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National Union Leader Representing Teachers, Nurses Criticizes DeSantis' Coronavirus Response

Miami-Dade teachers attend a town hall with then-presidential candidate Beto O'Rourke hosted by the national union American Federation of Teachers in June 2019. The union's president, Randi Weingarten, has been sharply critical of Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Jessica Bakeman
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

The president of a national union representing teachers and nurses argues Gov. Ron DeSantis has mishandled the state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic by sending mixed messages about whether schools should be closed and waiting to issue a statewide order instructing residents to stay at home.

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American Federation of Teachers Randi Weingarten told WLRN the governor has ignored advice from health experts, contributing to Florida’s trajectory as a likely major U.S. hotspot for COVID-19.

“I am shocked — S-H-O-C-K-E-D — shocked that DeSantis did not close the beaches. I'm shocked that he is blaming New York, when you have a lot of kids from spring break that then took planes up to New York after their spring break, after they were on the beaches,” said Weingarten, whose union is the national affiliate for the statewide Florida Education Association and locals like the United Teachers of Dade.

DeSantis on Wednesday told Floridians to stay home unless they’re doing essential activities like buying food or medicine or engaging in solitary exercise. That was after weeks of resisting calls from health experts and local elected officials to shut down the whole state.

Weingarten also pointed to DeSantis’ at-times contradictory comments and actions on school closures.

Lacking direction from the state, South Florida school district leaders independently announced plans to temporarily shutter schools in mid-March. The state Department of Education followed with a statewide recommendation that campuses remain closed to students through April 15.

Then, last week, DeSantis said he was having second thoughts.

“I think there’s a question about whether the school closures have been effective. There’s really no evidence. You know, it was recommended,” DeSantis said during a news conference in Orlando on March 25. “Singapore, I don’t think they closed the schools. Some of the others didn’t. And there’s no difference in how the virus spread in either of the countries based on that. It just wasn’t a — there’s not a lot of data to support it. So you need to look to say, OK, if schools are closed, what stress does that put on the parents?”

Federal guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released March 13 says short-term school closures are not likely to be effective in limiting disease transmission, but closing schools for eight weeks or more could make a difference. The memo stated that Singapore, which did not close schools when experiencing its first wave of infections, did not see markedly different outcomes than Hong Kong, which did shutter campuses initially.

Despite DeSantis’ earlier misgivings, the state signaled to school districts this week that campuses should remain closed through at least May 1. Some superintendents, including those in Broward and Monroe counties, have said they expect remote learning to continue through the end of the school year.

The Florida Board of Education, which oversees K-12 schools and community colleges throughout the state, also took action to prepare Florida Virtual School — the state’s own online school district — for serving all students if the closures stretch into the fall.

Weingarten, the national union leader, said DeSantis’ apparent waffling on school closures was an example of his flawed leadership during the crisis.

“He said … he thought that school shouldn't be closed. He is actually doubting what was done initially, which seems ludicrous to me,” Weingarten said.

DeSantis is a Republican. AFT and other teachers' unions typically support Democrats.

Prior to extending school closures and issuing the stay-at-home order, DeSantis had argued it was important to keep the economy afloat to the extent possible, limiting people’s movement in parts of the state where there were many confirmed cases but taking a less heavy-handed approach in areas that appear less hard hit.

The governor also said he was waiting for a directive from the White House’s coronavirus task force.

“The task force has not recommended that to me. If they do, obviously that would be something that carries a lot of weight with me,” DeSantis said, according to WLRN’s news partner The Miami Herald.

In her exclusive interview with WLRN, Weingarten also commented on the challenges of remote learning and how education could change because of the pandemic. Here’s an excerpt of that conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity:

WLRN: How do you think remote learning — or the preparation for it, depending on the district — is going so far, and what do you see as the challenges?

Weingarten: Look, it starts and stops. A lot of people are trying to struggle through how you can even have all your kids on a Zoom at one moment — frankly, when a parent, at the same time, is also thinking about how he or she is doing work for his or her employer. Remote learning is very, very tough. I think we need to give everybody a little bit of grace here. Everybody is trying the best they can.

I think that we have to trust teachers to be able to work with their classes, to try to think through: What is the rest of the curricular work that you want to do this year, and how do we accomplish that? That's why I proposed a summative project in order to make sure we do that.

Do you think this crisis will change the way schools operate going forward?

This crisis is going to change our lives in so many different ways. But what I'm hearing more and more is a gratitude that people now have for actually having public schools, brick-and-mortar schools, and making those schools centers of community. The whole notion about schools being able to feed kids and make sure that we're helping homeless kids and vulnerable kids, particularly kids who have special needs. The relationship building, the connection with each other, the community building, the working together in classes, building on each other in terms of curriculum — there's a lot of gratitude towards all of that now that I didn't see four or five or six weeks ago.

Having said that, there will be some changes. People will learn, I think, to do homework in a different kind of way. There may be the kind of remote learning as homework and other things as a supplement to what happens in classrooms. I'm hoping, for example, that having term projects and capstone projects and project-based instruction becomes more of what we focus on as opposed to tests.

I’ve seen some memes online about how, after a few days of teaching their kids at home, parents would probably support huge raises for teachers. Jokes aside, do you think this experience could help people throughout the country gain a better understanding of the work that teachers do?

Yes, I think that people are starting to see just how hard it is to teach.

First off, it is great that parents are spending — the parents who can are spending — the time they're spending working with their kids on instruction. All of that stuff is something we have always wanted to have happen.

But it's also gratifying that people are starting to recognize and see how tough it is. It's not just standing in front of a classroom and saying, ‘This is the lesson of the day.’ It is how you communicate with kids, how you use that knowledge, how you care for kids. It is a skill. It's a science. It's an art. And it's great to see people seeing and understanding it.

Copyright 2020 WLRN 91.3 FM. To see more, visit WLRN 91.3 FM.

Jessica Bakeman reports on K-12 and higher education for WLRN, south Florida's NPR affiliate. While new to Miami and public radio, Jessica is a seasoned journalist who has covered education policymaking and politics in three state capitals: Jackson, Miss.; Albany, N.Y.; and, most recently, Tallahassee.