By John Haughey | The Center Square
Florida’s 2.8 million K-12 students are returning to reopened schools next academic year, but when and how they will do so in a “new normal” remains unknown.
"Preliminary and broad" proposals submitted Wednesday to the Florida Board of Education (BOE) by the Florida Association of District School Superintendents (FADSS) assumes a fall reopening with a range of guidelines.
Among proposed protocols for reopened schools are daily temperature checks for students and staff, on-site rapid COVID-19 testing, smaller class sizes and fewer numbers of students assigned to specific buses.
FADSS presented two plans to BOE in a phone conference directed by Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran, who offered few comments other than to thank superintendents and board members afterward for their proposals.
“All of that stuff is being evaluated,” Corcoran said, “but I appreciate your comments.”
Before Wednesday’s meeting, Corcoran issued an order extending the June 30 expiration of teacher certifications through December and suspended teacher evaluations for performance-based salary reviews, leaving that to individual school districts.
Florida schools have been closed since mid-March, with students supposed to finish this academic year through online classes. However, not all families have access to the laptops necessary for “distance learning,” and a significant number of students have never signed into online classes.
Under FADSS’ COVID-19 Education Recovery Plan, superintendents envision a hybrid learning approach between in-person and online coursework, with an exam conducted over the summer to identify students who may have fallen into the digital divide’s cracks.
“Superintendents feel strongly that when we return to the 2020-21 school year, districts will need to quickly identify any student with remaining learning gaps,” Pinellas County Superintendent Michael Grego said on behalf of FDASS.
Once students ensnared in the “COVID-19 academic slide” have been identified, Grego said districts can address their needs individually through a summer programming expansion that could include extended day, extended program or extended year in the 2020-21 academic calendar.
Under FADSS’ K-12 Return to School Recommended Guidelines, DOE would create a Pandemic Education Response Team of medical professionals “to establish the medical trend guidelines for reopening schools.”
The team would establish social distancing protocols for recess, lunch, physical education and group events, personal protective measures and screening requirements “to best mitigate exposure to COVID-19 while planning for a return to school that ensures the safety and well-being of all stakeholders,” the plan said.
Superintendents said schools must be provided with digital thermometers, masks, gloves, soap and sanitizer and offer parents expanded digital learning for their children.
Board member Michael Olenick called for the creation of a task force comprised of health experts, community members and school officials to examine the “many unknowns” of how COVID-19 affects children.
“We have a new normal here, and that new normal will also require this task force to prepare for a very likely event that there is going to be a spike again in the fall,” Olenick said.
“I think that there are so many aspects that are bigger than just the state,” he continued. “I think districts need and want your help – our help. And I think it is our responsibility as the State Board of Education who oversees K-12.”
“Every decision is a balancing act,” board member Ryan Petty said.