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Florida governor compares reopening schools during coronavirus pandemic to U.S. military raid that killed Osama bin Laden

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) on Aug. 12 compared the challenges to reopening schools amid coronavirus to the Navy SEAL raid that killed Osama bin Laden. (Video: The Washington Post)
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Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) on Wednesday compared the difficulties of reopening public schools for the 2020-21 academic year during the coronavirus pandemic with obstacles faced by the U.S. Navy SEAL team that killed Osama bin Laden in 2011.

DeSantis, a strong ally of President Trump, made the comment as most school districts in the state began the process of reopening for in-person instruction. Florida was a major hotbed of the pandemic earlier in the summer, and covid-19 rates remain high in some areas.

Nevertheless, DeSantis and Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran have pushed districts to reopen, threatening to withhold state funding from districts that offer only remote learning without explicit permission from the administration. Corcoran participated in a White House event Wednesday during which Trump, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and other speakers talked about why it was vital for campuses to reopen.

About 10 school districts in Florida have already begun in-person teaching, with dozens more set to reopen next week. At one elementary school in Martin County, nine students had to quarantine at home after a student showed covid-19 symptoms on the second day of school, according to TC Palm, a news website.

DeSantis on Wednesday gave a brief address about the reopening of schools and noted that Martin County Superintendent Laurie Gaylord had told him that she viewed the reopening of schools as a mission “akin to a Navy SEAL operation.”

“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,” he said, according to a transcript on the state government website. (Bin Laden was killed in a compound in Pakistan in May 2011 by a team of Navy SEALs from the U.S. Naval Special Warfare Development Group.)

DeSantis also said: “The superintendent of Suwanee County, Ted Roush, told me that never before in his 26-year career had he witnessed what he saw during the first day of school: parents not only bringing their kids to school, but also bringing presents and supplies for the teachers as a way to say thank you.”

About half a dozen of Florida’s 67 counties had planned to offer only remote learning because of high community covid-19 rates. But the DeSantis administration has approved remote learning plans for only a few districts, including Miami-Dade and Broward counties.

Hillsborough County’s school board voted last Aug. 6 to open remotely, but DeSantis and Corcoran appeared Monday at a charter school in the county and said that if charter schools could open for in-person classes, so could public schools.

From Aug. 5 to Aug. 12, Hillsborough reported 2,001 covid-19 cases. That’s more than Orange County, which had 1,916 cases during the same period and has been given permission by the state to reopen remotely.

Tanya Arja, spokeswoman for the Hillsborough school district, said the district, where covid-19 deaths are rising, had “explicitly followed the state’s executive order” when it voted to start remotely.

“The order provides school districts the option of not opening brick and mortar ‘subject to advise or orders of the Florida Department of Health, (or) local departments of health,’” she said in a statement.

“Last Thursday, our school board made an informed decision after hearing from the local public health authority and local infectious-disease experts,” she said. “The panel was asked if we should open our doors and not one medical professional could recommend opening today. The state’s order goes on to say the day-to-day decision to open or close a school always rests locally.”

But to complicate matters, USA Today reported Friday that while local school districts were initially told by state officials that they needed local health departments to approve reopenings, the DeSantis administration then told local health directors not to make recommendations to districts but only to provide information.

Requests for comment from the Florida Department of Health were not answered.