With COVID-19 cases surging, the push to reopen brick-and-mortar schools is now getting pushback

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Classroom. Credit: Pixabay.

City mayors are skeptical about school safety during the pandemic. Families are afraid of sending their kids into classrooms.

One lawmaker told school board members that an Aug. 10 start date for students is “potentially catastrophic.”

And the Florida PTA is pushing for options and choices for families that may not include brick-and-mortar schools.

With COVID-19 cases still surging, the push by state officials to reopen brick-and-mortar schools is now getting pushback from families, educators, teacher union officials, school administrators and city mayors who are looking for hybrid approaches for instruction rather than in-person school mandates.

With some families fearful of the virus sickening their children, some schools could open later in the academic year, or focus more or even solely on virtual learning.

Gov. Ron DeSantis wore a face mask during an open meeting with South Florida mayors in Miami on Tuesday, July 14, 2020. Credit: Florida Channel screenshot

When Gov. Ron DeSantis invited the mayors of a half-dozen Miami-County cities to discuss the state of COVID-19 in their communities this week, he felt the pushback. With nearly 350,000 students, Miami-Dade’s school district has the largest public school enrollment in Florida.

The mayors expressed significant skepticism of directives from the Trump administration and the governor’s own education commissioner to send kids back to brick-and-mortar schools for five days a week beginning next month.

And one mayor after another reported discussions with parents who are afraid of sending their kids back to class, notwithstanding assurances that children are at low risk of serious complications from the virus or acting as disease vectors.

As of Tuesday, the Florida Department of Health reported 69,803 COVID-19 infections in Miami-Dade County — by far the largest number of infections in the state.

“When you say there’s a minimal risk, this conversation goes terribly different if one child contracts COVID-19 in a school and dies,” Miami Gardens Mayor Oliver Gilbert III said at one point.

Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber, too, challenged the messaging from Washington, D.C. and Tallahassee that schools will be safe. He hasn’t seen the evidence to that effect.

“Until we get that from experts, we shouldn’t be sending mandates out into the world. Because that telegraphs one thing that we don’t want to telegraph, which is, ‘Go head. It’s fine. The green light is out.’ Because I don’t think it’s helpful,” Gelber said.

DeSantis interrupted.

“There’s risk in everything,” he said. The real question, he continued, is: What’s the level of risk to kids, to school-age kids?”

“We’ve seen that now with enough experience to know that the risk is, fortunately, low,” the governor insisted.

He asserted that pediatricians tend to agree that, “absent a significant comorbidity for whatever reason, those 18 and under are at significantly less risk than, certainly, the 65 and [over] and even the general population.”

“That is just something that I think that we should understand. I think that should be put out there, and I don’t think that we should try to scare parents and act like somehow this is more of a threat to their kids than it actually is. It’s a serious pathogen overall but, for some reason, you know, the kids are at lower risk.”

“Rather than say, ‘We’re all doing it,’ it’s important to not suggest that we have to do it notwithstanding anything,” Gelber retorted.

“Right now, there is a lot of conflict because people were listening to the secretary of education say everybody’s going to have to go to school, and some people are saying, ‘My 16- and 17-year old, my 18-year-old is a high school senior — am I going to have to send them to school or violate the law?”

“No, no, no,” DeSantis said. “I’ve been very clear in Florida under the circumstances, you know, every parent has the option to make these decision. … If virtual is the decision, then they have every right to do that.”

The meeting stretched over two hours Tuesday inside a large room inside the Stephen P. Clark Government Center in Miami, the biggest COVID flashpoint in the state. The participants sat at least six feet apart from each other and wore face masks throughout.

The mayors are nominally nonpartisan, but even members of DeSantis’ own Republican Party have expressed skepticism of the school plans as the academic year looms in less than a month.

Miami-Dade Superintendent of Schools Alberto M. Carvalho. Credit: Miami-Dade School District website.

Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Giménez said he has been in discussions with Miami-Dade School Superintendent Alberto Carvalho about reopening. He said he definitely expects virtual schooling to be a part of the solution.

“Those decisions are still weeks away, but we are worried about our school system and with the level of contagion here in Miami-Dade, you know, opening up our schools,” he said.

“We all want to get to the point where we get our kids back in school, back in the classroom, because that is the best environment. We need the best information. We need all the studies that are done around the world. What happens with kids? What happens with kids of different ages? Can they get it? If they can get it, are they vectors to infection?”

We’re not just talking about kids, Gilbert observed. “It’s cafeteria workers, and it’s them touching the same keyboards, and it’s their personal interactions, and it’s teachers, and its bus drivers, and there’s so many other things, and we know so little about this disease,” he said.

‘Whether the science says it or not, there are people who are afraid to send their children to school and probably prefer a hybrid option at the very least,” said Juan Carlos Bermudez, mayor of Doral.

“If the public confidence is there, then I think the decision is easier. If we are [then] where we are today, I think there’s a lot of concern from parents,” he said.

Joe Corradino, mayor of Pinecrest, said parents in his city prefer a hybrid, combining in-class and virtual instruction. He noted the option of pushing back the start of classes until perhaps the outbreak is under better control.

“They don’t like it, the fact that they have to not put kids in school, but they’d almost prefer that to in the situation we’re in,” he said.

“As a parent, it’s important for us to have some sense of predictability,” said Mayor Gabriel Groisman of Bal Harbor.

“Now, predictability is very difficult when we’re living in the most unpredictable time of recent memory. But I think we can and should push for decisions to be made so that parents and employers and such can plan their year and decide how their most precious things that they have, which are their children, how they’re going to plan their year.”

He did offer a vote of confidence in the digital generation’s capacity to adapt to virtual schooling.

“I don’t think we have to be afraid of the technology, I think it’s something we have to embrace,” he said.

“No student will do well in any scenario where they have to go to school and then, if there’s one infection, they have to go home for two weeks and have to come back and forth. Those are the plans that we’re seeing from a lot of these schools because they really don’t have much of another choice. But I firmly believe that we need to come up with a predictable plan that will work under any scenario,” Groisman said.

That said, academic studies have shown that online learning at home during the pandemic faced a number of challenges, including a loss of key instruction time for K-12 students.

Gelber saw no scenario under which college students abide by social distancing requirements, saying, “It’s a cohort that literally doesn’t listen almost instinctively to us — at least, I have found that experience in my home.”

Florida Phoenix editor Diane Rado contributed to this report.