JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Gov. Ron DeSantis on Tuesday said as the school year continues in Florida amid the pandemic, school closures “should be off the table.”
The comments from DeSantis come as two Jacksonville schools — Fletcher High School and Douglas Anderson School of the Arts — made the decision in the last week to temporarily close their campuses due to an increase in the number of reported COVID-19 cases.
“[Closures] don’t do anything to mitigate [COVID-19], but they do cause catastrophic damage to the physical, mental and social well-being of our youth. Let’s not repeat any mistakes of the past,” DeSantis said during a press conference at Jacksonville Classical Academy in Mixon Town.
When asked about the Jacksonville schools that closed, DeSantis said he didn’t know about the specific cases, but added that closing a school is “not the best option,” and encouraged a more surgical approach.
At least one local teacher News4Jax spoke with said the Governor’s actions and speech are irresponsible.
Local teacher Alex Ingram is one of more than 2,500 members of the growing FaceBook group “Duval for a Safe Return to Campus” and he feels, with schools being forced to reopen, the state isn’t doing enough to protect students and employees.
Ingram said keeping schools open during an outbreak puts students and their families in jeopardy.
“They may live with grandma, or maybe their older aunt takes care of them until mom and dad get home,” Ingram said. “The potential to spread it into these communities is very real and the governor’s words are irresponsible as they have been during this whole pandemic.”
The governor’s advice Tuesday appears at odds with the advice of state health officials and the CDC.
According to the Florida Department of Health, the decision to close a school should be based on a number of factors including the level of community transmission and whether or not cases have been identified among students and staff.
“The decision to close schools for in-person learning should be made together by local officials and the Department of Education in a manner that is transparent for students, staff, parents, caregivers and guardians, and all community members,” according to a Department of Health document on responding to COVID-19 in schools from Aug. 24.
The CDC said “in-person” learning is invaluable if proper safety precautions and protocols are put in place, but it also recommends schools close if they have coronavirus outbreaks.
The school district reported 39 total student cases at Fletcher High School, 43 since the start of the school year, and Duval County Public Schools said it made the decision to close the campus at least through Oct. 28 because the number of students and staff that had close contact with confirmed cases exceeded the district’s threshold requiring the school to isolate if more than 20 percent of the students needed to quarantine. Students at Douglas Anderson will remain in online instruction at least through Wednesday because of the number of cases and the potential impact on the school.
After two confirmed cases at Providence School of Jacksonville, the school on Tuesday made the decision to move 9-12th grade students to virtual learning starting Wednesday while K-8 students are continuing classes as normal.
“If you have some students who have positive tests, obviously you can isolate them but that really is a better model than to just throw in the towel because you’re going to have a lot of students that need that instruction that are just going to be stuck at home for two weeks,” DeSantis said. “You should not be quarantining healthy students.”
DeSantis and Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran said school reopenings have been a success and noted that there have not been widespread outbreaks since 1.8 million students returned to classrooms in the state over the last three months.
Neither Corcoran nor DeSantis wore masks Tuesday as they stood in close proximity to teachers from the school. According to the Jacksonville Classical Academy website, “masks are highly recommended, but not required” for staff and students and social distancing should be enforced at all times when possible.
There are no available COVID-19 case counts for the Jacksonville Classical Academy because the district does not track cases for charter schools.
Health officials and infectious-disease experts have warned Americans not to let their guards down due to the possibility of a fall and winter surge in the number of coronavirus cases.
“My feeling is that there is a wave coming, and it’s not so much whether it’s coming but how big is it going to be,” Eili Klein, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, told The Washington Post last month.
The Florida Department of Health on Tuesday reported a total of 64,011 cases of COVID-19 in children less than 18 years old. That includes 807 hospitalizations and nine deaths.