Florida's education commissioner says that when schools open in the fall, they'll really open.
In the state where more than 7,300 new coronavirus cases were announced on Tuesday, Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran declared that upon reopening in August, "all school boards and charter school governing boards must open brick and mortar schools at least five days per week for all students."
The executive order signed Monday is "subject to advice and orders" from state and local health departments and other executive orders.
It demands that schools not only open but also "provide the full array of services that are required by law so that families who wish to educate their children in a brick and mortar school full time have the opportunity to do so."
Those services include in-person instruction unless barred by a state or local health directive, specialized instruction for students with Individualized Education Programs, or remote instruction that allows for interaction with a student's teacher and peers, as approved by the education commissioner.
The order specifically requires that the services be provided to students from low-income families, students whose parents are migrant workers, and students who are homeless, have disabilities, are living in foster care or are learning English.
Florida made the announcement as huge questions about the upcoming school year have come into view for districts across the country. Will classes be virtual or in person? Will kids be required to wear masks? How will classrooms accommodate social distancing? What happens when teachers get sick? And perhaps the biggest one of all: If kids don't go back to school, what will working parents do?
Reaction to the Florida order from educators has been cautious.
The superintendent of Miami-Dade County Public Schools, Alberto Carvalho, called the order "fair and measured," noting that "it allows for different instructional models, traditional schoolhouse as well as other innovative options; and guarantees fiscal stability during a highly-unpredictable time, the first quarter of the year."
The Miami-Dade school district recently released its own reopening plan, which emphasizes parent choice, offering options of daily attendance at a school, full-time online learning or a hybrid. The district says that if building utilization is low – that is, few students attend in person — a school will adopt a five-days-a-week in school attendance model. But if school utilization is high – that is, many students go to school in person – a school may shift to physical attendance every other day or two days in a row.
In an interview with CNN, Carvalho said the district's reopening plan is contingent on Florida making progress on reining in the spread of the virus.
"I will not reopen our school system Aug. 24 if the conditions are what they are today," he said. "Our reopening plan contemplates a phase two reality. We are still in phase one – a phase one that has degraded over the past few weeks."
The state's largest teachers union, the Florida Education Association, expressed concern about the state order. Union President Fedrick Ingram said no one wants schools to open more than the teachers, but they want the reopening plan to be guided by science rather than economic interests.
"We also want to ensure the safety of everyone who is in our public schools," Ingram told reporter Susan Giles Wantuck from NPR member station WUSF. "We're going to have to listen to the voices of those public health officials from the federal government and from our state government."
Ingram added, "We are hoping that as Florida pushes through this virus that is ravaging throughout our state, with our cases being diagnosed on thousands across the state a day, that our commissioner of education and our governor are being guided by scientific knowledge, more so than the economy."
Ingram said there's anxiety among teachers about the prospect of going back to school as the executive order doesn't outline measures to ensure the safety of staff and students.
"It does not give a detailed account of what schools are expected to have," Ingram said. "How much we're going to be able to clean schools, cleaning stations, how do we adhere to the social distancing, mask-wearing from students and our teachers? There's a lot to be desired as it relates to a particular plan, but we have not seen that yet. So there's a lot of angst from teachers across the state."
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