, that parents with students who are struggling academically in remote learning situations will be notified by their school districts and the students will be required to return to in-person instruction — unless the family again actively elects to keep the student at home. 

The caveat is part of a new emergency order issued by Richard Corcoran, Florida’s commissioner of education.

In the order, which is dated Nov. 30, Corcoran writes that schools must provide written notification to parents about the students’ academic struggles, and parents must provide a written receipt of their intent to keep their students at home. 

At a press conference held at a Kissimmee elementary school, DeSantis called closing public schools during the coronavirus pandemic the “biggest public health blunder” in modern U.S. history and called his detractors “flat-earthers.” He said the effects of closing schools will be felt for years. 

“Virtual learning is just not the same as being in person,” DeSantis said of public education.

The announcement comes as Florida has seen a surge in cases in past weeks and is poised to cross the million-case mark on Tuesday.

An in-person connection, many educators and parents say, is often the linchpin for academic success. It’s why, despite the pandemic, a growing number of districts are requiring students struggling online to attend class in person, if that’s an option.

But an explosion of new COVID-19 infections challenges that effort. Already, the nation’s new COVID-19 spike is poised to send hundreds of thousands of students who were in school at least part time back to 100% remote learning.

New York City – where some 300,000 public school students are receiving some in-person instruction – is quickly approaching the community spread threshold that would trigger another shutdown. Mayor Bill de Blasio on Friday told parents to prepare for school buildings to close as early as Monday.

Earlier this month, county officials in Indianapolis ordered all public and private schools to close and return to online learning by Nov. 30 for safety reasons, a move that affects around 200,000 students.

And a number of urban districts that have operated fully online since the start of the year, such as San Diego, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Detroit, Anchorage, Alaska, and several big, suburban districts outside of Washington, D.C., are further delaying plans for in-class learning because of rising infections.

Florida is taking a different approach with DeSantis reiterating that in-person school is critical for students and parents. 

Florida’s public schools initially closed because of the pandemic in March. Leon County public classrooms reopened Aug. 31 with an option for families to enroll students in a school’s Digital Academy to learn from home.

Corcoran echoed DeSantis’ remarks and said that scientists who said that opening schools would be a “death march” for children have been proven wrong as schools across the globe have reopened. 

Healthcare officials, including in Leon County, long have advised that though children seem to not become as ill from COVID-19 as adults, they still are able to spread the virus.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also says that fewer children have become ill from COVID-19, but that children can spread the virus and in rare cases, die. 

To date, more than 140 students have tested positive for COVID-19 in Leon County Schools. 

District officials say the students are contracting the virus from exposure outside the classroom and that no students from the same teaching cohort have tested positive from an exposure. 

Also Monday, a state appeals court refused to reconsider a decision that backed DeSantis and Corcoran in a legal battle about the state’s push this summer to reopen schools amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The News Service of Florida reported that the 1st District Court of Appeal, with no explanation, issued two orders that denied motions by the Florida Education Association (FEA) teachers union and other plaintiffs for a rehearing in the case.

Separately, the FEA issued a statement after DeSantis’ announcement saying the union is “cautiously optimistic” that Corcoran’s order offers families and educators reassurances for the new year.

But the union added the state could do more for schools by suspending state standardized testing for another year during the pandemic. 

“The commissioner appears to have listened to the many educators, parents and superintendents calling out for stability for our students,” FEA President Andrew Spar said in a press release. “We hope the commissioner keeps listening. The state could do even more to help our students by suspending high-stakes standardized testing.

“That would allow more time for real learning, so that students and teachers can catch up from the disruption caused by (COVID-19). If some tests must be administered, they should not be make-or-break for our already stressed students and public schools.”


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