“SCHOOLS MUST REOPEN IN THE FALL!!!” President Trump virtually yelled in a tweet earlier this week.
Florida’s DeSantis administration heard the order. Within hours, Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran retweeted the president on his own Twitter page.
He did more than that. Corcoran signed an emergency order demanding that brick-and-mortar schools fully reopen in the fall for five days a week — a directive that has cast confusion among local school officials who’d spent weeks working on reopening plans that didn’t necessarily have students in classrooms all day, every day.
Many districts had planned a hybrid approach that would include in-person instruction and online learning.
And as it stands now, the emergency order creates an intersection between presidential politics and planning for the upcoming school year in Florida. While districts scramble, Trump is focusing on his re-election campaign and hoping to capture families– and votes — on an issue that resonates as the new school year looms and COVID-19 cases surge.
Trump has “embraced reopening schools as a pitch that could help his re-election campaign,” The Wall Street Journal writes. And, “Campaign aides believe reopening schools could boost Mr. Trump among women in the suburbs, a group he has struggled with.”
With Florida a major swing state in the 2020 election, Trump said this week in a press conference:“[DeSantis] announced that the schools will be open in the fall and we hope that most schools will be open in the fall.” He later said his administration will push governors in other states to open their schools as well.
He insinuated that those who wish to keep schools closed have an alternative political agenda.
Florida’s statewide teacher’s union balked at Trump’s remarks.
“Now, you’re asking teachers and students to go into schools, which are essentially petri dishes, to get their education—because we really want to open the economy,” said vice president of the Florida Education Association, Andrew Spar, in a phone conversation with the Florida Phoenix.
“It’s really not about the kids and doing right by kids. And that, I think, is what really bothers every educator in the state of Florida.”
Commissioner Corcoran continues to rally behind Trump’s tweets. On Wednesday, Trump repudiated his own administration epidemiologists’ “very tough & expensive guidelines for opening schools” and said the guidelines would force schools to do “very impractical things.” Corcoran retweeted the message and added: “Hear, hear. Thanks @realdonaldtrump!”
Corcoran’s directive dictates 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 order doesn’t easily permit hybrid models that let students rotate between virtual classes and in-person instruction, which would help keep class sizes down, allow social distancing, and hopefully lessen chances of passing the virus to kids and staff.
Any district interested in such a model would need to submit a plan for approval to the Department of Education, and do it quickly — most Florida schools reopen between August 10 to 12. The plans are due to the DOE by July 31.
“The format of plan submissions, as well as the timing of review and approvals, will be established by the commissioner of education,” the order reads.
Cheryl Etters, a Spokesperson for the Florida Department of Education, told the Florida Phoenix that they will likely be able to address or approve district plans within a few days of receiving them.
Hybrid models have been under consideration by local school administrators for months. And the new order appears to back-track on attitudes expressed by DeSantis and Corcoran in June, when they encouraged districts to make decisions based on the individual needs of each county.
On June 11, DeSantis and Corcoran held a press conference announcing millions in funding to help reopen schools in the fall and promised to trust school districts to make the best decisions for their students.
“We believe those are locally driven decisions,” DeSantis said at the time. “So, we want to empower, not just the superintendents, but all the local stakeholders to be able to practice solutions that make the most sense for that area.”
Without solid directions from the state, school districts took the liberty to address their reopening plans at a local level — some intending to implement a hybrid model.
Back to the drawing board
Until the executive order came down, the Duval County School District, to name one example, planned to allow older students to participate in a hybrid model to help limit class sizes.
Now, officials will have to rework their plans.
There is some language in the executive order that suggests “flexibility” for districts to decide how to reopen, depending on the severity of local COVID outbreaks. That’s why the order also requires school districts to submit their plans for approval by the state.
Duval County Schools Superintendent Diana Greene said her district will submit a hybrid option anyway, but understands now that brick-and-mortar schools, open for five days a week, will need to be an option for parents and students.
“No matter what options we provide to the Department of Education, five days of school must always be a part of that plan,” Green said during a school board meeting Tuesday. “Even if we were to offer a unique, hybrid situation, every school still has to be available to be open five days a week.”
The superintendent of Miami-Dade schools, Alberto Carvalho, welcomed the executive order. In a tweet, he said that the directive “allows for parental options” and “respects local decision-making based on health conditions at the time of reopening.”
Most Florida school districts expect to return to classes in August. However, counties in South Florida are still hot spots for COVID-19 cases. As of Thursday, Miami-Dade reported 55,961 COVID-19 infections — the largest number in the state. Broward has 25,102 cases and Palm Beach, 18,656.
In that scenario, students might not be able to return to brick-and-mortar classrooms, despite the executive order.
In a phone conversation with the Florida Phoenix, Florida Department of Education spokeswoman Cheryl Etters said that South Florida school districts will be working with the department to discuss how to best comply with the emergency order.
And in a webinar covering the order, Corcoran confirmed that in areas where COVID-19 caseloads are high, his department would work with districts and local departments of health to determine what to do.
But he didn’t confirm whether he’ll allow those districts to step away from brick-and-mortar instructions.
“We’re going to work with districts on a case-by-case basis,” Corcoran said.
Risks to district funding
Many South Florida districts believe that opening brick-and-mortar schools will not be a safe option for them in at least the first academic semester, and are discussing full-distance learning models, regardless of the order.
However, there might be a financial impact on funding for districts.
Andrea Messina, executive director of the Florida School Boards Association, said the final decisions on how school districts reopen fall on a complicated dynamic between the district and the state.
“It really is a balance of the two. The district ultimately decides how it is going to run. However, the state decides how [the districts] are going to get money,” Messina told the Florida Phoenix in a phone conversation.
“So the state can put parameters—and the state has put parameters—around ‘if you want to get the money, then these are the requirements we’re going to make of you,’” she said.
Add in the threat from a federal level, as President Trump said in a tweet that schools that do not reopen in the fall might not receive federal funding.
FEA Vice President Spar said families rely on those federal funds to serve low-income families in Florida.
“If they’re threatening to withhold those federal dollars, they’re threatening the livelihoods and well-being of students who live in our poorest communities,” Spar said. “That is reckless, and irresponsible, and unethical, and immoral.”