Can Gov. DeSantis force Florida schools to reopen amid the coronavirus pandemic? Some school leaders seem doubtful.

Can Gov. DeSantis force Florida schools to reopen amid the coronavirus pandemic? Some school leaders seem doubtful.

PALM BEACH, Fla. — As concern about the state order spread online, some school leaders said: Not so fast.

As Florida educators puzzle over how to start the new academic year, Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration seemed to scramble their plans Monday. A new state edict called on public schools to provide in-person classes five days a week.

The emergency order, issued by state Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran, appeared at first to undermine the push by many teachers and some school board members to keep classes online when the school year begins.

Though the order says schools can remain closed if county health officials deem reopening too dangerous, a Corcoran spokeswoman heaped doubt on that possibility.

“Logically, I don’t think they could say schools aren’t safe if they are allowing people to be out in public,” Department of Education spokeswoman Cheryl Etters told the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, part of the USA TODAY Network.

Vehicles full of Port Salerno Elementary School students and their families are greeted with a message during laptop and food distribution Wednesday, March 25, 2020, at the school in Port Salerno.

But as concern about the order spread online Monday, some school leaders across the state said: Not so fast.

Opening schools under current conditions "could be catastrophic," said Karen Resciniti, president of the Martin County Education Association in Florida. Most educators in her district are hesitant to return to the classroom, even if social distancing is followed and masks are required, she said.

While many educators recognize that online learning is less than ideal for some families and school employees, they also stress the dangers of in-person education to resume as soon as August, especially as Florida's case numbers rise.

"We realize there’s no way to have a perfect plan," said E. David Freeland, president of the Education Association of St. Lucie County, Fla. "But we should at least meet the guidelines of declining numbers" before returning to in-person classes.

“It is up to each individual school district how it reopens in the fall and we will submit a plan to [the state education department],” Florida's Broward Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie wrote on Twitter.

Broward County Public Schools (BCPS) is the 6th-largest school system in the nation.

“We will continue,” he added, “to follow the advice of our public health and medical experts as to how and when it is safe for our @browardschools community to return to school.”

In Miami-Dade Public Schools, the 4th largest U.S. school district, Superintendent Alberto Carvalho downplayed the order as well, calling it “fair and balanced” on Twitter because it “respects local decision-making based on health conditions at time of reopening.”

Indeed, DeSantis and Corcoran both conceded last month that county school boards would have the final say about when and how to reopen their campuses.

The state constitution, after all, empowers school boards, not the state education commissioner, to “operate, control and supervise” public schools.

In Florida counties like Palm Beach, teachers unions oppose a return to in-person classes. The district issued no statement on the state order, but officials say they will not reopen until it's safe to do so.

“We are still in phase 1 in Palm Beach County,” a district administrator said. “The [district’s] Health Advisory Committee is not going to recommend sending students to campuses before it is safe.”

When in-person classes do resume, students should be required to wear masks in at least some settings — on buses and in school cafeterias, for instance — and practice social distancing whenever possible, educators say.

Follow the reporter on Twitter: @AMarranara.

Contributing: Sommer Brugal, Treasure Coast Newspapers.


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