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With more students to attend in-person classes, Florida teachers lobby for vaccine priority

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With parents of struggling students enrolled in online programs being urged by state and local educators to return to in-person classes, Florida’s K-12 public schools are anticipating a significant increase in classroom instruction as spring semesters begin this week.

Florida’s largest teachers union and local education associations say that emphasis doesn’t jibe with Gov. Ron DeSantis’ determination that public school educators not be priority “front-line” recipients of COVID-19 vaccines.

According to the Florida Education Association (FEA), DeSantis’ variance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendation that teachers and school staff be among the first to receive COVID-19 vaccines puts educators at risk, especially as more students return to in-person instruction.

“Unfortunately, Gov. DeSantis has decided to ignore the CDC’s recommended vaccine priority list, choosing to play politics instead,” FEA said in a petition that asks Floridians to “tell Gov. DeSantis to follow the CDC recommendations and ensure educators have access to the Covid vaccine.”

With DeSantis and Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran continuing their push for opened schools and in-class instruction, the FEA maintains it makes sense to place educators on the vaccine priority list.

“One thing everyone can agree on is that students learn best through in-person instruction. This is why the CDC recommends that educators, teachers and staff alike, should have access to the Covid-19 vaccine as soon as possible,” the FEA said.

Corcoran issued an emergency order in November that reinstated his July rule that all K-12 public schools offer five-day-a-week in-class instruction and required school districts contact parents of online-enrolled children regressing in studies to “transition” their child “to another learning modality (in-person, virtual) as soon as practicable.”

Parents still can choose how they want their children to attend school, but with parents across the state receiving letters notifying them their children are struggling and should seek in-class instruction, more are expected to do so.

The FEA noted, however, some school districts are scaling back online offerings. Bay, Jackson, Holmes and Walton counties are among districts where online programs expire soon.

Parents of about 76,000 students in south Florida’s three school districts are expected to receive the state-mandated letters saying their children are failing and should return to classrooms.

Miami-Dade County has identified 16,000 students learning online as academically regressing. Palm Beach County has identified 22,000 students, and Broward County has identified 38,000 students.

With increased enrollment, advocates fear districts will force teachers into unsafe classrooms. More than 3,300 teachers, for instance, are working remotely in the three south Florida districts, including 1,700 in Broward.

The United Teachers of Dade said 93% of its members support a district-wide quarantine and extending distance two weeks.

“Our teachers and support staff deserve to have a straight-forward answer. They are not shown they are valued,” Broward Teachers Union President Anna Fusco wrote in a letter to the school board. “They all should be getting medals for going above and beyond during this stressful time. Instead they are being put in such a compromised position to not keep their career.”

“Public education employees must be given priority access to the COVID-19 vaccine,” Polk Education Association President Stephanie Yocum said. “Many of us are in person, even staff who have documented co-morbidities for COVID, doing the essential work of educating our students at a personal risk or risk to our families. Many eSchool teachers and other staff who still have the opportunity to work remotely desperately need access to this vaccine, so they and their students can safely return to brick and mortar schools.”

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