By John Haughey | The Center Square
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis implored school districts Wednesday to open classrooms as soon as possible for in-person instruction, a concession the state cannot force school boards to comply with Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran’s order to provide “the full panoply of services” in August.
In a seven-minute scripted address, DeSantis said parents are not being forced to send children to school if they don’t want to and accommodations will be made for teachers and staff who don’t feel comfortable returning to classrooms.
The governor said school districts that need more time to prepare should "have at it" and can open when school boards and county health officials say it is safe.
DeSantis reiterated, often with impassioned emphasis, however, schools should be open and classrooms available for face-to-face instruction for those who need it.
“The choice before us is whether we face our challenges with determination and resolve, guided by evidence, or whether we allow ourselves to become paralyzed by fear,” DeSantis said. “Fear doesn’t help us combat the virus.
“Here’s the hard truth,” he continued. “Our kids are at the least risk from this virus and much lower than they are from seasonal influenza. Our kids also play the smallest role in transmission of the virus.”
Despite this, DeSantis said, Florida’s children "have borne the harshest burden of the controlled measures instituted to protect against the virus."
While criticism has focused on the costs of reopening schools, the governor said the costs of not reopening schools also need to be considered.
“It’s often asked whether it’s safe to return kids to school. It should also be asked how safe it is to keep schools closed,” DeSantis said. “While the risk to in-person learning is low, the cost of keeping kids out of school is enormous.
"You can bet your bottom dollar,” he continued, “keeping schools closed will exacerbate existing achievement gaps between demographic groups, lead to more kids dropping out of school, disproportionately impact economically (disadvantaged) Floridians, foster more social isolation, depression and anxiety, harm students with special needs and deprive students of the ability to engage in sports and extracurricular activities.”
Everyone wants to do the right thing, DeSantis said.
“Let’s just find a way to make do," he said. “While the risk to students from in-person learning is low, the costs of keeping schools closed are enormous."
DeSantis spoke in response to mounting opposition to what some interpreted as an unconstitutional state mandate to reopen schools.
The 130,000-member Florida Education Association (FEA), the state’s largest teachers' union, filed a lawsuit Monday challenging Corcoran’s order.
“Safety and security are embedded in the Florida Constitution,” FEA President Fedrick Ingram said on MSNBC on Wednesday, stating that reopening schools next month would “endanger kids on purpose.”
FEA maintains few of Florida’s 4,500 K-12 schools are ready to safely welcome 2.9 million students within weeks.
“We don’t have the funding. We don’t have the infrastructure. And we have no confidence in the way forward,” Ingram said.
Ingram said it is ironic some leaders pushing the hardest to reopen schools aren’t sending their own into classrooms, specifically referencing former Florida governor and current U.S. Sen. Rick Scott.
On Fox Business Network’s Varney and Co. on Tuesday, Scott said his “daughters are going to be more focused on distance learning to make sure their children are safe.”
Scott said other parents may decide differently.
“Some are going to do it because it’s a way for students to get a subsidized meal,” he said.
Ingram called Scott’s comments a “ridiculous assertion that our schools are ready to come back to brick-and-mortar teaching” for some children, but not for his grandchildren.