As Florida school districts start the 2021 spring semester, some students will return to classrooms while others remain home for online instruction, even as the COVID-19 pandemic continues and potentially gets worse.
As it stands now, a Phoenix analysis shows more than 36,000 cases of COVID-19 related to Florida’s public and private K-12 schools since early September — the first semester, when the Florida Department of Health began tracking such numbers.
Between Sept. 6 and Dec. 26, there were 26,625 student COVID cases related to Florida’s K-12 public and private schools, along with 2,977 teachers, 1,886 staff, and 4,770 other cases. That adds up to 36,258 cases.
Now comes the second semester, with continued discussion over whether schools are safe for students and teachers during the pandemic and news of new strains of COVID that spread more easily.
So far, a variant virus — a U.K. strain — has been identified in at least Colorado, California, Florida and New York. The Florida Department of Health tweeted about the first such case in Florida on New Year’s Eve, involving a young Martin County man.
Meanwhile, another variant, a South African strain, has emerged, and “is thought to be better at spreading than past forms of COVID,” according to Newsweek. “Infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci has told Newsweek he would be ‘surprised’ if a new, more infectious strain of COVID from South Africa had not arrived in the U.S., even though it has not yet been detected.”
All of this poses further potential risk to Florida schools for the remaining school year.
Adjustments for the spring semester
Learning during a pandemic is a part of life for most Florida students now — be it at home through an online learning platform, in the classroom with new sanitation measures, or a mix of the two.
But a revised emergency order, signed by Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran in November, may lead to some students who initially enrolled in online to move to a brick-and-mortar classroom if their teacher notices they’re struggling.
The November emergency order not only reiterates that schools must provide a five-days-a-week option for families who want their students to be in a traditional school, it also has a greater focus on intervention for struggling students.
The order states that: “any student who is not making adequate academic progress in the innovative learning modality must be transitioned to another learning modality (in-person, virtual) as soon as practicable.”
However, the order also said that districts should not infringe on the chosen modality of the family. Ultimately, families have final say in what modality their children will learn.
Prior to the order, some Florida school districts were already practicing such measures.
Genelle Zoratti Yost, the deputy superintendent of instruction for Manatee County public schools, said that her school district was contacting families of struggling students before the order was announced.
“Our e-learning students were losing the most ground,” she said in a conversation with the Phoenix. “That’s why, when that data demonstrated that, we began having conversations with families to try and bring them back to school.”
Zoratti Yost said she appreciated the emergency order because it encouraged interventions that Manatee was already doing.
“It did enhance our efforts, I would say. It gave it a little more teeth because [the emergency order] spelled out the districts’ need to do that,” she said.
One aspect to normal schooling has returned, despite the pandemic: statewide testing.
After a reprieve from statewide assessments at the end of the spring semester in 2020, the Department of Education has reinstated testing for this year.
Most Florida assessments provide no way to test at home while ensuring students are not cheating. So Florida students have to return to campus for statewide assessments, regardless of whether they have chosen to learn from home or not.
Teachers will have to wait to get a COVID vaccine
According to Commissioner Corcoran and the Department of Education, a number of students have moved from an online learning platform to in-person instruction.
More students in a classroom could lead to more exposure to COVID-19, and some teachers are eagerly waiting for access to the vaccines. But, most educators will have to wait.
In press conference earlier this week, Gov. Ron DeSantis said Florida will continue to prioritize the elderly population — ages 65 or older — for access to the COVID-19 vaccine.
During press questions, one reporter asked DeSantis if he would consider adding teachers to his COVID vaccine priorities.
“Not at this time,” DeSantis responded.
Another reporter asked DeSantis if he knew where the next priority of vaccinations will go and “could that include teachers?”
DeSantis responded: “I think, almost assuredly, that we would probably go to the workforce next — and I think that the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is a great way to do that.”
He was referring to a vaccine in the works from Johnson & Johnson, which would require only one dose as opposed to the two doses required for either the Moderna or Pfizer vaccines.
But the Johnson & Johnson vaccine has not been approved nor is there a clear timeline for when it will be available.
Some teachers, professors, or school faculty could get vaccinations now if they are in the 65 or older population of Florida.
But as for the rest of Florida school districts, it is not clear as to when they will have access to the COVID-19 vaccine — and they may have to wait in line along with the rest Florida’s workforce.