Schools will stay open in Florida for face-to-face learning during the pandemic for the spring semester, but parents will still have the option to keep their children virtual.
Governor Ron DeSantis and Florida Department of Education (FLDOE) Commissioner Richard Corcoran revealed a new emergency order laying out instructions for school districts for the new semester.
“The message is schools are open. If you see some place in California or Illinois or New York closing schools, just parents need to have a peace of mind, we’re going to be here for you in Florida,” said DeSantis. “We are not going to abandon your child. We’re not going to abandon you, and these school districts are not going to do that. We are still offering parents to make a choice. If they choose to do virtual, then they have the ability to opt for that.”
During the press conference, DeSantis said the data is clear virtual learning is not the same as being in person. The order also requires educational interventions for students who may be falling behind.
"Parents must be notified if a student is struggling with virtual learning, still providing the parent the option to do virtual learning if they want, but they need to be notified, and the student must return to in-person instruction unless the parent affirmatively opts out and says they want to still remain virtual," DeSantis said.
DeSantis called closing schools because of coronavirus probably the biggest public health blunder in modern American history.
“The harm from this is going to reverberate in those communities for years and years to come, and the tragedy of all this is that the evidence has been remarkably clear since the spring that closing schools offer virtually nothing in terms of virus mitigation, but imposes huge costs on our kids, on our parents and in our society,” said DeSantis.
The order also continues financial flexibility and stability for school districts and will now reward districts and public charter schools that have exceeded their projected enrollment.
The Governor pointed to other countries and studies supporting keeping kids in school, even going on to say people who advocate for closing schools for virus mitigation are “effectively today’s flat earthers,” he said who have no evidence to support their position.
The Florida Education Association released a statement that read in part, “After an initial review of the new emergency order from the Florida Department of Education, the Florida Education Association (FEA) is cautiously optimistic that the order offers our public schools a much-needed measure of reassurance for the new year. Florida’s schools remain underfunded, and Covid-19 continues to create terrible disruption, but the state’s support for students on-campus and off should remain stable this spring.”
"All in all, I think there were a lot of good things in this order. Again the commissioner and the governor heard educators. What’s missing is this fixation on high stakes standardized testing, which is still scheduled to go forward in the spring, and since this is not a normal time, we think the focus should be on kids not on testing," said the organization's president, Andrew Spar.
The emergency order also sets in motion a timeline for school districts. They need to submit a Spring 2021 Education Plan that satisfies the order's requirements by Tuesday, December 15.
"I think it still remains very challenging for our teachers. Obviously, I think they're rising to the challenge and going above and beyond, but it is very difficult in a couple specific fronts," said Stephanie Baxter-Jenkins, the executive director of the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association.
She said challenges include simultaneous teaching, student quarantines and said she had questions about funding.
Meanwhile, parents welcomed the choice.
"Honestly, I thought it was a good thing. We have parents who don’t have the opportunity like my husband and I where we can work from home, and they need to work, so parents need to have that choice for brick and mortar or virtual school," said Tabbitha Poehner. She said her kids started out learning online before switching to brick and mortar learning.
"It works really well for our family. They are able to keep up with their studies, they’re getting great support from their school and they just feel safer at home," said Damaris Allen, the chair of the citizens advisory committee for the Hillsborough County School Board.
Allen said her children are e-learning. While she thought the order was a good decision, she explained she wanted more clarity around testing.
Below is the full order issued Monday:
Before Monday, the governor had not held a news conference in almost a month, stating he has been busy working on how to distribute the vaccine in the state, traveling to Washington, D.C., to meet with members of Operation Warp Speed.