The Republican’s administration told Hillsborough County — the eighth-largest system in the country — that it would lose state aid if it did not drop plans to reopen schools remotely for the first month of the 2020-2021 school year. So the county revised its plan and will start with just one week of remote learning. Then parents will choose whether to send their children into school buildings.
“It was very clear. If we do not follow their emergency order, we will be financially hindered,” Hillsborough Superintendent Addison Davis said Thursday. “We would forfeit close to $200 million. We just can’t do that. That would bankrupt us. It would put us in a terrible situation financially.”
DeSantis, a strong ally of President Trump, who wants schools opened, cited Martin County Superintendent Laurie Gaylord’s view of reopening 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,” DeSantis said in a speech Wednesday.
That day, nine students were sent home from an elementary school in Martin County to quarantine after a student showed symptoms of covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.
At least a dozen school systems in the state opened their doors for face-to-face learning this week, while still giving parents the option of virtual classes.
DeSantis’s administration is playing hardball with other school districts, too, in a state that is one of the nation’s coronavirus hot spots, forcing them to reopen buildings now or earlier than they want. Other governors have linked reopening schools to state funding, but none as explicitly as DeSantis.
Palm Beach County was forced by the state to rewrite its plan for school reopenings and now will reopen school buildings to all students earlier than it wanted. Hendry County is a small school district in South Florida with a very high rate of positive coronavirus tests — 21.4 percent on Thursday, according to the Florida Department of Health — that had wanted to open remotely but under state pressure will open campuses on Aug. 31.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization say a safe standard for reopening schools would be a coronavirus positivity rate below 5 percent. The positivity rate in Hillsborough County is 8 percent, and there are fears in many parts of the state that infection rates will rise, with close to 1 million people expected to visit Florida over the Labor Day weekend.
The Florida chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics released new guidance on school reopenings in late July, urging that science and safety drive all decisions on how to start the academic year.
But DeSantis’s administration has been trying to sideline local health officials, telling them not to give recommendations to districts about whether it is safe for them to reopen. The Florida Education Association sued him and other officials in an attempt to keep school buildings closed, saying reopening them was not safe. Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran called the suit frivolous.
The Orange County Classroom Teachers Association is suing the school district to stop face-to-face learning, and on Friday a judge set an expedited hearing for Monday on the demand by the organization that the county school district turn over public records that relate to coronavirus infections and safety measures being taken.
Jimbo Jackson, principal at the K-8 Fort Braden School in Leon County in northern Florida, mourned the virus-related deaths of three people tied to the school in the span of less than a month — even as he battled the virus himself. His wife and brother also contracted the virus.
Jordan Byrd, 19, a school custodian, died on July 18; his mother, Jacqueline Byrd, 55, a retired school worker, died Aug. 10. And Karen Bradwell, 53, a friend of the Byrd family and the after-school program manager for the school, died July 25.
“It’s of great concern to me that we won’t be able to guarantee the safety of our staff and students,” Jackson said about the imminent reopening. “I have the perspective of being a covid[-19] survivor and also of walking two families through the unexpected passing of their family members. It’s nothing you ever want to do, and to have it happen three times now, I think it makes me see it differently.”
He said about 50 percent of the school’s students have opted to take online-only classes for the beginning of the semester, but he wishes all families would have chosen the at-home option.
“I would encourage parents, if they have the ability to keep the children at home as distance learners, to do that until we see a drastic improvement in the numbers, or possibly through the discovery of a viable vaccine,” Jackson said.
Florida has pressed ahead to reopen schools even as schools to the north, in Georgia, opened and then shut down to contend with infections among students and staffers. In Cherokee County, 900 students and staff members were forced to quarantine after nearly 60 people tested positive for the virus. Another high school, where a student posted a photo of a crowded hallway on Twitter, recently closed temporarily when nine people tested positive.
A handful of school systems in South Florida, the hardest-hit part of the state, will be permitted to keep their school buildings closed. Miami-Dade and Broward counties — the fourth- and seventh-largest districts in the country, respectively — have permission from the state to start the school year virtually and keep their buildings closed until at least the start of October.
One high school principal in Palm Beach, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of fear of retaliation, said he was deeply disturbed to see schools pressured into opening, especially as he watched schools in Georgia and Mississippi close after students and staffers tested positive. He said he recently held an in-person orientation for new teachers and thanked them for “being courageous.”
“We need the money to keep the schools open and pay the teachers,” the principal said. “You’re being held hostage.”
The county is spending nearly $4 million to address the pandemic. Some of that money is going to buy 82,000 Chromebook laptops for students who need computers for online learning.
DeSantis, who said he would send his three children to school if they were old enough — they are all under 4 — said parents and teachers told him they want schools to reopen now.
“I’ve spoken with teachers who are just concerned about the achievement gaps that’ll likely continue to develop without having that in-person instruction,” DeSantis said Monday during a meeting at Winthrop College Prep Academy, a charter school in Hillsborough County. “I’ve heard from a lot of parents about, yes, that academic component, which is very important, but also just the social and developmental aspects of being in school compared to having to always be at home.
“And I think that’s especially true for a lot of our low-income families,” DeSantis said. “I mean, you have families in Florida, you may have one single mom that’s got three kids in school, and she’s got to work.”
Corcoran was also at that meeting, and he mentioned that while DeSantis’s children are too young for school, his own six children were going back to school.
“All my children are in public schools,” Corcoran said. “I have two in high school, one in middle school, two in elementary school and one in university. All six of my children are going back to their campuses because we’ve made that decision that we think that’s best for them.”
In Duval County in northeastern Florida — where the Republican National Convention was set to be staged in August before Trump canceled it because of the coronavirus — the school system allowed parents to choose whether to keep their children at home for virtual learning or return to school for face-to-face instruction a few days a week. Education leaders in the county had thought about going entirely virtual but realized that too many students did not have computers.
Shannon Beckham, who has two children in the school system there, said her family agonized over how to proceed. Eventually, they decided both children would stay home for the first nine weeks of school. They worried about possibly exposing a family member with medical issues to the virus.
“It was such a hard decision. My daughter was in tears. She misses seeing her friends, and the community, and the closeness,” Beckham said. “Everybody wants to go back to school. I want my children to go back. I don’t know a single parent who doesn’t want their child back in school.
“But the state hasn’t done enough to ensure their safety,” she said. “They could have offered more resources. I think Duval County has done the best it could with what it has, but given the pressure from the state, they really didn’t have much of a choice.”
“They’re being held hostage by the state of Florida, which is a shame,” she said. “It didn’t have to be this way.”
Balingit and Strauss reported from Washington.