New school year: A handful of FL school districts open their doors to brick-and-mortar classrooms

3rd grader reading. (Photo by Tim Boyle/Getty Images)

At a time when many families and educators are worried about sending children to school in a pandemic, a handful of Florida districts opened their doors for the new academic year, doing in-person instruction at brick-and-mortar schools.

Those are Baker, Dixie, Gilchrist, Hamilton and Suwannee, districts in North Florida counties, based on calls to school officials. There may have been more reopenings but the Phoenix was unable to verify those districts.

In addition, other districts are expected to open later in the week: Calhoun, Hardee, Union and Wakulla.

While the North Florida counties have far fewer infections than Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach, some of them show recent spikes in COVID-19 infections, according to an analysis by the New York Times. Those include Baker, Dixie, and Suwannee counties.

Overall, the Florida Department of Health reported 536,961 COVID-19 infections and 8,277 deaths of Florida residents as of Monday.

Orange County schools in central Florida did open on Monday, but only related to online learning at this time. Later in August, families can send their children to brick-and-mortar schools.

Meanwhile, many of Florida’s 67 school districts have postponed their first day of school in response to COVID-19. The school year for many districts would have opened around Aug. 10, but districts pushed back the school calendar for up to three weeks.

Earlier this summer, Republican state lawmaker Rene Plasencia, of Central Florida, had urged school board members in the area to back off sending kids to brick-and-mortar classrooms in early August.

“I strongly encourage you to postpone bringing the majority of our students back for face-to-face instruction in August,” Plasencia wrote in a letter at the time. “An Aug. 10 start date for students, with an expected teacher return of July 31st, is potentially catastrophic.”

In a Facebook post Saturday, Orange County district school superintendent Barbara Jenkins provided suggestions on how families can prepare their homes for virtual learning. The district expects that families could experience technical difficulties during the first week of school. “Remember, there is no harm or penalty if your child can’t participate during these first 9 days,” the superintendent wrote.

Andrew Spar, vice president of the Florida Education Association, said that he thinks that school districts are conflicted about opening today, partly due to a lack of leadership from the state level.

“There is a real question on whether or not districts can guarantee that schools are in fact prepared to handle whatever may come their way to ensure the safety of students and staff at their schools. I think that continues to be a concern that we see throughout the state—including in these districts where students are going back today.”

The Florida Education Association filed a lawsuit against the forced reopening of brick-and-mortar schools. The case is pending.

“I think most districts, administrators, and school boards are conflicted. I don’t think that any of them are going to say that they’re 100% confident that everything going to be fine,” Spar said. “And that really is because there is a lack of leadership at the state level.”

Gov. Ron DeSantis and Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran made comments about the new school year at a roundtable discussion Monday at Winthrop College Prep Academy, a public charter school in Riverview, in Hillsborough County.

Hillsborough has been involved recently in controversy over changes to its reopening schedule.

DeSantis stressed that he wants to give parents the flexibility to choose between options, even keeping kids at home with remote learning rather than being in a brick-and-mortar classroom with a teacher.

“You have parents out there in Florida that would beat down the schoolhouse door to get their kids in, because they think they really need to be back in. And they you have some others who maybe they just want to see how it develops,” the governor said.

“And then maybe there are some parents that just say, ‘You know what, I think we need to take some time.’ And that’s fine. All of those views and all of those parents have the ability to act on that accordingly.”

But rejecting in-person instruction entirely “would be denying a huge swath of parents the ability to make a meaningful choice,” the governor said.

He also added: “Nothing’s risk-free in life. There’s nothing we can do that’s going to be zero. But the risks are, I would say, low for the students. The risk of the schools being real drivers of the epidemic, certainly that’s not been validated in any observed experience up to this point.”

But there also risks in not sending kids to class, he continued, including depression and suicide.

“To say that you’re not going to offer it at all, you’re basically ignoring all of the risks of not offering and not giving those parents the ability to do anything.”

Florida Phoenix deputy editor Michael Moline contributed to this report.