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DeSantis Says Schools Will Remain Open In Spring, But Parents Will Have Choice

Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during a news conference on Nov. 30, 2020.
Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during a news conference on Nov. 30, 2020.

Gov. Ron DeSantis said closing schools was a public blunder and that parents can choose between in-school and virtual learning.

Public school instruction will continue in-person and online this spring as coronavirus cases continue to increase across Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis and Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran said Monday.

Appearing at Boggy Creek Elementary School in Kissimmee, DeSantis supported a new order by Corcoran that will keep the online option available and provide protections for school-district funding.

But DeSantis and Corcoran emphasized the importance of in-person learning. The order requires students struggling with virtual learning to shift to brick-and-mortar classrooms unless their parents formally object.

“The data and the evidence is overwhelmingly clear, virtual learning is just not the same as being in person,” said DeSantis, who has argued that schools are safe amid the pandemic.

“We wanted to figure out a way to still offer the parents choice, but to really put the onus on the school districts to be monitoring this, and when they see students fall behind, to really be affirmative and engaging with the parents,” DeSantis continued.

DeSantis, who attended a high-school football playoff game Friday in Vero Beach, called the closure of schools during the pandemic "probably the biggest public health blunder in modern American history." Florida and other states closed schools in March as the pandemic hit, and some areas of the country have shuttered classrooms again this fall.

DeSantis said the harm from the closure of schools will “reverberate” for years and labeled people who advocate for closing schools as “today’s flat earthers.”

“All you had to do is talk to a teacher, they all said the same thing, that it was not the same, and that kids were falling behind,” DeSantis added.

The Florida Education Association teachers union and other plaintiffs filed a lawsuit this summer challenging a July order by Corcoran that was aimed at reopening schools. The plaintiffs argued that Corcoran’s order would force teachers to “needlessly expose themselves to a deadly and contagious virus based solely on a blanket and arbitrary decision that schools must reopen for in-person instruction or lose their funding.”

A Leon County circuit judge in August sided with the plaintiffs, but his ruling was overturned by a panel of the 1st District Court of Appeal. The appeals court Monday refused requests by the plaintiffs for a rehearing.

After DeSantis and Corcoran announced the new order Monday about the second half of the school year, the union expressed cautious optimism that it “offers our public schools a much-needed measure of reassurance for the new year.”

“Florida’s schools remain underfunded, and COVID-19 continues to create terrible disruption, but the state’s support for students on-campus and off should remain stable this spring,” a news release from the union said.

FEA President Andrew Spar suggested the state could also suspend “high-stakes standardized testing” or that tests be made less “make or break,” so students and teachers can catch up from the coronavirus disruption.

A key issue in the union lawsuit involved part of the July order that dealt with the way public schools are funded. The order effectively conditioned a portion of money on school districts submitting reopening plans that included the use of brick-and-mortar classrooms, in addition to offering online alternatives.

In Monday’s order, school districts must submit a plan by Dec. 15 that meets Corcoran’s requirements for the spring, which continues a requirement of schools being open five days a week for in-person instruction.

Corcoran’s latest order also outlines learning and supplemental intervention services, with an emphasis placed on reading and mathematics.

Almost 40 percent of the state’s public-school students have been studying remotely in the current semester.

The plan for the spring came after state officials worked with the Florida Association of District School Superintendents.

Appearing at the news conference, Osceola County Superintendent Debra Pace said the order provides districts a “bit more fiscal stability,” while helping parents not ready to send their children into brick-and-mortar classrooms.

“We do know that learning happens best in a classroom with a caring teacher, surrounded by their peers,” Pace said. “But we also know that’s not the right option for some of our families, some students who've been successful in the digital learning world.”

The event was the first for DeSantis since a Nov. 4 appearance before the media at the Capitol.

Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, the only statewide elected Democrat, called DeSantis’ approach to the pandemic “bullish,” with “a lack of empathy that really is my greatest concern as we’ve gone through this pandemic.”

“Every community is going to be a little different. Every community is seeing different spikes,” Fried said on Monday. “Not giving that type of authority to the locals and not trying to show leadership on this has really been his downfall. He really has lost a lot of the public’s trust in dealing with this response.”

Since Nov. 15, the state has averaged more than 8,500 new coronavirus cases a day, the highest rate since late July.

Asked about requests to require Floridians to wear masks, DeSantis maintained his opposition to issuing such mandates.

“How has that worked out in the states that have done it? Has that stopped an outbreak in Minnesota, Illinois, Michigan. What about New Jersey? What about all these states where you have an explosion in cases?” DeSantis replied. “So, I mean, at some point, does the observed experience matter? I'm opposed to mandates. Period. I don't think they work.”

News Service Assignment Manager Tom Urban contributed to this report.

Copyright 2020 WUSF Public Media - WUSF 89.7

Jim Turner - News Service of Florida