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Florida Teachers Balance Safety and Instruction As Pandemic Lingers

Miami Herald

Florida teachers won in court this week even as more school districts return to the classroom. A judge ruled the state order to reopen brick-and-mortar schools by Aug. 31 or lose funding is unconstitutional.

The Florida Education Association filed a lawsuit after the state ordered teachers back to class five days a week, despite the COVID-19 pandemic. The state says it’ll appeal the ruling. Despite the ruling, many public schools in Florida remain open for in-person instruction, and many more will open in the coming weeks.

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Classrooms in Martin, Seminole, and Wakulla counties, are among those that closed their doors shortly after reopening because of exposure to the virus. In some districts, teachers who do not want to return to face-to-face learning have limited options — resign, retire, or take unpaid leave.

On the Florida Roundup, hosts Tom Hudson and Melissa Ross spoke with Rob Kriete, president of the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association, Kelly Haddox, Martin County Education Association executive board member, and Rob Paschall, an elementary school teacher in Orlando.

MELISSA ROSS: What's your reaction to the judge's ruling?

ROB KRIETE: Right now, we're pretty excited that he realizes that it's a huge government overreach by basically dictating conditions and the approval of plans, and threatening financial consequences to districts across the state if they don't follow exactly what they believe is in the emergency order, and trying to decide what every local needs to do. So we're pretty excited that we're in a good spot and that the judge is ruling in our favor as of right now.

ROSS: The judge essentially sided with Florida teachers saying that they should not be forced to go back in two classrooms five days a week if they fear for their health and safety. Of course, the DeSantis administration is appealing this ruling. So there's a stay for now. What's the next move for your teachers association? We don't anticipate any immediate changes in the classroom situation where you are in Hillsborough County or really anywhere in the state while this is litigated.

KRIETE: Right now, our teachers are finishing up their very first week of school, which we're calling Smart Start Week because everyone who's done it in an intelligent manner by doing it through e-learning. Our numbers for COVID cases were really off the chart several weeks ago in Hillsborough. So, our decision was that we would do this for an entire month.

Commissioner Corcoran sent us a letter saying that he was going to withhold financial funds from our schools if we were to go beyond this week with e-learning. So the case really helps us with what we want to do. But as of right now, our school board is planning to send our teachers, students back to brick-and-mortar for those that are choosing e-learning, starting Monday.

TOM HUDSON: A few weeks in, 450 students and staff at nine schools moved. How would you describe the first few weeks of back to the classroom learning in Martin County?

KELLY HADDOX: Over 400 students and teachers are frightened, anxious; they cry on their way to work. They're very concerned, obviously. And while I was preparing for this interview and just a half-hour before you had me on, I started getting texts that at another school, just in the last half-hour, 19 students and three more teachers, are quarantined at our local high school. People are scared for their safety, for the students, for the staff, for themselves.

HUDSON: So are you satisfied with how the district has handled it? When someone tests positive, you mentioned just getting a text message here in the last hour or so.

HADDOX: I'm not satisfied at all. Martin County is the only county that has deemed their teachers to be essential workers. And that means that once our teachers are exposed unless, or until they test positive or they're symptomatic, they're expected to be back in school. We know from doctors, we know from the researchers that this is the time you are most contagious.

ROSS: What have the first few weeks of class been like for you and your students?

ROB PASCHALL: The first few weeks have been a little bit bumpy. As you mentioned, the first nine days were virtual learning only. That gave us a chance to try out a couple of platforms and internet connectivity. We began face-to-face instruction last Friday.

ROSS: You teach fifth grade. So you've got students who are socially distancing, wearing masks. You're teaching some in person, some virtually. How do you balance and manage all that? But this has added a lot of wrinkles to your job.

PASCHALL: There's certainly been some more time that's needed to dedicate to preparing lessons that can be accessed by face-to-face students, as well as my 13 scholars that remain at home on the Launch Ed program that we have. We have our learning management system that allows us to continue to have a conversation in the classroom.

I have five students that are with me. We are all eight-to-10 feet apart. We all wear our masks all day, the entire time. So we're still working through a couple of kinks. But I think that the thing I'm most excited about is so many educators sharing so many ideas to help each other.

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Denise Royal