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Capital Report: Education Stakeholders Weigh In On DOE School Reopen Order

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Florida’s education commissioner issued a mandate this week, requiring schools to open five days a week in the Fall.

Commissioner Richard Corcoran’s ‘emergency order’ calls on K-12 schools to provide all their usual services on brick-and-mortar campuses. The order says districts are “subject to advice and orders” from state and local health departments.

But, it also tasks schools with drawing up a reopening plan, which they are required to submit to the state Department of Education.

Corcoran’s move got a stamp of approval from Governor Ron DeSantis, who says he doesn’t want the achievement gap to widen or to stunt learning gains.

“I also told the commissioner of education, I said, ‘Look, different parents have different calculations. If a parent wants to opt for virtual education, they should absolutely be able to do that. We shouldn’t be forcing them to do any kinds of decisions,’” DeSantis said at a press conference Thursday. “But I’m confident, if you can do Home Depot, if you can do WalMart, if you can do these things, you absolutely can do the schools.”

Fedrick Ingram, president of statewide teachers’ union the Florida Education Association, says teachers want to be back with their students in-person – but thinks Corcoran’s decision is motivated by politics.

“It is ironic that the Commissioner of Education would, on the twentieth day of increases in positive cases of COVID-19 in the State of Florida, issues a mandate to open schools on a date certain,” Ingram told WFSU this week.

Corcoran, former Republican Speaker of the Florida House, issued the order on the same day President Donald Trump tweeted “SCHOOLS MUST OPEN IN THE FALL.”

Ingram acknowledges the order does give some flexibility at the local level. It doesn’t require parents to send their students back to campus, and it allows districts to receive funding for students using off-campus “innovative learning.”

“We believe that it does give some options to district. One, the mandate that is has is, schools will be open – or at least have an option for parents to choose to be open five days a week in the brick and mortar schools. So we are always of the opinion that local control is better,” Ingram said.

Ingram is concerned, however, that Corcoran’s order doesn’t address what he anticipates will be a higher cost of operation under the “new normal” caused by COVID-19.

North Florida Democratic State Senator Bill Montford is CEO of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents.

“It’s a legal issue, quite frankly it’s a constitutional issue, and that is – who controls local schools? It’s a very good argument, it’s a very good legal question, and it extends all the way to the President of the United States, when President Trump says ‘we’re going to open schools’ and so one and so forth, and he’s going to pressure governors and everybody else,” Montford said of the DOE order.

Montford, a former principal known in the Florida legislature as being one of the most plugged in to issues of education, says historically, local officials have final say:

“There’s people on different sides of that issue, but in the past, there’s been no question that local, duly elected school boards, and the superintendents whether they’re elected or appointed, in this state it’s always been clear that they have the authority constitutionally to make the decisions on what’s best for their communities.”

The provision regarding local and state health departments provides a level of flexibility for districts that Montford says makes him more comfortable with the move.

“I’m not too alarmed about it, quite frankly. Because, if you read it closely, what it simply says is, the brick and mortar schools will open 5 days a week and be available for students,” Montford said. “But also in that order, there’s a clause in there that says, in cooperation, or with the advisement of the local health organizations.”

He uses the example of South Florida districts that have announced their intent not to open as an example of the flexibility given by that provision.

“So it’s my understanding that there are two or three school districts in South Florida, Miami-Dad being one, that say, ‘We will not open up because we’re still in phase on,’” Montford said. “I don’t see that contrary to what the commissioner has put forth.”

Montford predicts the order to reopen schools could become a target of litigation, but feels that shouldn’t be a priority at the moment:

“Some may use the word forcing school district to open schools. Legally, I think that’s an issue I think we can address somewhere on down the road. Again, I think we have far more important issues we need to deal with today.”

Chiefly among those pressing issues of today, in Montford’s opinion, is keeping Florida’s students, teachers and school staff healthy.