JACKSONVILLE, Fla — Calling closing schools as a result of COVID-19 one of the biggest public health blunders in American history, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said schools will remain open through the spring.
At his first press conference since the November election, Gov. DeSantis was joined by Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran to announce Florida schools will remain open with an online learning option as part of the state's new emergency order for the spring semester. They also announced new rules that will require schools to alert parents if their online student is failing, and require students to return to brick and mortar schools if their grades do not improve, unless the parent says no.
"The reason why we're doing that is because the data and the evidence is overwhelmingly clear. The virtual learning is just not the same as being in person," DeSantis said.
Regarding this part of the order, a spokesperson for Duval County Public Schools said the following: "The pandemic hasn't changed our philosophy. If a student is not demonstrating success in the online environment, and educators within the school determine the student is not progressing, we will make a recommendation to the family that it may be in the child’s best interest to return to the campus classroom."
The spokesperson said the district remains committed to Duval HomeRoom as a remote learning option, "contingent upon any further direction, order or other action from the state."
During the news conference, DeSantis recognized that COVID cases have been going up again within the state but said other places are much worse with the virus spreading faster.
He called people who supported closing schools as a form of COVID-19 management "today's flat earthers."
“In March we may not have had all the information, but in hindsight, knowing what we know now, the closure of schools was one of the biggest public health mistakes in modern American history,” DeSantis said.
Corcoran praised the governor's handling of the virus. "We're staying on top of it, day by day and week by week," he said. He said that each district would submit individualized plans to help get students where they need to be, regardless of whether they are learning in-person or online.
Corcoran said schools will continue to receive funding both for virtual and in person learning.
The order also mandated districts reopen brick and mortar five days a week, and gave funding for distance learning students to districts that complied.
"I thought, wow they’re finally listening to the educators and to the parents and to the school boards because they are providing some stability," Andrew Spar, President of the Florida Education Association, said.
Spar said he would like to see more added to the order, though.
"The part that’s still missing from this emergency order is waiving of the testing requirement, the high stakes standardized tests known as the FSA, the Florida Standardized Assessment which is given in the spring and really takes up weeks of time," he said.
"It diverts away from learning. We would rather be focused on kids and their learning rather than kids and their testing," Spar said.
Spar did acknowledge that the best place for students to learn is in the classroom.
"What we know from this pandemic and what the commissioner and the governor have acknowledged is that the best place for kids is in our public school classrooms. We have to make sure we do it in a way that protects the learning environment as well as the health of the students and the people who work in our schools," Spar said.
Clay County Schools Superintendent David Broskie issued this statement regarding the new emergency order.
"I am thankful that the state will allow us to continue to offer multiple learning options to our families as well as provide the necessary funding to make that a reality. Flexibility has been key to the success of our students and staff during these uncertain times and our district is committed to supporting every learner with essential services and educational interventions."
A spokesperson for St. Johns County School District said school leaders are currently reviewing the order. Schools have already been notifying families that have students struggling with distance learning, the spokesperson said.