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Florida physicians warn of COVID 'superspreader' events if schools reopen without virus protections

'I can't watch people die around me,' Florida teacher says
Posted at 7:31 PM, Jul 29, 2020
and last updated 2020-07-29 20:05:12-04

A group of Florida physicians has joined the growing chorus of those opposed to reopening schools next month.

Florida's education department announced the order on July 6, requiring all public districts to provide the option five days a week.

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During a Wednesday news conference, medical doctors with the Committee to Protect Medicare warned the Sunshine State was risking a significant spread of the coronavirus without immediate action.

"Science and evidence warn us that putting hundreds of young people, teachers and school staff together in enclosed spaces, such as school buildings, is an invitation for COVID-19 superspreader events," said Dr. Mona Mangat, an immunologist and allergist in St. Petersburg. "As such, if we want any hope of resuming in-person learning safely, it is incumbent upon us to take all necessary precautions now to keep our children safe."

The group recommended a slew of safeguards to protect staff, students and faculty:

  • Frequently and regularly rapid testing of students and school staff
  • A more extensive contact tracing program to quickly discover and isolate outbreaks
  • Use of PPE — including masks
  • Bolstered cleaning staff and frequent sanitizing of classrooms
  • Classroom reorganization to allow social distancing
  • Internet access, laptops and other support for low-income students to learn remotely
  • And allowing local school districts to decide when and how to reopen

"Rather than dictating a blanket order to reopen all schools, regardless of community needs and safety threats, our leaders have a responsibility to ensure every child has the opportunity to learn safely, not just those from privileged backgrounds," said Dr. Bernard Ashby, a cardiologist in Miami and Florida State Lead for the Committee to Protect Medicare. "Gov. Ron DeSantis, President Trump, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and all elected officials must do the hard work of identifying and implementing safety measures that protect every single child before school resumes."

Jessica Barthle
Jessica Barthle, a high school teacher in North Florida, says she is considering a leave of absence of she is forced to return to the classroom in the fall.

Calls to stay virtual have yet to sway Gov. Ron DeSantis and Ed Commissioner Richard Corcoran. The two defended their position during a roundtable discussion Wednesday afternoon in Clearwater.

The leaders said reopening would help more than hurt, especially low-income and special-needs students wanting in-person classes.

"The virtual is very, very difficult to work in those situations," DeSantis said. "Having an in-classroom option is vital."

Even so, some public teachers continue to fight the order. Their union, the Florida Education Association, recently filing a lawsuit. The group labeled the order a violation of the state's constitution requiring Florida's schools to be a safe place to learn.

The FEA also handed over a district opt-out petition with nearly 32,000 names. Among them, Jessica Barthle. She's a North Florida high school art teacher who said if she is forced to go back to class next month, she will consider a leave of absence.

"We have dependent, innocent lives looking to us to do the right thing," she said. "I cannot watch people die around me."

Failure to comply with the reopen order puts districts at risk of losing state funding. They'll also need to submit a reopen plan subject to the department of education's approval. At last check, only 17 or 67 counties had received a reopen green light.