As COVID-19 outbreaks spike in Florida, Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran is ordering public schools to reopen in August and offer “the full panoply of services” to students and families.
Under the emergency order, Corcoran said all public schools will be required to reopen next month for at least five days a week, and provide the full menu of services required by law, including in-person instruction and services for students with special needs.
“The message should be loud and clear — with a strong recommendation to our great superintendents that we work with – we want schools fully open in the fall,” said Corcoran. “Because there is no better way to educate our kids than have that great teacher in front of that child.”
Florida’s 67 school districts must also follow the advice of state and local health officials as well as executive orders issued by Gov. Ron DeSantis. He and Corcoran have been pushing to open the schools in August, despite reports from the Florida Department of Health of increases in new COVID-19 cases over the past two weeks.
“[Students] are not at a low risk; they are at an extremely low risk – not only of contracting it, but even spreading it; all of that data is [sic] in,” Corcoran claimed. “What we do know is not having that world-class education with that teacher in front of that child, there is real, significant, long-term harm that you can’t recover.”
“There’s some negative pieces to the Governor’s order that certainly is stark; I certainly feel like we’ve got to exercise a great deal of grace and a great deal of compassion as we roll through,” said Santa Rosa County School Superintendent Tim Wyrosdick.
“The issue that the public schools were having is working in this limbo of how to accommodate all opportunities, and it was just a very frustrating time piece,” Wyrosdick said. “I know the opinion is not popular, or it may not be popular to among many, but it certainly gave schools a direction in which to plan and to plan well.”
The process in Santa Rosa began about two months ago with the “Planning Ahead 20-21 Team.” Parents, teachers, administrators and community members looked at guidelines from the CDC, state DOH, and Department of Education – all with the high priority of reopening schools.
“It concurs with what our parents were telling us – and have been telling us – that the majority of them really want their child to be in a school with a high-quality teacher,” Wyrosdick said. “They know, as we do, that’s the best-case scenario for learning. So we’re building some parameters about what that looks like.”
Coronavirus-related changes in the Santa Rosa District, says Wyrosdick, include those that will affect the school atmosphere.
“You’re going to see limited access to classrooms; you’re going to see limited access to schools; I think the nature of the executive order the commissioner gave us was, ‘Open schools, brick and mortar, and build systems to accommodate for the needs of students and employees,’” Wyrosdick said. “I think we’re in good shape for what would be an August opening.”
Escambia County Superintendent Malcolm Thomas rolled out his district’s reopening game plan on Wednesday, giving students three options to attend classes – traditional, remote learning, and virtual school. It’s up to parents, he says, which choice they favor.
“So if you want the traditional option, you make that selection,” Thomas said. “If a parent does not make a choice, the default method is traditional. We’re going to assume that if you don’t tell us anything differently, we’re going to schedule your student; route your student on the bus, and expect then to show up the first day of school.”
Remote and virtual learning are designed to teach students out of the classroom; but Thomas says the two options are not identical.
“Remote is essentially school, during school hours away from home with a lot of teacher interaction and teacher instruction,” said Thomas. “Virtual doesn’t have a schedule; virtual has a prescribed curriculum [and] very little teacher interaction. So the students that would choose virtual need to be relative independent.”
And there are a lot more safety features that Escambia County students will notice – and participate in – when the doors open next month. They start with drinking fountains, considered one of the unhealthiest spots in a school even in pre-COVID times.
“First phase it to remove the ability for a person to put their mouth on the nozzle; those will first be replaced with just a piece of pipe that turns down, so that the student can their bottle with water,” Thomas said. “We will replace every water fountain with a bottle-filling station."
Feeding more than 40,000 students – already a chore – will also change to help fight coronavirus, in the form of “Grab-and-Go” pre-packed lunches. Elementary students will eat in their classrooms, while cafeterias will be used at the secondary level.
“Many of our high schools, we are putting up tents outside and picnic tables, so if the weather makes that permissible, students can eat outside,” said Thomas. “And we can minimize and distance our students to the best of our ability. But it will not be what you hear recommended – six-foot distance and all of those issues – that is not possible in a traditional school environment, face-to-face.”
Part of the reopening plan is developing protocols if students are exposed to positive or potentially positive COVID-19 cases. Thomas says it doesn’t necessarily mean the entire class will be isolated unless it’s necessary.
“If the Department of Health tells us that we need to isolate a group of students, then we will isolate those students for 10 school days – 14 calendar days.” Thomas said. “During that time, we will shift those students to remote, so they can continue their lessons. They’re all on the same pace, doing the same lessons for the same grade level.”
Information on school reopenings in the Escambia and Santa Rosa Districts can be found on their respective websites.