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Florida Education Officials Discuss Schools Reopening As Protesters Rally Outside

protesters holding signs about the reopening of Florida schools
Jennifer Kious
About 40 people rallied near Strawberry Crest High School in Dover where the state Board of Education met to discuss schools reopening.

Gov. Ron DeSantis made opening remarks at Wednesday’s Florida Board of Education meeting in Dover. The state recently ordered that public schools reopen next month five days a week.

DeSantis said he knows parents are trying to figure out what exactly is going to happen in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, and that schools need to provide as many options to them as possible.

“So that means you want to continue with virtual learning, even though your school district may have kids back in school. As a parent, we need to empower them to make those decisions,” he said.

DeSantis was followed by Hillsborough County Schools Superintendent Addison Davis.

“The biggest thing I’m grateful for is the ability to allow local decisions about how we open and how we close and how we create the best experiences every single day,” said Davis, who added that they don’t have a playbook and are writing it along the way.

Davis also said he’ll present a reopening plan to the Hillsborough County School Board Thursday. He later announced that he'll ask the board to push the opening of schools back by two weeks to Aug. 24.

Multiple board members, along with DeSantis and Davis, applauded Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran’s reopening order, saying how flexible it is for parents who can choose for their kids to go back to brick-and-mortar schools, or continue with a virtual education.

But board member Michael Olenick did not share that sentiment.

“On the one side, we're saying flexibility. On the other side, we're saying on the order itself, the emergency order, it talks about the opt out and that opt out is dependent on certain conditions. And that's my concern,” said Olenick.

The conditions he’s referring to involve local health departments contributing to the decision of whether or not a school closes. Olenick thinks it should be up to individual school boards to decide which schools open and how they do so.

Olenick asked the board to consider rescinding the mandate for schools to be open five days a week. Corcoran said that was not going to happen.

"Part of that flexibility is if a parent would like to have their child in a brick-and-mortar classroom with a teacher in front of them five days a week, they absolutely should have that option. And it will not come out of the emergency order," said Corcoran.

The meeting took place at Strawberry Crest High School. Outside, about 40 parents, teachers, students, faculty and community members protested against schools reopening.

Kristin Hoffman, whose daughter attends Mabry Elementary in Tampa, had signs taped to her car saying “Keep COVID out of classrooms" and "Are kids really dying to go back to school? Don't make them."

She said that school buildings should not open until there are 14 days with no new COVID cases within each county.

“Our community is beyond the curve at this moment and needs time to recover.  Hospitals and front line employees need to regroup.  The right thing to do is to delay opening and plan for virtual learning,” said Hoffman.

“I understand people's desire to try to return to something that sounds and looks normal, but that is simply not an option.  These are unprecedented times in our modern society and we need to focus on people as our priority.  Caring for the vulnerable, protecting children, and keeping people safe,” she said. “That is a valuable lesson for our kids to learn.”

My main role for WUSF is to report on climate change and the environment, while taking part in NPR’s High-Impact Climate Change Team. I’m also a participant of the Florida Climate Change Reporting Network.