As top health officials argued that states with skyrocketing COVID-19 cases should consider "shutting down," Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis argued that schools should reopen since department stores can operate.
"We spent months saying that there were certain things that were essential. That included fast food restaurants. It included Walmart. It included Home Depot," DeSantis told reporters during a Thursday news conference. "But if all that is essential, then educating our kids is absolutely essential. They have been put to the back of the line in some respects."
DeSantis recently wiped out the entire budget for a $30 million online learning program amid his push to reopen schools.
"Different parents have different calculations. If a parent wants to opt for virtual education, they should absolutely be able to do that. We shouldn't be forcing them to do any types of decisions," DeSantis added Thursday. "But I'm confident if you can do Home Depot, if you can do Walmart, if you can do these things, we absolutely can do the schools. I want our kids to be able to minimize this education gap that I think has developed."
DeSantis' comments came as deaths from COVID-19 reached a record-high in the state. The state's 18% positivity rate and the number of new hospitalizations also hit a single-day record.
"It's just so frightening that he can't decipher the difference between Home Depot and public schools," Michigan emergency physician Dr. Rob Davidson said.
"Since we all go to Home Depot and sit tightly bunched in the duct tape aisle with 37 peers for 40 hours a week, this comparison makes perfect sense," CNN's Bill Weir added.
Randi Weingarten, the head of the American Federation of Teachers, criticized DeSantis' comparison.
"Children are not products," she tweeted. "And we spend a whole lot more time in schools than shopping. Where is the plan to [reopen safely] and the resources?"
DeSantis argued during the news conference that the risk of children getting sick was "extremely, extremely low." But schools also employ teachers and administrative staff who may be at risk of severe illness, and children can spread the infection to others.
Though severe illness in children is rare compared to adults, children are far from immune to the virus and kids with underlying health conditions are at significant risk. Children are also at risk for what is known as multi-system inflammatory syndrome, which results in inflammation of internal organs due to the body's immune response to infection.
"Obviously, if you have a kid that's got significant health issues, we absolutely need to make accommodations for that," DeSantis said Thursday.
While states with far fewer infections have rejected President Donald Trump's demand that schools reopen or lose funding — a threat which the administration has since walked back — Florida's push to reopen comes after the number of confirmed cases in the state doubled to nearly 233,000 in only 17 days. Dozens of hospitals across the state have already hit 100% intensive care unit capacity.
Though DeSantis and Trump have claimed that testing is responsible for the increase in cases, the state's 18% positivity rate shows that testing continues to lag in comparison to the infection rate.
"Our governor is content on using us as a petri dish for the nation," Florida Education Association President Fedrick Ingram told Politico, calling DeSantis' push "irresponsible."
Despite concerns from teachers and medical experts, Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran, a DeSantis appointee, issued an emergency order requiring schools to open five days a week next month. The order caught school districts off guard.
"We do not see a realistic path" to open schools five days a week, Broward School Superintendent Robert Runcie told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.
Teachers in Orange County held a protest Tuesday over DeSantis' order to reopen schools.The Miami-Date School District said it would not reopen until the county sees significant improvement in its ongoing health crisis.
"We will not transition to a full model of traditional education in the schoolhouse," Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said. "That's virtually impossible. It would be reckless."
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said Florida's problem was that DeSantis reopened too quickly.
"There are some times when despite the guidelines and the recommendations to open up carefully and prudently, some states skipped over those and just opened up too quickly," he said in a Thursday podcast interview. "Certainly Florida . . . I think jumped over a couple of checkpoints."
Rather than move to the next phase of reopening, states with infection increases such as Florida should do the opposite, he argued.
"Any state that is having a serious problem, that state should seriously look at shutting down," he told the Wall Street Journal.
"Rather than think in terms of reverting back down to a complete shutdown, I would think we need to get the states pausing in their opening process, looking at what did not work well and try to mitigate that," he later clarified in an interview with The Hill. "I don't think we need to go back to an extreme of shutting down."