If stores and factories can be open, so can schools, U.S. labor secretary says

Gov. Ron DeSantis says it's important students return to school this fall

Florida education secretary issues executive order to reopen schools this fall

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – U.S. Department of Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia and Gov. Ron DeSantis addressed concerns about reopening Florida’s schools this fall amid the ongoing pandemic by comparing them to essential businesses such as grocery stores and factories.

“We’re getting back to our ordinary life as best we can, while also contending with a virus,” Scalia said during a news conference Thursday in Jacksonville. “And to me, schools are an essential service, or an essential service. We’ve had our factories in this country open throughout the pandemic.”

DeSantis echoed the secretary of labor speaking of schools being essential.

“We spent months saying that there were certain things that were essential, and that included fast food restaurants. It included Walmart. It included Home Depot ... but if all that is essential than educating our kids is absolutely essential. And they have been put to the back of the line in some respects,” DeSantis said.

Big box stores have remained open throughout the pandemic in Florida with few restrictions.

Scalia was in Jacksonville along with the governor and area leaders addressing the hit to the U.S. labor force due to coronavirus closures. More than 1.3 million Americans applied for unemployment benefits last week, a historically high pace that shows that many employers are still laying people off in the face of a resurgent coronavirus. The figure has now topped 1 million for 16 straight weeks. Pre-pandemic, the record high for weekly unemployment applications was fewer than 700,000.

Schools in Florida switched to online learning in the spring and last week, the Florida Department of Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran issued an executive order calling on all schools to be open for at least five days a week beginning in August. The order was met with some criticism from parents, teachers and school staff who are concerned about the virus.

[MORE COVERAGE: Here’s what we know about how Central Florida schools plan to reopen in August]

Florida is in the midst of the highest daily positivity rate of new COVID-19 cases it’s seen during the pandemic. That uptick began in late May and hasn’t let up, with now more than 232,000 infections reported since March, including more than 4,000 deaths.

Scalia said reopening schools is important for several work forces, including those of low-income Americans and working women.

“During the economy we had before the virus came, we actually had a lower unemployment rate for women, adult women, than we did for adult men, which was extraordinary,” Scalia said. “Unfortunately, that’s now flipped.”

Amid the ongoing pandemic, many parents are now providing child care and education while working from home or are unable to work with schools out.

“We’ve even got tattoo parlors open and hair salons, we’re ready to open our schools. We know how to safely open our workplaces,” Scalia said. “There are steps that can be taken that will be successful.”

DeSantis said it’s important students return to in-person learning to close the education gap and allow for socialization.

“If you can do Home Depot, if you can do Walmart, if you can do these things, we absolutely can do the schools,” DeSantis said. “In spite of good efforts with the online, it’s just not the same.”

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