Florida back to school: DeSantis stresses importance of reopening classrooms, giving parents choices

Florida

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WFLA) — Gov. Ron DeSantis addressed Floridians on Wednesday evening to again stress the importance of reopening schools next month to give parents options despite Florida’s recent increase in coronavirus cases.

During his address from Tallahassee, which was streamed live online and not open to reporters, the governor acknowledged the increase in the prevalence of the virus throughout Florida in recent weeks. He also said, though, that there has been an increase in fear and anxiety.

“There’s fear of the virus of course, but also apprehension about what it means for families, jobs and education as we approach the school year,” he 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.”

DeSantis said fear “doesn’t help us combat the virus” and only makes our apprehension and health worse. The way to fight the virus, the governor said, is being “laser-focused” on protecting the vulnerable population.

For weeks, the governor has talked about the importance of getting Florida’s students back in the classroom next month. The state’s education commissioner signed an emergency order earlier this month saying all districts throughout the state must reopen in August and provide full services to students at least five days a week.

The governor reiterated his message again during Wednesday’s address, saying the state’s fight against the virus shouldn’t deprive children of tools they need to succeed.

“Here’s the hard truth: Our kids are at the least risk from this virus and much lower risk than they are from seasonal influenza,” DeSantis said. “Our kids also play the smallest role in transmission of the virus.”

8 On Your Side checked data from the Florida Department of Health last week and found more than 30% of coronavirus tests in Florida children come back positive. As of Wednesday evening, Florida data shows 23,170 kids under the age of 18 have been infected with the virus. Of those pediatric cases, 246 have required hospitalization and four have resulted in death.

“It’s often asked whether it’s safe to return kids to school. It should also be asked how safe it is to keep schools closed,” the governor added during his address.

The governor warned that keeping schools closed will likely worsen achievement gaps that already exist, lead to more dropouts and foster more mental health issues among other problems.

While the governor has repeatedly said he believes schools can open safely in August, parents and teachers have voiced their concerns. Some have suggested students should start the 2020-2021 school year online. Toward the beginning of the pandemic in late March, schools in Florida closed classrooms in an attempt to slow the spread of the virus. Students finished their school year online.

But DeSantis called that distance learning a “stop-gap measure” that was adopted at a time of uncertainty that placed a “tremendous burden” on working parents.

“I believe 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,” he said. “The evidence that schools can be open in a safe way is overwhelming. Yet I also understand the apprehension that some parents may feel.”

DeSantis stressed that every parent should be empowered to make a decision that’s right for their family. He also referenced teachers and their excitement to get back to school.

“I know many teachers and faculty are chomping at the bit to get back in the classroom because they know how much their students depend on their instruction,” he said. “We support you and want you to be safe.”

Teachers from several Tampa Bay area districts have held rallies recently to call for more safety measures to start the school year. Many are calling for virtual learning and for there to be 14 days with no new cases before students are allowed to return to classrooms.

“Safety precautions have been made for those who have worked throughout the pandemic,” DeSantis said to teachers during his address. “From everyone working in health care to working in grocery stores. And I’m confident the same can be done for our educators.”

The governor added that teachers who may be at higher risk or who are uncomfortable should be allowed to work remotely. He also supported school districts delaying the start of school if necessary.

“If a school district needs to delay the school year for a few weeks so everything will be in good shape, have at it,” he said. “The important thing is that our parents have a meaningful choice when it comes to in-person education.”

So far, the following Tampa Bay school districts have proposed or approved plans to delay the start of their school year: Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco, Polk, Manatee, Sarasota and Citrus.

School districts including HillsboroughPinellas, Sarasota and Pasco will also mandate masks for staff members and students who do return to classrooms.

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