TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis asserts families deserve to decide whether to return to in-person learning for their children amid increasing COVID-19 cases, but he stopped short of saying how it could be done safely.
The governor seemed to indicate that's up to the individual school districts, and the official start of school is less than three weeks away for many of them.
In a scripted address, DeSantis said the state has a choice: face our challenges with "determination and resolve, guided by evidence" or "we allow ourselves to be paralyzed by fear." Seeking the former, and wanting people to be calm, DeSantis contends the state is focusing its efforts to protect populations most at-risk for the virus while making sure the rest of the state functions.
"We cannot do one to the exclusion of the other," DeSantis said. "Together, we will get through this difficult chapter."
The return to school is a massive part of the state's reopening plan and DeSantis, while in lockstep with the Florida Department of Education's emergency order, said schools need to be open for in-person instruction.
The order, issued earlier this month, requires all public and charter schools to reopen brick-and-mortar buildings at least five days per week in the fall.
"Our fight against COVID shouldn't lead to us to deprive our kids of the tools they need to succeed," said DeSantis, "and here's the hard truth: Our kids are at the least risk from this virus and much lower risk then they are of influenza. Our kids also play the smallest role in transmission of the virus, yet it is our kids who have borne the harshest burden of the control measures instituted to protect against the virus."
Researchers have found, with some exceptions, kids are less likely to be infected with the coronavirus or experience serious, if any, symptoms if they do get it. A recent South Korean study, however, discovered children 10 years and older spread the virus just as much as, if not slightly more than, adults, particularly at home.
DeSantis said as kids are at a lower risk of contracting the virus, the costs of not having them back at school "are enormous," such as worsening achievement gaps among demographic groups and lead to kids dropping out of school entirely.
While calling distance learning a "stop-gap" measure at the time, DeSantis said we know more about the virus now than then but parents still should have the choice to decide for in-person learning or opt for distance learning.
"I also understand the apprehensive some parents may feel, and I believe in empowering them with a choice," DeSantis said. "No parent should be required to send their child to in-person instruction if they don't want to."
As for the adults in the school buildings, like the teachers themselves and other staff, DeSantis said they, too, should be given an option to work remotely.
"Safety precautions have been made throughout the pandemic...and I'm confident the same can be done for our educators," said DeSantis, but he offered no examples about how such precautions would be implemented in a school building: "Let's just find a way to make do.
"And if a school district needs to delay the school year for a few weeks so that everything will be in good shape, have at it."
School districts across the state, including those in Tampa Bay, are doing just that, with many of them offering in-person and virtual options. Face masks also will be required in schools at several districts in an effort to limit the virus' spread.
The governor's address comes in the wake of the state's largest teachers union, the Florida Education Association, filing suit over an emergency order issued by the Florida Department of Education. It said the order to reopen physical school classrooms five days a week is a violation of Florida's Constitution that requires schools to operate safely.
The head of the FEA, President Fedrick Ingram, said on NBC's "Today" he doesn't want the state's schools "to be the petri dish for America." He contends teachers and other adults who work in school buildings are concerned about going back to the classroom in the middle of a pandemic.
In response to the lawsuit, the Department of Education said the order, in part, "simply created new innovative options for families to the CHOICE to decide what works best for the health and safety of their student and family." With this order, it says parents have the option to choose from in-person learning or a virtual option.
Florida Sen. Rick Scott echoed those thoughts during an interview Tuesday on Fox Business' "Varney and Co.," saying his grandchildren will be "distance learning" in the meantime to ensure their safety.
The Florida Department of Health in its latest pediatric report shows 23,170 positive COVID-19 cases among children, with 246 hospitalizations and four deaths.
There is a 13.4 percent positivity rate among testing statewide.
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