TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Florida's largest association of educators called Tuesday for changing how schools operate in the era of the coronavirus — including staggering school schedules, suspending active-shooting drills and imposing social distancing rules on buses and campuses.
The discussions come amid preparations for the state's 2.9 million public schoolchildren to return this fall after being shut out of classrooms nearly three months ago by the pandemic.
In a 17-page document released Tuesday, the Florida Education Association called on the Department of Education to suspend standardized tests for students and key performance evaluations for teachers and schools — proposals that are sure to garner skepticism among adherents of accountability metrics.
The plan also called on schools to test students for COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, and put procedures in place to isolate infected students to prevent the virus from spreading across campus. The association suggested that some distance learning may be required to ease the strain on schools under pressure to keep staff and students healthy.
“As we reopen our schools, let us be safe. Let us be healthy. Let us understand academic success,” Fed Ingram, the president of the education group, said during a virtual press conference.
The 145,000-member association includes unions representing teachers, classroom aides, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, custodians and administrative staff at public K-12 campuses.
The summer months provides scant time for schools to prepare, as they consider how to put in place social distancing guidelines in classrooms, cafeterias and other campus facilities.
The state Department of Education has yet to release its own school reopening plan that could serve as a blueprint for the state's 4,000 public schools as they make plans to reopen. A spokesperson for the department said there was no immediate time frame when one would be released, and it will be another month before the state school board reconvenes for its next meeting in July.
The department's spokesperson, Taryn Fenske, said state officials will review the association's proposals, noting the department agrees with the objective of "opening schools safely and closing achievement gaps that have likely been exacerbated by this crisis.”
Fenske added that the state's economic recovery partly depends on schools reopening. “That is why it’s critical to take a step-by-step, phased-in, approach to reopening Florida’s schools,” Fenske said.
State officials shuttered classrooms in March, as COVID-19 cases surged and public health officials worked to contain the outbreak. Classes conducted classes virtually to help limit the spread of the virus. At the same time, those classes also exposed shortcomings, including the lack of access to computers and the Internet among poor families, as well as other challenges in educating children who were already struggling in traditional classrooms.
“As Florida's public schools look at reopening, we have a significant advantage that we did not have when they were closed: Time. We must use the time between now and the fall to create plans which ensure not only that reopening be safe but that recognize the closing of school campuses had a disparate impact on Florida's neediest students,” the association said in its report.
The document was drafted by a couple dozen educators, parents, community activists and mostly Democratic elected officials. But it lacked many specifics, including details on how school schedules could be staggered to reduce class sizes.
Ingram said the recommendations and were meant to be used as broad guidelines that could be adapted to the needs of individual districts, if not schools.
However, the plan urged schools to sanitize facilities daily and reconfigure classrooms to limit contact and crowding among students. It suggests that teachers move from classroom to classroom instead of having crowds of students clogging hallways while switching from one classroom to another.
The association wants schools to temporarily do away with emergency drills, including fire and active-shooter drills, to minimize disruptions and to keep students from having to gather in large groups.
It would also incorporate distance learning into a hybrid schedule and called on state officials to issue waivers to allow school districts the flexibility to change classroom hours and the length of the school year.
Last month, the Florida Association of District School Superintendents also issued its own set of recommendations, including reducing student-teacher ratios and daily health monitoring. It also called for establishing pandemic response teams.