ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Wednesday continued his push to reopen schools amid pushback from the state's teachers union, as health officials reported a new record of COVID-19 deaths reported in one day.
The state's death toll from the coronavirus now stands at more than 6,330 after health officials added 216 additional casualties Wednesday. The number of confirmed cases in Florida stood at 9,446, with the cumulative tally of infections now more than 450,000.
One of the new cases was that of state Sen. Rob Bradley, who is his chamber’s budget chief. Bradley tested positive for the coronavirus Wednesday morning. The Republican from Clay County said he has a low-grade fever and fatigue, but otherwise no serious symptoms.
“All things considered, I feel OK,” Bradley said. “I have no idea how I got the virus.”
He said his wife, Jennifer Bradley, tested negative at the same time he tested positive. She is running to replace him in the Senate. Democratic Rep. Shevrin Jones and Republican Rep. Randy Fine have also tested positive.
During a roundtable at a special needs school in Clearwater, Florida, the Republican governor did not focus on the latest grim numbers. Instead, he made another case for reopening schools, despite concern about the health and safety of children and school employees.
The state continues to be one of the epicenters of the coronavirus outbreak, although virus-linked hospitalizations were down slightly Wednesday.
The governor said parents should decide for themselves whether to send their children back into the classroom next month.
“We do believe fundamentally in providing parents with the choice. And that choice can be to continue with distance learning or to choose to go back into the classroom where students can get face-to-face instruction,” DeSantis said.
“If we need to delay the year, then delay the year by a couple weeks,” the governor added. “I’d much rather have a successful school year that’s a couple weeks late, rather than kind of go into it and not be ready to handle the situations that may develop.”
The governor was joined by state Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran, who again asserted that current law requires school campuses to reopen for in-person instruction or risk losing some funding. President Donald Trump and U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos have both threatened to withhold federal money for schools that do not reopen.
Parents and teachers who assembled on behalf of the governor echoed his call for getting students back in the classroom, arguing that specials needs students would especially benefit from face-to-face instruction.
As the outbreak began spreading across the state last spring, state officials shuttered schools and teachers began providing instruction virtually to the state's 2.9 million public school students.
Some districts in South Florida and in the Florida Keys have recently announced that they will delay school reopenings.
The state's largest school district, located in Miami, which has been hardest hit by the pandemic, announced Wednesday that it will not reopen schools for in-person learning for the first six weeks of the school year, but will instead implement a fully remote instruction model.
Miami-Dade County Public Schools’ superintendent Alberto Carvalho said the school year would begin virtually on Aug. 31, a week after it was set to start. He said a decision of whether to begin in-person learning would be made in late September with a potential reopening date of Oct. 5.
“Our facilities and teachers are prepared to open, but based on all scientific indicators, it is not prudent to return to in-person schooling at this time,” Carvalho said.
The Florida Education Association, which includes unions representing teachers and other school employees, expressed concerns about the ability of schools to keep children and teachers healthy.
“Floridians don’t need more lectures or roundtables from our governor. We need a solid plan on how students and staff will be kept safe,” said association president Fedrick Ingram.
The association has sued the state to block the mandatory reopening of campuses. Ingram has noted that some school districts don't have adequate plans to procure soap, hand sanitizers and protective masks. He also raised concern about how schools will address infections among students and teachers.
The new numbers released Wednesday by health officials raised the average number of deaths reported daily to 142 over the past week. That’s second only to Texas overall, and to Arizona in per-capita deaths. The highest number of daily deaths reported in the U.S. on a seven-day average during the pandemic has been 760, in New York at the height of its outbreak in mid-April.
One promising sign in Florida is a decline in the number of people treated in hospitals for COVID-19: 8,727 patients Wednesday morning compared to a high of about 9,500 last week.
Meanwhile, the Florida Division of Emergency Management has announced that all state-supported drive-thru and walk-up COVID-19 testing sites will temporarily close at 5 p.m. Thursday in anticipation of Tropical Storm Isaias, which is forecast to reach South Florida on Saturday.
Also Wednesday, DeSantis extended for the fourth time an executive order that placed a freeze on evictions and mortgage foreclosures. The freeze had been set to end Saturday but will now last until September 1. The original order was signed April 2.
Calvan reported from Tallahassee, Florida. Associated Press writer Brendan Farrington in Tallahassee and Adriana Gomez Licon in Miami contributed.