Coronavirus: Florida school districts could return at different times, governor says

This is what many classrooms look like during the 2 week closure. (WSLS 10)

ORLANDO, Fla. – Like much of the decisions made in response to the coronavirus pandemic, Florida’s governor believes the right time to send students back to school may not be a “one-size-fits-all” move.

Currently, Florida students are practicing distance learning to prevent the further spread of COVID-19 and will be through at least the end of April, according to state education officials.

What happens after that is still up in the air, according to Gov. Ron DeSantis.

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The governor said in a news conference Thursday he wants to send students back to school as soon as possible, but only if it’s safe to do so.

“If we get to the point where people think that we’re on the other side of this [pandemic] and we could get kids back in -- even if it’s for a couple of weeks -- we think that there would be value in that,” DeSantis said.

According to the latest numbers, more than 16,000 cases of the novel coronavirus and more than 350 deaths have been reported statewide, but data has shown the virus tends to be less of a threat to children than other members of the population and he thinks this should be taken into consideration when deciding how soon to send students back to school.

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“For whatever reason, it just doesn’t seem to threaten kids,” DeSantis said. “We lose in Florida between 5 and 10 kids a year for the flu. This one, for whatever reason, much more dangerous if you’re 65+ than the flu.”

DeSantis said he recognizes that there are second- and third-order effects of sending kids back to the classroom while the virus is still taking a toll on other members of Florida’s population and that he and state education officials will look at that data and explore the potential consequences of sending kids back to school before making the call.

The governor also said during Thursday’s discussion that he might consider letting some school districts return to the classroom sooner than others because the virus has impacted certain counties more significantly than other parts of Florida.

“Quite frankly, if you look at how this has impacted the state, it has not been a uniform impact. We have 60% of the cases are in three counties in Southeast Florida and that’s just the reality that we find ourselves in,” DeSantis said. “There are other communities where you may have had some cases but you’re still in a situation where, with testing and isolating people that are infected and contact tracing, you can do a lot to really contain it from spreading.”

While health officials have said that the elderly population is more at risk, data show children are not immune to the virus.

According to the CDC, there have been two deaths in children under the age of 14 in the U.S. There have also been six deaths among people ages 15 to 24 nationwide, the CDC reports.

The governor also mentioned that he might consider allowing parents to choose whether they want to send their students back to school if and when they reopen or have them finish the school year online.

DeSantis said although he’s impressed by how quickly Florida’s teachers and families have adapted to the virtual learning plan, the need to get Florida’s students back in school goes beyond the curriculum.

“Obviously the education is important but there’s a social dimension to this -- if someone’s going to graduate, prom, sports, all these different things -- and to have that taken away is a big deal and that really is going to affect students," the governor said.

DeSantis said state leaders are aware of the toll an extended period of distance learning could take on Florida’s students and are considering the effects it could have on their mental health, especially those who are worried about missing major events like prom and graduation.

"We’re sensitive to that and obviously would love to get folks back to where they’re able to interact like they’re used to but particularly for those students who are nearing the end.”

Some school districts have announced backup plans for 2020 graduation ceremonies, including potential dates into July.

No final decision about when students will return to school has been made but the governor said he is regularly in contact with the White House seeking guidance from the coronavirus task force or Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that may help Florida’s leaders determine when it’s safe to open classrooms again.

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The governor said he will continue the discussion with Florida’s educators to determine if closures should be extended. DeSantis said parents will be given enough notice of any changes to have time to prepare to send students back to school.

As of now, all Florida schools are closed through April.

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