‘I’m concerned about it:’ DeSantis says Hillsborough County schools should reopen

Florida governor says law requires at least some in-person instruction

In an exclusive interview with News 6, Gov. Ron DeSantis once again said it's safe to open schools.

ORLANDO, Fla. – In a one-on-one interview Friday with News 6 anchor Matt Austin, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said that school districts have a legal requirement to offer in-person instruction this fall despite the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

The governor was responding to the decision in Hillsborough County to start the school year virtually for all students and then possibly consider in-person learning in September, if infection numbers have dropped.

Austin spoke with DeSantis ahead of the governor’s roundtable discussion on transportation at the Hilton Bonnet Creek in Orlando.

Under an executive order from the Florida Department of Education, all schools are required to offer in-person learning in some capacity this fall, although parents can opt for virtual learning for their students.

“The law requires you to offer certain amount of in-person instruction,” DeSantis said about the decision in Hillsborough to balk at the state order. “I’m concerned about it.”

[EXCLUSIVE: Firm tied to Florida’s troubled unemployment website won contract by submitting lowest bid, governor says]

DeSantis argued that not opening for in-person learning was not “the right decision” for school districts in areas other than Miami-Dade or Broward counties, where the majority of cases in the state have been reported.

The governor said Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran will now go to Hillsborough County and examine the situation on a school-by-school basis. The school district could face funding cuts because of the decision to not reopen schools.

[Watch the full News 6 interview with Gov. Ron DeSantis below.]

“Is there a school in the county that won’t be able to offer (in-person learning)? And I think he’ll probably look at funding decisions based off that,” DeSantis said of Corcoran.

Later on Friday, Corcoran sent a letter to the Hillsborough County School Board informing the district its reopening plan does not meet the state’s mandated requirements. In the letter, Corcoran told the school district they must submit a plan for each school with reasoning why each school cannot host in-person learning.

Corcoran told the district it has three options: Follow the already approved plan, submit an amended plan in line with the state mandate or withdraw the plan to keep and proceed under the existing statutory framework.

“The Hillsborough County School Board needs to follow the law, it’s that simple,” Corcoran said in a statement. “The whole reason the Department created the emergency order was to grant districts maximum flexibility to do what is right for parents and school children.”

“We will not stand idly by while they trample over the majority of parents who want to do right by their children. What they did yesterday completely eliminated the flexible options for their families and students and ignored how harmful it can be for students who are experiencing violence, abuse, and food insecurity in their homes, many of whom are already struggling to close achievement gaps. These are urgent circumstances and we cannot, and will not, ignore it,” Corcoran continued in his statement.

Corcoran made no mention of visiting Hillsborough County to individually asses schools in his letter or statement.

As of Thursday, 39,735 children have tested positive for COVID-19 in Florida since March, nearly 80% of which are school-aged children. Seven have died, including two this week.

In Hillsborough County 2,857 children have tested positive for the virus. The county ranks third in the state for juvenile coronavirus cases, behind only Miami-Dade and Broward.

Asked what he would say to students getting ready for a new school year with the ongoing pandemic, DeSantis said he would tell students they are at “very low risk” for the virus.

“You have an opportunity to get an education. You have an opportunity to be to be back with your friends. Accept that and face it head-on,” DeSantis said. “I would send my kids back if they were at school-age, for sure, because I’ve just looked at the data, and I’m very comfortable with with the low risk that’s there.”