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Florida Mandates School Reopenings

Florida's Education Commissioner says schools must reopen in August.

There is a nationwide debate on whether students should return to school this fall in the midst of the pandemic. The question is all the more difficult to answer because the curve of virus cases had seemed to be flattened a few weeks ago, but now is surging higher once again. In Florida, however, the decision has already been made. Schools will reopen in August for all students.

Tallahassee’s WTXL reports that Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran has issued an Executive Order that mandates that all of Florida’s public K-12 schools will reopen in August. The order requires that schools open for all students for five days per week and provide all required services.

“Upon reopening in August, all school boards and charter school governing boards must open brick and mortar schools at least five days per week for all students, subject to advice and orders of the Florida Department of Health, local departments of health, Executive Order 20-149 and subsequent executive orders,” Corcoran said in the order, which also mandates that schools provide “the full array of services that are required by law so that families who wish to educate their children in a brick and mortar school have the opportunity to do so.”

The full text of the order is available on the Florida DOE website here.

The Executive Order came almost simultaneously with a tweet from President Trump that succinctly exclaimed, “Schools must reopen in the fall!” The move also came on a day in which Florida reported 7,361 new cases and three deaths. The state not only has an increasing number of cases but an increasing rate of positive tests.

While many will applaud Florida’s move to mandate that kids get back to school, in a pandemic whose effects vary greatly by region, a one-size-fits-all solution from state governments makes as little sense as a one-size-fits-all solution from the federal government. COVID-19 has so far hit urban areas much harder than rural areas. Different approaches to localities that are subject to different levels of risk and different rates of infection would seem an appropriate solution.

For example, Miami has been hard-hit by the pandemic. Dade County was responsible for 28 percent of Florida’s new cases yesterday. The situation is deemed to be so serious there that Miami Mayor Carlos Gimenez issued a new order this week closing dining rooms and bars beginning on Wednesday. The Sun-Sentinel reports that Broward and Palm Beach Counties may soon make similar moves.

On the other hand, rural Okeechobee County in central Florida reported only 12 new cases on July 6, 0.001 percent of the state total. The two counties obviously are having different experiences of the pandemic. It stands to reason that their responses could be different.

Dr. Fauci acknowledged this as well. Speaking to CNBC last week, Fauci said, “When you’re talking about getting back to a degree of normality and school openings and things like that, it’s always related to the level of activity of the virus.” 

Fauci noted that the question of whether schools should reopen had “a bit of a complicated answer, because the United States is a large country.”

One size does not fit all.

The seriousness of whether to reopen is underscored by the story of Carsyn Leigh Davis, a 17-year-old girl from Fort Myers, Florida who died after attending a church party with about 100 other youths. Masks were not worn at the party and social distancing was not enforced. To make matters worse, Carsyn, who was immunocompromised due to childhood cancer and other health issues, was not taken to the hospital for almost a week after showing symptoms of Coronavirus. Instead, her parents treated her at home with hydroxychloroquine. She died 13 days after the party.

There are loopholes in the Florida mandate. The Order contains an exception that makes it “subject to advice and orders of the Florida Department of Health [and] local departments of health” as well as gubernatorial orders. While local school boards cannot unilaterally decide to keep their schools closed or turn to online classes, they can do so if the local health department or government decides that in-person classes are dangerous.

The Order also does not prohibit online classes or mandate attendance. The Order stipulates that schools may provide “live synchronous or synchronous instruction with the same curriculum as in-person instruction and the ability to interact with a student’s teacher and peers as approved by the Commissioner of Education.” The Order does not address how schools should handle immunocompromised students (or teachers) or parents who are concerned about the health risks of sending their children back to school in the midst of a pandemic.

One of the keys to public health and safety in the midst of a pandemic is flexibility. Corcoran’s Executive Order clearly communicates a preference from the state government that schools reopen for in-person classes next month, but it does leave loopholes for local governments and concerned parents to opt out. Given Florida’s state of rising Coronavirus cases, those exemptions should be more explicit and local school boards should be given more autonomy to decide what is best for their students and faculty.

If you would like to continue the discussion on social media, you can visit David Thornton’s Facebook page or follow him on Twitter.

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