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Florida education commissioner mandates all schools must reopen campuses this fall

In this Feb. 23, 2018, file photo, Florida Speaker of the House Richard Corcoran speaks at a press conference on school safety at the Capitol in Tallahassee, Fla. Florida Governor-elect, Ron DeSantis, on Thursday, Dec. 5, 2018 nominated Corcoran as the Florida Education Commissioner. (AP Photo/Mark Wallheiser, File)
In this Feb. 23, 2018, file photo, Florida Speaker of the House Richard Corcoran speaks at a press conference on school safety at the Capitol in Tallahassee, Fla. Florida Governor-elect, Ron DeSantis, on Thursday, Dec. 5, 2018 nominated Corcoran as the Florida Education Commissioner. (AP Photo/Mark Wallheiser, File)

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The Florida Department of Education has issued an order requiring that all schools must reopen for in-person classes this fall.

According to the plan released Monday evening, all school boards and charter school governing boards must open brick and mortar schools in August at least five days per week for all students, subject to the advice and orders of the Florida Department of Health.

“Required services must be provided to students from low-income families, students of migrant workers, students who are homeless, students with disabilities, students in foster care, students who are English-language learners, and other vulnerable populations,” the order says.

One of the reasons the order from Richard Corcoran, Florida Department of Education Commissioner, cites for the change is that “Education is critical to the success of the state and to an individual, and extended school closures can impede the educational success of students, impact families’ well-being and limit many parents and guardians from returning to work.

Corcoran’s order also instructs school districts to follow the advice of state and local health officials as well as executive orders issued by Gov. Ron DeSantis.

The Republican governor and Corcoran, a former Florida House speaker, have been determined to reopen public schools at full capacity next month, even as state health officials have reported a minimum of 5,000 new COVID-19 cases in each of the last 13 days.

Teachers, however, are concerned about their safety, according to Florida Education Association President Fedrick Ingram.

“It’s clear in communications with our members that educators are scared. They don’t trust politicians to make sure things are safe --- rightly so, with the record-breaking number of cases being reported,” Ingram told the News Service of Florida in an email Monday. “The governor is trying to brush that off.”

Ingram, who heads the state’s top teachers’ union, said students and school employees “need to be at the center of our conversations about reopening schools.”

Department of Education spokeswoman Taryn Fenske said in an email last week that the state has a “moral imperative to do our absolute best to return our schools to full operation by August.”

“Our children’s education, the comprehensive health of our families --- mental health and stability in homes --- and our economy are all depending on us to make every effort to reopen our school campuses,” she wrote.

Fenske, however, would not say if specific metrics about COVID-19 cases would prompt the education department to backtrack on the school reopening plans.

Under the order issued Monday, school districts and charter-school governing boards are required to submit reopening plans to the Department of Education showing how all schools plan to fully reopen and offer all services to students.

The plans need to include the percentage of students in the district who are projected to continue with distance learning, which schools began using following a statewide shutdown in March.

The order also requires districts to disclose efforts to address achievement gaps and monitor students’ progress.

Corcoran’s order acknowledged that some students may continue to learn from home.

“Although it is anticipated that most students will return to full-time brick and mortar schools, some parents will continue their child’s education through innovative learning environments, often due to the medical vulnerability of the child or another family member who resides in the same household,” the order says.

Because enrollment numbers could impact per-student funding for public schools, the order says that school districts and charter school governing boards with approved reopening plans will be offered “reporting flexibility” to ensure their funds are not interrupted during the 2020 fall semester.

For example, students who learn in an “innovative learning environment” during the fall semester would be able to receive a full-time enrollment credit.

Monday’s mandate also waives “strict compliance” with a Florida law requiring schools to operate for at least 180 days, “to the extent necessary to give effect to this order.” And the order waives a state law requiring “school districts to have a uniform and fixed date for the opening and closing of schools.”

Earlier on Monday, President Donald Trump tweeted his desire that school reopens for the fall semester. U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos echoed that.

The president and first lady plan to participate in a national dialogue on reopening schools in America at 3 p.m. on Tuesday. News4Jax.com plans to carry the news briefing live.

Reopening schools in Duval County

Duval County Schools issued a statement about the order.

“We have received the state’s order, and we are studying it. We will be adapting our plans to ensure they are compliant with this state direction. Once we know what those modifications will be, we will be able to say more,” a district spokesman said.

The plan says districts and schools “that wish to consider innovative alternatives to supporting their students’ and families’ unique needs during this temporary state of emergency will need to submit a plan.”

Rebecca Beller, a parent of a Duval County student, said she disagrees with the emergency mandate. Her feelings mirror many other parents in the county.

“I think that it was issued hastily. I think that it was without much explanation. I think that it created unnecessary concern,” she said.

With a recent rise in reported cases of COVID-19 in Florida, Gregg Keefer, also a parent, agreed that it isn’t time to reopen.

“When we look at the numbers that we had in April, when there was a big emergency, we’ve got to shut these schools down, compared to where we are now. It’s orders of magnitude worse where we are at right now,” Keefer said.

The risk, some parents say, isn’t just on the students.

“School is made up of staff. It’s made up of teachers. It’s made up of substitute teachers. It’s made up of nurses, and then everybody can bring that back to their family,” said Duval County parent Rolline Sullivan. “It really should be a community-based decision.”

Districts and schools that wish to open as usual do not need to submit a plan. The plan is temporary for Fall 2020.

Under Duval’s currently reopening plan, students in seventh through 12th grade would only be allow to attend in-person classes two or three days a week, or enroll in virtual instruction.


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