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What will the return to schools look like this fall?

Florida Board of Education discusses options including digital learning, extending learning days, considering school on Saturdays?

Teachers and students across Florida are in the last couple of weeks of the 2019-2020 school year, which pivoted to distance learning back in March in response to the pandemic.

Many are now wondering what the future of Florida public and private schools will look like as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis works his Safe, Smart, Step-by-Step Plan to reopen the state’s businesses, industries, and schools.

On Wednesday morning, the Florida Board of Education members met by a conference call for their regularly scheduled board meeting. They discussed various ideas on what reopening schools could look like in the fall, and how to avoid what school leaders are calling “The COVID slide”.

“We’re going to open schools with a moral purpose and that is closing the achievement gap,” said Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran. “And to ensure safety, we are going to take a dimmer switch step-by-step rather than flip the light switch on in its entirety.”

Corcoran told board members there is a lot to consider before students and teachers can return back to school.

They discussed things like how do you screen students, how do you social distance in hallways and classrooms, and how will students be transported to schools in the age of social distancing?

Florida Board of Education Vice Chair Marva Johnson asked about what a hybrid learning approach might look like, and if it could involve extending digital learning, staggering learning days, and even possibly adding Saturdays to the mix.

"Are we looking at split learning days where maybe some students are in the classroom in the morning, and some in the afternoon," asked Johnson during the meeting. " Are we looking at staggered days or attendance physically?"

Dr. Mike Grego, Superintendent of Pinellas County Schools spoke on behalf of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents at the meeting. He presented the COVID-19 Education Recovery Plan and K-12 Return to School Recommended Guidelines to the board.

"We must address the gaps prior to the start of the 2020-21 school year," said Dr. Grego.

Dr. Grego told board members that using future CARES Act money could help close that academic gap expected with students forced to learn at home. But he said questions still remain on how the expected $770 million in relief funds would be used, as schools grapple on how to keep students, faculty and the community safe from the further spread of COVID-19

"We can't let this opportunity go by without really looking at these extra dollars to springboard us into a different method perhaps of learning," said Dr. Grego. "Because if this springs up again in the fall, we need to all be ready to go into perhaps remote learning for multiple schools, one school, or all schools."

Dr. Walt Griffin, Superintendent of Seminole County Public Schools said during the pandemic, districts everywhere are looking at a lot of different possibilities for what the return to school might look like - and if it will happen in August or beyond.

“Like most districts, we have a plan A, B, C, and D,” said Dr. Griffin. “And we are ready to pivot to meet the health needs of our students.”

Griffin says he visited with several teachers and students over the past several weeks, and while there are concerns about an academic slide due to distance learning, he says the pivot to online learning has been getting results in Seminole County.

“Across the board, the teachers feel they are connecting rather well with the students,” said Dr. Griffin. "Certainly not exactly the same quality as face to face, but I think it has exceeded everybody’s expectations. Will there be an academic slide for some students? Absolutely, but I also heard stories of some students who are working harder now because they don’t have an audience to act out in front of.

But the head of one Central Florida teachers union says teachers need a say in the school reopening equation.

“We really need to have a conversation,” said Wendy Doromal, President of the Orange County Classroom Teachers Association. “We look at what medical experts have to say, and of course the safety and the mental and emotional and physical health of students, teachers, and staff is a priority for us.”

Doromal says until there is a vaccine, there’s really no way to ensure the safety of students, parents, and staff. She questions how social distancing guidelines could even be put in place at school districts statewide.

"How in fact could you social distance on a bus?" said Doromal. "How can you social distance in hall passing? Or a cafeteria? Or even in some classrooms that are overcrowded right now?"

As for the potential for adding school hours or Saturdays to the school year, Doromal says that it could cut into some teachers who hold other jobs to supplement their income. And cut into student jobs as well.

"When you're talking about Saturday school, you're talking about a person's income being sacrificed," said Doromal.

At the end of April, the Department of Education also sent out a COVID-19 Florida Education Impact Survey to parents and teachers. The survey asked:

  • What is your comfort level with students returning to school campuses
  • Would you feel comfortable having students on school campuses during the summer months
  • Do you believe school campuses will be ready to open full time by mid-August or would you rather start school after Labor Day which is Sept. 7?

The survey also asked if teachers or students have access to a tablet or laptop or a reliable internet connection.

“We’re continuously gathering input, so there is no deadline for feedback,” said Taryn Fenske in an email response from the Florida Department of Education. “We’ve been working with our superintendents very closely throughout this process of responding to and recovering from COVID-19, and they were kind enough to help us get these questions out to parents and teachers. We think it’s critical that the Department has a pulse on Floridians’ feelings about recovery, particularly, parents’ and teachers’ feelings, as we look at the next steps.”