Coronavirus Florida: Health risk could keep some students out of school in the fall
In addition to launching an effort to reopen Florida’s economy this week, Gov. Ron DeSantis also is convening school leaders to discuss how to reopen campuses, and big changes are likely when students return.
Distance learning could remain a major part of school programs at the K-12 and university levels, with some students continuing to stay away from campuses because of the health risk to themselves or loved ones. Schools also are working on plans to boost sanitation efforts and impose social distancing requirements on students and staff.
Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran acknowledged Wednesday that there may be concerns about sending students back to school who live with caregivers who are especially vulnerable to COVID-19.
“We want to open up schools and get kids in the best learning environment that we know works the best,” Corcoran said Wednesday. “But we also know the hybrid model is gonna be a factor and you’re gonna have, even if we open up, you’re gonna have kids… where they might be with their grandparents or their parents and they might have an underlying condition or might be in a vulnerable age group and having their kid go to school where there could be asymptomatic kids is gonna cause them too much stress.”
As a series of “working groups” set up by DeSantis to advise his Re-Open Florida Task Force continued meeting Wednesday, the discussion Corcoran led with the group advising on school reopenings illustrated how the coronavirus will continue to affect life in Florida well after some semblance of normalcy returns.
With the task force working toward a Friday deadline to provide feedback on how to safely end the statewide lockdown, the Florida Department of Health reported another 440 coronavirus cases since Tuesday evening and 26 more deaths. The state now has 28,309 total cases and 893 deaths.
The outbreak could wane over the summer as more testing is done and social distancing continues to be the norm, but the virus is likely to still be around when the next school year kicks off.
School leaders said Wednesday they’re working to ensure schools can operate safely by instituting new health protocols, while also preparing to tackle everything from the mental stresses caused by the virus to the learning losses children may have suffered.
DeSantis closed schools on March 13 and ordered a statewide lockdown in early April that banned nonessential activities and shuttered nonessential businesses.
But as the economic devastation of the lockdown grows more severe, DeSantis is now pushing to reopen the state and get businesses running again.
“I think we have a responsibility to all be creative, innovate, let’s show we can get people back to work,” DeSantis told task force members Wednesday.
There is considerable debate over when to end the coronavirus lockdowns, with health experts warning that easing up on restrictions too quickly could lead to another wave of infections and deaths.
But DeSantis has repeatedly noted that the state’s health care system has not been overwhelmed by COVID-19 patients and the number of daily infections appears to be leveling off in arguing for an end to Florida’s lockdown.
“Florida’s right now at this point better than anybody predicted we could be,” DeSantis said Wednesday. “Now obviously we have a lot more work to do but I do think that it’s worth pointing out the facts and pointing out where we actually stand, which is contrary to some concocted narratives that we’ve seen over the past month.”
Schools are closed for the rest of the school year, but education leaders are making plans to open at the end of the summer for the new school year.
“We know the importance of opening the schools because that also opens up the support that families need so they can return to work,” said Jacob Oliva the chancellor in the Department of Education’s Division of Public Schools.
College and university officials also are trying to figure out how to reopen. Campus life could be very different when that happens.
“Social distancing policies and other protections for students and employees will become the norm for the forseeable future,” said Syd Kitson, the chair of the board overseeing Florida’s university system.
The Re-Open Florida Task Force also includes input from tourism businesses, health care companies and other industries that are pushing to end state restrictions.
The task force’s tourism-focused working group continued to explore how to restart the state’s largest industry Wednesday.
Cities and counties have started to reopen beaches around the state, a key draw that will be critical to reviving the tourism industry. Hotel operators involved with the task force say they need the beaches open to revive their businesses.
But crowds gathering on Florida beaches have drawn national attention and derision in recent weeks, and there are still big concerns that beach gatherings could spark more virus transmissions.
Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry defended his decision to reopen beaches over the weekend with restrictions such as no sun bathing or beach chairs. Images of crowds on the beaches led to a trending Twitter hashtag #FloridaMorons.
Curry said Wednesday during a task force working group meeting that his community’s beaches were not that crowded, adding that the crowds that did arrive “really thinned out” after the first day.
"A dictator style we're going to come arrest you I don't believe is the way forward," he said.
Doctors and hospitals also are pushing to begin doing elective procedures again, something DeSantis said he supports.
The governor prohibited those procedures to free up hospital bed space and personal protective equipment for treating COVID-19 patients, but hospitals currently have plenty of bed space.
Tallahassee Democrat reporter Jeffrey Schweers contributed to this report.