Gov. Ron DeSantis appealed directly to Floridians Wednesday not to give in to fear and apprehension as his administration prepares to reopen public schools to millions of students in the next few weeks, notwithstanding daily increases in COVID-19 cases in the state.
In an effort to reassure parents and students, DeSantis affirmed that families do have choices for the upcoming school year and teachers should be able to instruct remotely if necessary rather than be in a classroom during the pandemic.
The governor spoke to the public through a televised message, following a lawsuit released earlier this week against him and other Florida officials, over concerns about safety in brick-and-mortar schools.
During a five-minute address from the Cabinet chamber in the state Capitol, the governor acknowledged that Floridians are frightened of the potentially deadly disease.
“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. The stress and apprehension it fosters just makes our health situation worse and knocks society on its heels,” he said.
He addressed schoolchildren directly:
“We cannot be the generation that deprives you of the opportunity to live up to your God-given potential. We can best fight the virus by having a healthy, functioning society, and that especially includes our schools. Let’s not let fear get the best of us and harm our children in the process.”
Before DeSantis spoke, the Florida Department of Health released the results of COVID test results it received Tuesday. They showed 9,785 new positive cases and 139 deaths, bringing the totals, respectively, to 379,619 cases and 5,345 deaths.
DeSantis spoke two days after the Florida Education Association filed a lawsuit in a state trial court in Miami on behalf of the state’s teachers against the governor, Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran, the Florida Department of Education, the Florida State Board of Education, and Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez.
The action targets an emergency order signed by Corcoran mandating 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.” Many districts had planned to offer hybrid in-classroom and online learning.
The FEA demanded that the state take action to make sure brick-and-mortar schools open safely, including reducing class sizes, adding more staff, ensuring schools have enough protective equipment and supplies and adding plexiglass shields in areas if necessary.
The lawsuit focuses on the constitutional expectation of Florida to provide a safe learning environment for students, as COVID-19 infections continue to surge.
During his address, DeSantis emphasized: “The fight against COVID shouldn’t lead us to deprive our kids of the tools they need to succeed.”
He repeated his regular assertion that young children don’t appear to suffer serious symptoms of the virus or pass it along to others. He noted that Florida has never closed day care centers without ill effect notwithstanding the pandemic.
“Yet it is our kids who have borne the harshest burden of the control measures instituted to protect against the virus,” he said.
“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. You can bet your bottom dollar that keeping schools closed with exacerbate existing achievement gaps between demographic groups; lead to more kids dropping out of school; disproportionately impact the least economically affluent 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,” DeSantis said.
Virtual learning simply isn’t as good as in-class instruction and burdens working parents, the governor said. Yet he understands that some parents won’t want to take the risk of sending their children back to classes and is prepared to accommodate both those fears and kids with health problems that might make them susceptible to the virus.
The same goes for teachers who are older or have medical conditions that place them at risk.
“They should be given the option of working remotely. Why force someone to be in the classroom if they’re uncomfortable doing so? Let’s just find a way to make do,” DeSantis said.
“Now I know many teachers and faculty are chomping at the bits to get back in the classroom, because they know how much their students depend on their instruction and on their tutelage. We support you and want you to be safe,” DeSantis added.
He did not address that districts across Florida have been involved in rallies and protests by teachers who oppose brick and mortar school reopenings if they’re not safe.
Many districts are now delaying the start of school so teachers can better prepare for providing instruction during COVID-19.
During his speech, DeSantis remarked that “if the school district needs to delay the school year for a few weeks so that everything will be in good shape? Have at it. The important thing is that our parents have a meaningful choice when it comes to in-person education.”
School districts have been outlining reopening plans that would give families a choice of in-person or online learning, among other options. The plans are required to be approved by the Department of Education and are expected despite the FEA’s lawsuit.
DeSantis did not bring up the lawsuit in his address.
So far, four districts have submitted plans to the department — Seminole, Osceola, Orange and Gulf — and they all include in-person instruction or a virtual option. Seminole also provides a hybrid option that utilizes in-person instruction in a classroom as well as learning at home.