ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. – Orange County School Board members voted Friday to insist that the decision to reopen schools be left to local leaders based on the coronavirus situation in the county.
The school board was set to vote on a third learning option for students following the Florida Department of Education executive order telling schools to reopen for at least five days a week despite the ongoing pandemic. Under the executive order from the DOE, school districts must submit a plan to reopen to the state.
The Orange County School Board has three options for students: Face-to-face learning, Orange County Virtual School and an Innovate Learning Option, known as Launch ED. The state has already approved the face-to-face learning and fully virtual learning. On Friday, the board voted to submit the Innovated Learning Option to the DOE as well but with one caveat.
At the end of the meeting Friday, the board voted to seek a waiver from the state to allow that the decision about if and when schools reopen be based on the COVID-19 data in Orange County.
Orange County School Board Member Linda Kobert introduced the motion that was approved and clarified the board’s intention after the vote.
“We voted to submit the Launch ED plan for approval (and) simultaneously, submit a waiver that insists that under our constitutional authority, we insist on the right to determine what is safe for our district with regards to opening our schools,” Kobert said. “We’re going to call on state leaders, parents, teachers, and everyone to stand with us in support of local control with your local elected leaders.”
“On the advice of our medical professionals locally, if we deem for whatever reason it is not safe to open our schools, we can vote, not to do that. And if they want to throw us out of the office, I will proudly walkout.”
The board wants the decision to be based on local numbers, not where the state stands with the coronavirus.
When questioned on Friday in Apopka, Gov. Ron DeSantis said he’s open to working with local leaders and his goal isn’t to penalize anyone.
“You got to be sensitive to the different communities and what they’re dealing with, but I believe Orange County can certainly offer in-person, given the trend that they’re on, and I think they’ll be in pretty good shape by next month. I mean they just, you know, Orange County has one of the lowest case fatality rates for a county this size. I think it’s less than half a percent,” DeSantis said.
He also said he’s considering achievement gaps and he thinks in-person learning is the best way to prevent students from falling behind academically. He said, too, that it’s important for parents to have options.
“I just want opportunities for our kids. I do not want people falling behind. I’m concerned about what will happen. I’m concerned about just being able to be a part of a school community,” DeSantis said.
The president of the Orange County Classroom Teachers Association praised the school board’s decision Friday.
“I am proud that our school board took the position to stand up to Tallahassee and let them know that it is a local decision as to when it is safe to reopen schools,” Wendy Doromal said in an email. “The board will send the plan and a waiver that says there will be no brick-and-mortar reopening unless it is safe to do so. Right now, with surging covid cases and deaths, it is not safe. I am also pleased that a survey will not just be sent to parents to let them choose three options, but to teachers as well, which is what we asked to be done.”
Superintendent Barbara Jenkins said the school district will conduct a survey that will be sent out to parents soon to choose the learning option they think would be best for their child. The survey will be available in multiple languages.
The survey will ask which of the three models they plan to use and which one of those they would like to register for. It also asks them if they will need before and after school care, if they want to participate in the lunch program and if they need transportation for their students.
Grab-and-go lunches will be available even for students who do not attend in person.
A separate survey will be going out to school district staff. The survey will ask staff whether or not they will be able to return to OCPS, and if so, which of the three models, would they like to work with, Jenkins said.
Staff will also be asked if they are looking for medical leave or extended leave and it gives them information about who to contact in HR or legal services.
Jenkins said the current school start date is Aug. 21, which is built into the current plan.
A school district medical advisory board will also be formed. That will happen officially at the next board meeting.
Board members met virtually Friday following an all-day-long meeting earlier in the week during which members of the public voiced their concerns about reopening schools as COVID-19 numbers continue to rise in Florida. Citizens who spoke threatened to vote members of the board out based on their decision and asked them to reject the state order to reopen.