News
Can Florida's Governor Force Schools to Reopen in a Pandemic? Some School Leaders Seem Doubtful
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at a news conference at Orlando Regional Medical Center Tuesday, June 23, 2020, in Orlando, Fla. DeSantis spoke about Florida's caseload of coronavirus topping 100,000. John Raoux/AP

As Florida educators puzzle over how to start the new academic year, Gov. Ron DeSantis' administration seemed to scramble their plans Monday. A new state edict called on public schools to provide in-person classes five days a week.

The emergency order, issued by state Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran, appeared at first to undermine the push by many Palm Beach County teachers and some school board members to keep classes online when the school year begins.

Though the order says schools can remain closed if county health officials deem reopening too dangerous, a Corcoran spokeswoman heaped doubt on that possibility.

"Logically, I don't think they could say schools aren't safe if they are allowing people to be out in public," Department of Education spokeswoman Cheryl Etters told the Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

But as concern about the order spread online Monday, some school leaders said: Not so fast.

"It is up to each individual school district how it reopens in the fall and we will submit a plan to [the state education department]," Broward Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie wrote on Twitter.

"We will continue," he added, "to follow the advice of our public health and medical experts as to how and when it is safe for our @browardschools community to return to school."

Miami-Dade Public Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho downplayed the order as well, calling it "fair and balanced" on Twitter because it "respects local decision-making based on health conditions at time of reopening."

Indeed, DeSantis and Corcoran both conceded last month that county school boards would have the final say about when and how to reopen their campuses.

The state constitution, after all, empowers school boards, not the state education commissioner, to "operate, control and supervise" public schools.

Palm Beach County school leaders were more circumspect Monday. Schools Superintendent Donald Fennoy kept mum, and the district issued no statements or official comment on the order.

But a district administrator told The Palm Beach Post Monday that the county's schools would not reopen unless school leaders concluded it was safe to do so.

"We are still in phase 1 in Palm Beach County," the official said. "The [district's] Health Advisory Committee is not going to recommend sending students to campuses before it is safe."

The county's teachers union opposes a return to in-person classes until the rate of new coronavirus infections begins to subside. Instead, they propose starting classes on Aug. 10 as scheduled but keeping them online-only at first.

Led by School Board member Debra Robinson, a retired physician, a majority of school board members have said they, too, are uncomfortable reopening classrooms, though they have not voted to postpone a reopening.

A district task force researching the best way to reopen will present its findings to board members Wednesday.

Among the recommendations: that board members consider delaying the start of in-person classes for least some students,

Doing so, the task force says, would give schools time to figure out how to transport tens of thousands of students in buses while maintaining social distancing measures.

Meanwhile, starting the school year on time but keeping it mostly online would avoid salary gaps for many district employees, task force members concluded.

When in-person classes do resume, student should be required to wear masks in at least some settings-on buses and in school cafeterias, for instance, the group of educators says.

Those recommendations are among the many outlined in a summary of the task force's work to draw up potential school-reopening plans.

While reopening plans are expected to be discussed Wednesday, no final decisions is expected until next week.