SARASOTA COUNTY (WFLA) – More than 50 cars lined up outside the Sarasota County Health Department Friday morning. The group of local educators, parents, and healthcare workers wanted to make sure their voices were heard by staff inside the DOH building. Their message — speak out against the reopening of schools.
The Florida Department of Education’s executive order to reopen brick and mortar schools at least five days a week starting next month is subject to advice and orders coming from the state and local departments of health.
That’s why local teachers are shifting their rallies away from school board members and towards local health leaders.
“We are here to empower them to speak up because we know it is a lot scarier to speak up when you don’t have the numbers behind you. So we are here to bring those numbers, to bring that support so that they will be willing to speak up on our behalf to keep us all safe,” said Sarasota High School Teacher Tiffany Pepsin.
The Florida Department of Health reported 581 new COVID-19 hospitalizations Friday. That is the highest single day jump since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
“There is power in voice and power in numbers, so all we can do is hope that our state will make the right decision,” said a Sarasota County educator who asked not to be identified. “It is going to be a hard decision. It is not easy for parents whose children have to stay home and they have to work; I understand that, but in my heart, I feel like if we take this precaution now, hopefully it will lessen the chances in the future and it will keep people safe,” the teacher continued.
The group of Sarasota and Manatee County teachers want schools to reopen online first.
“I just feel like opening virtually for the first quarter or at least to start is just the right way to go,” said one teacher.
“Our positivity rate is way too high to be putting children back in school and we need to follow the lead of other states and countries who have not opened up school when the positivity rate is that high,” said fourth grade Manatee County teacher Denise Dienna. “We don’t want anyone to die”, she continued.
8 On Your Side reached out to both health departments for comment Friday. As of 6:30 p.m. Friday, Sarasota DOH hadn’t responded.
Manatee County DOH sent us this statement:
The Florida Department of Health, through the county health departments, serves as a resource to the school districts on how to open schools in the safest manner and what mitigation strategies to employ at the time and in the manner determined by the local school districts.
We recognize that districts, schools and Florida families are working through challenging questions of optimizing learning and ensuring the safety and security of their students and staff.
It will be critical for Florida school districts and schools to work closely with local county health departments to develop safe mitigation strategies through the re-opening process.
The county health department works collaboratively with the local superintendent, school district and school board to provide county data and trends and educate on mitigation strategies to make the school environment as safe as possible.
The Department will continue to collaborate with local school districts on best practices to ensure the safety of students and staff.
Several local teachers tell 8 On Your Side they plan on taking leave if schools reopen as planned next month. Taking leave time means they’ll lose their income and health benefits for their families.
“I truly think the most heroic thing a teacher can do is take leave. To protect their co-workers, their students, their families, the community, and themselves,” said Pepsin.
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