As the new school year draws closer, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis reiterated his position that students are at low risk for contracting and spreading Covid-19 and said that districts need to weigh the tradeoffs of not offering in-person learning in the fall.
“There’s never anything you do in life that is entirely risk-free,” said DeSantis, speaking Monday at a roundtable discussion at Winthrop College Prep Academy, a charter school in Hillsborough County. “Some of this stuff is not debatable anymore. The fact is, the risk to school kids is lower than seasonal influenza and they’re less likely to spread it.”
DeSantis’ comments come on the heels of a new report from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children’s Hospital Association that said at least 338,000 children had tested positive for Covid-19 through July 30. Roughly 97,000 of those cases occurred during the last two weeks of July, with states in the South and West accounting for more than seven out of 10 infections.
DeSantis, who appeared alongside education commissioner Richard Corcoran, spoke of the need for schools to provide flexibility for parents so they can choose the learning option that works best for their children. At the local level, Corcoran said that the state worked together with school districts to come up with an emergency order giving them “complete flexibility” so they would have certainty on how funding would work and what options would be available for children.
“They can absolutely make whatever decision they want,” Corcoran said.
That’s been a point of contention and extensive debate in Hillsborough County, where the school board voted last week to offer virtual learning only for the first four weeks of school. The original plan was to offer a choice between eLearning and in-person classes, but after hearing from health officials about the risk of returning to school, the board opted to go with solely virtual instruction. To complicate matters, Corcoran told the county that it had violated its reopening plan and that it didn’t meet the state’s requirements for resuming instruction.
When asked about repercussions for school districts that choose to go online-only, Corcoran again pointed to the emergency order that he said would protect school funding, and said that Hillsborough is the only county, aside from those in South Florida still in Phase 1, which has gone back on its reopening plans.
“Every other district is doing exactly what the emergency order gave them the flexibility to do,” he said. “And they’re doing it with great fanfare.”
As the roundtable concluded, DeSantis echoed earlier sentiments that schoolchildren aren’t the drivers of community spread, and talked about the risks of not offering students a chance to learn in person.
“There’s the risk of suicide, depression and the toll this is taking on the mental health of these kids to be stuck at home day after day,” he said. “On the flip side, I’m sure there’s a lot of kids who aren’t at home and are out doing other things. In that case, wouldn’t you rather them be in a structured environment?”
The Pinellas County School Board will hold a special workshop to discuss school reopening before its regular meeting Tuesday morning. School is scheduled to resume Aug. 24 both in-person and virtually.