In an address to the state amid widespread controversy about reopening schools, Gov. Ron DeSantis on Wednesday offered a softer message focused on giving families and teachers the choice to return to classrooms in August as COVID-19 cases continue to surge.
DeSantis said Florida’s 67 school districts should have the option to delay the start of school “a few weeks” and should not force teachers and parents to return to school if they have underlying medical conditions or if they “just don’t feel comfortable with in-person instruction.”
“As the prevalence of the virus has increased over the past many weeks, fear and anxiety have increased as well,” the governor said. “The choice before us is whether we face our challenges with determination and resolve guided by evidence, or whether we allow ourselves to become paralyzed by fear.”
The Republican governor did not mention a controversial state order that said school districts must reopen brick-and-mortar schools at least five days a week starting in August, unless local and state health officials say otherwise. But he also did not distance himself from it, like he has in recent days.
Instead, he offered an explanation about why he believes schools should reopen for the fall term.
“While the risks to students from in-person learning are low, the cost of keeping schools closed are enormous,” DeSantis said. “Let’s be honest, (distance learning) is a far cry from in-person instruction, and it places a tremendous burden on our working parents.”
Schools shuttered campuses and moved to distance learning in March as the COVID-19 pandemic hit the state. But as the new school year nears, districts are scrambling to make plans to educate children in-person and online while also trying to keep campuses safe, as Florida piles up thousands of new COVID-19 cases each day.
DeSantis, a father of three, earlier this month said that if his preschool-age children were old enough, he would not hesitate to send them back to the classroom because the risk of children getting sick is “extremely, extremely low.”
“I believe that we owe every Florida parent a choice to send your child back to school for in-person instruction or to opt to maintain distance learning. The evidence that schools can be open in a safe way is overwhelming,” he said Wednesday.
But a major part of the controversy about reopening schools involves risks to teachers and other school employees, particularly those who are older or have medical conditions that make them vulnerable to the contagious and deadly respiratory disease.
DeSantis stressed that if educators and other employees do not feel comfortable going back to schools, they should not be forced to do so.
“Now, for those teachers who may be at higher risk or even those who just don’t feel comfortable with in-person instruction, they should be given the option of working remotely. Why force someone to be in the classroom if they’re uncomfortable doing so?” the governor said.
DeSantis said last week that school districts should give teachers the option to work from home or to take sabbaticals.
The governor’s 5 p.m. televised address came two days after the Florida Education Associations, the state’s largest teachers union, filed a lawsuit against DeSantis and Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran over the return-to-school state order.
Plaintiffs in the legal challenge, who also include three teachers from Miami-Dade, Broward and Orange counties, allege it is unconstitutional for the state to order schools to reopen while the number of COVID-19 cases continues to skyrocket.
The lawsuit asks a judge to rescind the July 6 school-reopening order and to require state education officials to implement an online instruction plan “aimed at all children,” and “make internet connectivity and computer devices available to all students.”
Corcoran, a former House speaker who was tapped by DeSantis to serve as commissioner, issued the emergency order on the same day President Donald Trump tweeted that, “SCHOOL MUST OPEN THIS FALL!” Corcoran retweeted Trump’s message that day, but denied any coordination with the president, a close ally of DeSantis.
Three days after the order was issued, the governor doubled down on his stance to reopen schools.
“We spent months saying that there were certain things that were essential that included fast-food restaurants. It included Walmart and Home Depot and Lowe’s,” DeSantis said July 9. “If all that is essential, then educating our kids is absolutely essential, and they have been put to the back of the line in some respects.”
On Wednesday, the governor’s tone was much softer.
“Let’s not let fear get the best of us and harm our children in the process. We must stay strong, for we will succeed. Thank you and God bless you,” he said.
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