By Ana Ceballos, The News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — Private schools and Florida universities might see drops in enrollment as the coronavirus continues to hammer the economy, members of a panel focused on reopening the state’s education system said Wednesday.
School-choice advocates said in a conference call they worry families might no longer be able to afford private school tuition for their children and that struggling companies could decide to cut back on donations to Florida’s school voucher programs.
“The private schools, particularly the scholarship schools, are going to be facing some unprecedented crises,” said Mimi Jankovits, the executive director of Teach Florida, an advocacy group for Florida Jewish day schools.
Syd Kitson, chairman of the state university system’s Board of Governors, also said there could be a drop in enrollment in Florida universities.
“Fall semester enrollment may be reduced, as returning students, particularly from at-risk populations, decide to stop or postpone work on their degree due to personal hardships or other concerns,” Kitson said.
School enrollment concerns surfaced during the first conference call held by an education working group that is part of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ Re-Open Florida Task Force.
Jankovits, a member of the working group, urged it to look into the issue, worrying that some public schools may not have the immediate capacity to handle an influx of students leaving private schools.
“I am not sure at all that if thousands of kids show up at various public schools, if the schools would have the capacity or the staff to handle all these new children,” she said.
Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran reassured Jankovits that the state will monitor the available scholarship dollars and demand for scholarships over the next three months, adding that the revenue for the programs has not “seen a decline as of yet.”
Florida has a series of voucher-type scholarship programs, including the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, which has helped send more than 100,000 students a year to private schools. Under that program, businesses receive tax credits for contributions they make toward scholarships.
During Wednesday’s conference call, the working group also floated a number of ideas that could show what may be in store for children when they return to classrooms. Campuses are shuttered for the rest of this school year to try to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, with DeSantis ordering students to continue distance learning.
“Our main focus is to get schools open,” Corcoran said. “We know that by opening schools it has a tremendous emotional impact and a tremendous physical impact, an economic impact on our citizens and our businesses.”
The panel said that it would be a good idea to use the summer months to help students who may have fallen behind while learning online.
John Hage, the chief executive officer for Charter Schools USA, said charter schools are planning on doing summer camps — virtual and in person — to prepare some students who struggled with distance learning for the fall semester.
If children come back to classrooms in the fall, Hage said charter schools plan on having robust cleaning scheduled and maintaining social-distancing measures.
Social distancing protocols could include having some students learn at school and others at home as well as “utilizing open spaces differently,” Hage said.
“We are also experimenting with camera technology that allows us to tell the temperature of students to alert us” to anybody who might have a fever, he added.