Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran on Monday ordered public schools to reopen in August and offer “the full panoply of services” to students and families.
As COVID-19 outbreaks spike in Florida, Corcoran’s mandate said that extending school closures can impede students’ educational success and prevent parents and guardians from returning to work.
“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 states.
Under the emergency order, all public schools will be required to reopen in August for at least five days a week and to provide the full array of services required by law, including in-person instruction and services for students with special needs.
“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,” the order says.
It’s unclear how the top-down order will affect Miami-Dade County Public Schools’ reopening plan, as the school district already aims to begin the new school year Aug. 24 in the schoolhouse for some students with mandated masks and social distancing.
Its phased-in reopening plan, which the Miami-Dade School Board unanimously approved last week, calls for a mix of in-person, online and hybrid courses, with parents answering surveys, beginning this week, to indicate whether they want their child to be taught in school, through online courses or a mixture of both.
The state order allows students to continue with distance learning, but the order requires school districts to report the projected percentage of students who will continue with distance learning.
“The Commissioner’s Executive Order on the reopening of schools is fair and measured, as it allows for different instructional models, traditional schoolhouse as well as other innovative options; and guarantees fiscal stability during a highly-unpredictable time, the first quarter of the year,” Alberto Carvalho, Miami-Dade Schools superintendent, said in a statement late Monday night. “The order appears to fully align with M-DCPS’ recently approved tentative reopening plan, which prioritizes parental choice, and it also places strong consideration on local health conditions at the time of opening.”
Corcoran’s order instructs school districts to follow the advice of state and local health officials as well as executive orders issued by Gov. Ron DeSantis.
In last week’s School Board meeting, Carvalho said the school reopening plan would be contingent on the county transitioning to Phase 2 of the state’s reopening plan by Aug. 24, the first day of classes.
On Monday, however, Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez announced that in-person dining at Miami-Dade restaurants is being halted and gyms must shut down again this week due to a surge in COVID-19 cases in the county. The Florida Department of Health on Monday reported 1,981 additional confirmed cases in Miami-Dade and eight new deaths. The county now has 48,992 confirmed cases and 1,051 deaths, the highest numbers in the state.
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The Republican governor and Corcoran, a former Florida House speaker, have been determined to reopen public schools at full capacity next month, even as state health officials have reported a minimum of 5,000 new COVID-19 cases in each of the last 13 days.
On Saturday, Florida added 11,458 cases, a single-day record of new COVID-19 cases. On Monday, the statewide total of cases topped 206,000, more than doubling over the past two weeks.
Teachers are concerned about their safety, according to Florida Education Association President Fedrick Ingram.
“It’s clear in communications with our members that educators are scared. They don’t trust politicians to make sure things are safe — rightly so, with the record-breaking number of cases being reported,” Ingram told the News Service of Florida in an email Monday. “The governor is trying to brush that off.”
Ingram, who heads the state’s top teachers’ union, said students and school employees “need to be at the center of our conversations about reopening schools.”
Department of Education spokeswoman Taryn Fenske said in an email last week that the state has a “moral imperative to do our absolute best to return our schools to full operation by August.”
“Our children’s education, the comprehensive health of our families — mental health and stability in homes — and our economy are all depending on us to make every effort to reopen our school campuses,” she wrote.
Fenske, however, would not say if specific metrics about COVID-19 cases would prompt the education department to backtrack on the school reopening plans.
Under the order issued Monday, school districts and charter-school governing boards are required to submit reopening plans to the Department of Education showing how all schools plan to fully reopen and offer all services to students.
The order also requires districts to disclose efforts to address achievement gaps and monitor students’ progress.
Corcoran’s order acknowledged that some students may continue to learn from home.
“Although it is anticipated that most students will return to full-time brick and mortar schools, some parents will continue their child’s education through innovative learning environments, often due to the medical vulnerability of the child or another family member who resides in the same household,” the order says.
Because enrollment numbers could impact per-student funding for public schools, the order says that school districts and charter school governing boards with approved reopening plans will be offered “reporting flexibility” to ensure their funds are not interrupted during the 2020 fall semester.
For example, students who learn in an “innovative learning environment” during the fall semester would be able to receive a full-time enrollment credit.
Monday’s mandate also waives “strict compliance” with a Florida law requiring schools to operate for at least 180 days, “to the extent necessary to give effect to this order.” And the order waives a state law requiring “school districts to have a uniform and fixed date for the opening and closing of schools.”
Miami Herald Schools Reporter Colleen Wright contributed to this report.