By Ana Ceballos, The News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Ron DeSantis and state education officials on Thursday released a plan to reopen public schools at full capacity in August, saying that vulnerable kids and Floridians need the return to in-person instruction.
“While there may be challenges regionally, Florida’s workforce and students with the greatest needs are counting on schools to fight to stay open,” the Florida Department of Education states in the 143-page plan issued Thursday.
The department put forth a series of recommendations aimed at protecting students and school employees as well as easing parents’ concerns, after the coronavirus pandemic prompted school shutdowns around the world. Reopening plans will be finalized by local school officials.
“We have a great opportunity to get back on good footing,” DeSantis, accompanied by Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran, told reporters at a press conference in Melbourne. “Getting back on our feet in the school year is going to be really, really important to the well-being of our kids but also for our parents, who have been juggling an awful lot.”
Some of the state’s recommendations to avoid the spread of COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the coronavirus, are simple. The plan advises students to avoid sharing textbooks and toys. Children and school workers should wash their hands often and thoroughly. And schools should encourage children and workers to stay home if they feel sick.
But schools are also being asked to consider more complicated efforts, such as adding a secondary clinic to exclusively treat individuals who show symptoms of a respiratory illness. Creating isolation rooms for sick individuals and crafting plans for kids and workers who are medically vulnerable are also among the recommendations.
“Schools could consider accommodations on a case-by-case basis, and consider clustering these students away from other students, in smaller settings, with a teacher who is wearing a cloth covering,” the plan states, adding that at-risk staff also should have access to flexible leave policies.
Students may also bid a temporary farewell to cafeterias.
The state recommends schools should allow kids to eat in the classroom to maintain social distance from other students.
Because being outdoors is considered to lower the risk of contracting COVID-19, the education department is also asking schools to consider holding classes in outdoor spaces. If outdoor classes aren’t possible, schools should consider holding classes in auditoriums, gyms or cafeterias, according to the plan.
State officials are not requiring the use of face masks in schools, but are suggesting that it would be a good idea to have children and adults cover their faces in certain enclosed areas, including buses and clinics.
“While cloth face coverings are not mandated, schools should explore strategies to utilize them to the extent feasible,” the state plan says. “At a minimum, schools should be supportive of students, teachers and staff who voluntarily wear cloth face coverings.”
The plan notes that the goal is to get students on campus “every day,” and leaves it up to school districts to explore staggered schedules and different start and end times to limit crowds at schools.
DeSantis and Corcoran noted that parents need to have their children back in school so they can return to work.
School closures have likely widened the learning gap, they said.
A main goal for the state will be closing achievement gaps among groups of students who fell behind while distance-learning during the spring, the leaders said.
“The message should be loud and clear. We want schools fully open in the fall because there is no better way to educate our kids than to have that great teacher in front of that child,” Corcoran told reporters.
DeSantis said the state plans to invest millions of dollars to address achievement disparaties. The money will come from nearly $1 billion the state received as part of the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security, or CARES, Act approved in March.
The state plans to inject $64 million into intensive summer programs to combat learning gaps and will spend $15 million on teams of reading coaches to bolster literacy instruction across the state.
“We have to attack, like no other state has done before, the achievement gap,” Corcoran said. “We have to get in there, grab hold of these kids, and end the achievement gap.”
DeSantis also said he wants to pump $30 million from the CARES Act into the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program to keep providing scholarships to low-income students to attend private schools. He also plans to provide $15 million in relief to private schools who accept the scholarships.
“This will protect funding for traditional K-12 schools by preventing large increases in enrollments if students were to lose their current scholarships,” the governor said.