Gaetz Facebook forum on school opening leaves some viewers wanting more

Tom McLaughlin
Northwest Florida Daily News

NICEVILLE — U.S. Rep Matt Gaetz’s promise to “drill down into some issues” voiced by parents and teachers regarding the planned opening of Florida schools on Aug. 11 left many who watched wanting more.

Judging from comments typed in Friday as a Facebook video featuring Gaetz, Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran and Okaloosa County School Superintendent Marcus Chambers streamed live, not everyone is convinced schools can be opened safely.

“We are not following the same procedures that we had to follow for opening our state,” opined one viewer.

“Mr. Corcoran, how can you ethically consider opening brick and mortar schools in counties where the outbreak status is critical status?” asked another.

Corcoran recently issued an order calling on the state’s public schools to open Aug. 11.

Gaetz and Corcoran, both Republicans, spoke in support of federal plans to open schools quickly even in the face of still mounting COVID-19 numbers.

“They’re following the Trump push to re-open schools,” opined video viewer Gwen Graham. “They’re following the Trump playbook. He wants schools back open for economic reasons.”

Chambers laid out generalities found in the districts plan for reopening. He did not specifically address questions sent to him through Gaetz by the Northwest Florida Daily News.

Graham, who ran for governor as a Democrat the year Corcoran’s boss, Ron DeSantis, won the race, said Chambers did a respectable job of outlining plans from an uncomfortable political position.

“He’s got a lot on his plate and he’s navigating a lot of politics now,” she said.

Chambers’ plan to safely open the district, if approved by the Okaloosa County School Board, will be sent to Corcoran’s office for final approval.

Chambers said almost 90 percent of Okaloosa County families surveyed favor a return to the classroom.

Corcoran said the average among state school districts is about 80 percent preference for returning, but plans coming to him from across the state are providing flexibility for those who do not.

Chambers said the Okaloosa County School District plan does not incorporate mandatory masks for students anywhere but on school buses, where social distancing cannot be safely accomplished.

He said masks will be made available for every student, teacher and staff member.

Gaetz and Corcoran joked that masks might become more a liability than a security measure for students.

“I don’t care if it’s high school, middle school or elementary school,” Corcoran said. “The main thing is keeping masks on during the course of the day is going to be difficult.”

Graham said she favors mandatory masking.

“I don’t think we’re taking all the steps we can to open safely, and one of those steps is mask wearing,” Graham said.

Social distancing will be strongly emphasized in Okaloosa County, Chambers said, and actions that include block scheduling and controlling class changes will be undertaken to enhance the prospects of its success.

Chambers did not address the issue of sanitizing classrooms between classes, and one Facebook live viewer expressed frustration that she’s received no input to questions she’s asked about that.

Another viewer wanted to know if adding air purification systems in classrooms where ventilation is inadequate had been studied.

Corcoran said that the success of summer camps and educational opportunities with “face to face interaction” have proven that children run a low risk of contracting the coronavirus and their “transmission factor is very low.”

Graham disputed the education commissioner’s assessment.

“Scientifically, that’s not true,” Graham said, citing data that in Florida about one and three children tested are showing up positive for COVID-19.

As evidence she provided a screen shot of a South Florida Sun Sentinel article whose headline read “COVID-19 infections on the rise in kids, teens, as school year draws near.”

In further defense of the decision to open, Corcoran stated that the majority of classroom teachers need not be overly worried about COVID-19.

“Generally speaking teachers are young, they are a good age group, not an at risk age group” for COVID-19, he said.

Teachers will be treated differently, according to health, he said.

Teacher safety and treatment appeared to be a concern for those watching the Facebook live stream.

“When teachers are sick and on leave for an extended period of time, who will teach their classes,” one viewer asked. “Who will pay teachers if/when leave time runs out as a result of quarantine due to exposure to COVID at work?”

Most of the people who took time to comment during the live stream conversation between Gaetz, Corcoran and Chambers expressed worries about the decision to open being too soon.

One asked whether Dr. Karen Chapman, the head of the Florida Department of Health in Okaloosa County, had weighed in on Chambers’ reopening plan.

Chambers opponent in this year’s school superintendent’s race, Ray Sansom, said Chapman had not signed off on the plan.

“If I were going to have that type of conversation,” Sansom said of the Facebook forum, “I’d have included health officials, parents and teachers. They need to be intimately involved in the discussion.”