‘We’re fully open’ for the new school year, amid COVID-19, lawsuits and more than a million students in class

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

Most of Florida’s 67 school districts opened for in-person instruction Monday heading into an uncertain school year amid the COVID-19 pandemic and against the backdrop of a lawsuit that has national implications.

Overall, 1.1-million students attended in-person instruction in traditional classroom settings, according to the Department of Education. Meanwhile, students of families that opted for online learning are now in virtual school.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran says he’ll send his children to public schools this coming academic year. Credit. Screenshot, Florida Channel.

“Today is the first day where we can literally say ‘we’re fully open,’” said Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran at a Monday roundtable discussion with Gov. Ron DeSantis and other participants.

That means all school districts are open in some capacity, doing brick-and-mortar instruction. Schools across the state started between Aug. 10 and Aug. 31.

Some south Florida counties — Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach — are starting with virtual learning except for students with special learning needs, the Department of Education said.

When those districts open, an estimated 1.6 million students across Florida will be in traditional classrooms to receive in-person instruction, the Department of Education said in an email to the Phoenix.

The agency did not provide numbers for kids in virtual learning. There are about 2.86 million students in all in Florida public schools, department data show.

DeSantis and Corcoran say they’ve given Florida families a choice for in-person learning or virtual instruction during the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, the Florida Education Association claims that some Florida districts are not giving families the full story about their COVID-19 situations.

Since they began opening August 10, some school districts have had to quarantine students and teachers after someone in their schools tested positive for COVID-19.

In a press release Monday, the FEA said “in a time when it is critical to provide reliable updates on COVID-19 numbers in schools, some districts have withheld this information, and even been told to keep it confidential.”

Last week, the Duval County School District was reported to have been instructed by the Florida Department of Health to pause publishing their COVID-19 numbers, according to Jacksonville.com.

Andrew Spar, vice president, Florida Education Association. Credit: FEA.

“The governor talks about choice, but real choice requires complete information. Educators and parents want solutions for dealing with the coronavirus outbreaks that already are occurring,” said FEA Vice President Andrew Spar in a press release.

The FEA keeps it’s own data on COVID-19 cases in school.

Uncertainty about safety during the new academic year led to a lawsuit pushed by the FEA, after Corcoran signed an emergency order in July mandating that all school districts open  brick-and-mortar public schools for at least five days a week. Districts were instructed to submit a reopening plan that included the mandate — or risk losing school funding.

The FEA is suing DeSantis, Corcoran and other officials over the emergency order, and the case has involved hearings, various decisions in Leon Circuit Court in Tallahassee and efforts before the First District Court of Appeal. The case has spurred support from local union affiliates, as well as national teacher union organizations and the NAACP.

As it stands now, the appellate court is allowing the emergency order to remain in full force– for now.

Not all education groups agree with the FEA’s lawsuit.

On Monday, the Foundation for Excellence in Education, an education advocate group launched by Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, sent a petition through email speaking out against the FEA’s lawsuit, asking recipients to sign if they agree parents should have an option for in-person learning.

“Their lawsuit hurts students who NEED in-person instruction – whether they are very young children, students with special needs or those whose parents must work outside the home,” the email says.

During the Monday roundtable, DeSantis invited Scott Atlas from the White House Coronavirus Task Force to speak on the benefits of reopening schools. Atlas and DeSantis spent a portion of the roundtable discouraging testing for those who do not have symptoms.

The tactic is not universally accepted by public health officials, including some members of the White House task force, the Miami Herald reported Monday.

Atlas is board-certified in diagnostic radiology, according to Forbes, but does not have a background in epidemiology or infectious disease. He approaches the pandemic with similar tactics for “herd immunity,” according to an article from the Washington Post. That means allowing the virus to spread in order to cause immunity, while protecting the most vulnerable populations, the Post explained.

Atlas and DeSantis continued to push the same message during a series of press events Monday: schools, including colleges, should reopen for in-person learning and COVID-19 testing should be directed to only symptomatic people.

Asymptomatic people don’t require testing, they said.

Gov. Ron DeSantis at a news conference in Fort Lauderdale in April, surrounded by people wearing masks. Credit: Florida Channel screenshot.

“Having our universities up and operating is very, very important,” DeSantis said in a press briefing Monday at the University of South Florida in Tampa.  “We want to continue to support those efforts going forward.”

“If you’re sick, stay home…if you come and you’re sick, obviously, get sent home.”

Atlas, who was named President Donald Trump’s new COVID-19 adviser, said reopening schools is important for kids’ health and touted both Trump and DeSantis’ COVID-19 response.

“You’ve got to do your best to protect the vulnerable and the high risk people, you have to make sure the hospitals are still functioning and not overcrowded…safely open schools and open society because it’s really harmful to our children to have closed schools,” Atlas said.

DeSantis is also “not a fan” of quarantining everyone in situations where a person tests positive for COVID-19 in school settings, he said in the press briefing.

“You are isolating healthy people…broad-based quarantines of healthy people, who we have no basis to think are contagious, I think is not the way to go,” the governor said.

Regardless of the lawsuit and growing concerns over safety and transparency, Education Commissioner Corcoran remains optimistic about the school year.

“I think our K-12 system, in many ways, is the backbone of our society — and if it’s a tremendously well-functioning K-12 system, pretty much everything else is functioning well,” Corcoran said.