Florida's top education official on Monday ordered all public schools to reopen for in-person instruction next month despite an alarming rise in coronavirus infections across the state.
Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran, who was appointed by Gov. Ron DeSantis after serving as the Republican speaker of the Florida House of Representatives, issued the order as schools across the state grapple with whether to proceed with online instruction or in-person teaching amid the spike in infections.
The order will require all schools to be open "at least" five days a week to offer in-person instruction to any family who requests it.
"There is a need to open schools fully to ensure the quality and continuity of the educational process, the comprehensive well-being of students and families and a return to Florida hitting its full economic stride," the order says. "Required services must be provided to students from low-income families, students of migrant workers, students who are homeless, students with disabilities, students in foster care, students who are English-language learners and other vulnerable populations."
DeSantis had refused to issue a statewide mask requirement in favor of leaving critical health decisions to local governments. Thus, the order may upend local plans.
The Miami-Dade School Board unanimously voted to approve a plan last week that would create a hybrid online and in-person system, The Miami Herald reported. The district's superintendent said the order was "fair and measured," because it would still allow students to continue with online learning if their families so choose.
But Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez halted plans to reopen restaurants and shut down gyms as a result of rising infections on the same day the order was released. The county alone reported 1,981 new cases on Monday and has 48,992 confirmed cases in total. More than 1,000 people in the county have died. Many of Florida's hospitals are nearing 100% capacity after the state saw a rise in infections and positivity rate over the holiday weekend.
The Trump administration has pushed for schools to reopen. President Donald Trump said Monday that schools "must open" in the fall and falsely claimed that Democrats do not want schools to open "for political reasons."
Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos echoed Trump's comments, calling for schools to be "fully open and fully operational this fall."
But teachers are "scared" because there has not been enough emphasis on safety, Fedrick Ingram, the head of Florida's largest teachers union, told The Herald.
"They don't trust politicians to make sure things are safe — rightly so, with the record-breaking number of cases being reported," he said. "The governor is trying to brush that off."
Wendy Doromal, president of Orange County Classroom Teachers, told local news outlet WKMG that there was no way to enact the order safely.
"Following the CDC recommendations, it would be impossible. Our school system does not have the financial resources or the manpower it would take to safely reopen our schools," she said. "There's no way that our schools could have social distancing with overcrowded classrooms. This is just a very dangerous prospect."
"The state's teachers union has got to sue over this," Charlie Kennedy, a member of the school board in Manatee County, told the Tallahassee Democrat. "It is forcing compromised staff back to work."
Some parents also said the order made no sense.
"When we look at the numbers that we had in April when there was a big emergency, we've got to shut these schools down," Duval County parent Gregg Keefer told local news outlet WJXT. "Compared to where we are now — it's orders of magnitude worse where we are at right now."
Indeed, there is plenty of cause for concern. More than 7,000 children in Florida have tested positive for COVID-19. Though children are less likely to get sick from the virus and spread it to others, according to the CDC, those "who are obese or have health conditions, including asthma, are at a higher risk for severe illness with the disease," Dr. Marcos Mestre, the head of pediatric services at Nicklaus Children's Hospital in Miami, told The Herald.
The CDC also warns that children are at risk of contracting what is known as multisystem inflammatory syndrome, which can result in inflammation of the heart, lungs, kidneys, brain, skin, eyes and gastrointestinal organs.
Israel was forced to abruptly reverse its school reopening after a coronavirus outbreak.
"Two weeks after Israel fully reopened schools, a COVID-19 outbreak sweeping through classrooms — including at least 130 cases at a single school — has led officials to close dozens of schools where students and staff were infected," NPR reported. "It's an abrupt reversal of the post-pandemic spirit in Israel as officials lifted most remaining coronavirus restrictions last week. With fewer than 300 deaths in Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had declared victory in early May over the pandemic.