TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Ron DeSantis took a hard line on school reopenings Monday, standing firm against Florida’s third-largest school district in a showdown over classroom instruction and Covid-19.
DeSantis and Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran on Monday traveled to Hillsborough County to reiterate their case for re-opening schools just days after they rejected a plan from the county school district to hold online-only classes for its 223,300 students during the first four weeks of the fall semester slated to begin Aug. 24.
The potential educational benefits of in-person instruction outweigh the health risks of opening schools during the pandemic, DeSantis said at a Monday roundtable held at Winthrop College Prep Academy in Riverview.
“Some of this stuff is just not debatable anymore,” DeSantis said. “We’re going in a good direction in this area and that’s just the reality.”
Hillsborough County, which includes Tampa, last month submitted a plan to reopen classrooms, but backtracked after local doctors warned that school closures were likely to ensue. The county revised its plan to limit classes to online instruction, but Corcoran on Friday rejected that approach, saying it denies parents the option of sending their children back to school.
Hillsborough reported a 13 percent Covid-19 positivity rate on Monday, the fifth-highest in the state. School officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The district can revert to offering in-person and online classes, which it originally planned, or draw up a new plan that details how many students requested in-person learning and explains why Hillsborough can’t deliver on that option, Corcoran wrote.
Alternatively, the district can withdraw its reopening plan altogether, limit itself to online instruction, and run the risk of losing state funding.
Corcoran gave Hillsborough County until Aug. 14 to make a decision.
The standoff comes as the state defends a lawsuit from the Florida Education Association in which teachers are challenging the state policy, saying pandemic is creating an unsafe environment at schools.
The Department of Education in July issued an emergency order requiring brick-and-mortar schools to open by Aug. 31, a mandate that caused confusion among local leaders. The department has since shown a willingness to let schools begin the year online, but Corcoran took a tougher line in his letter to Hillsborough: In-person classes are a must unless the county is still in the early phase of re-opening other parts of its economy.
Corcoran on Monday painted Hillsborough County as an outlier, as the majority of Florida’s 67 counties prepare to offer a mix of in-person and remote courses. Only Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach and Monroe counties are slated to begin the year with strictly remote learning for most students.
Hillsborough County has the right to keep schools closed, Corcoran said, but the move does wrong by parents, students and teachers.
“We have 66 districts all very content with the plans they have submitted,” Corcoran said Monday. “We have one district that submitted a plan, liked their plan, and then suddenly went back.”
DeSantis and Corcoran on Monday fended off questions from reporters about the Hillsborough County case, saying that the Tampa area is in much better shape than south Florida.
Hillsborough County reported 868 new Covid-19 cases over the last three days, compared to 4,205 in Miami Dade County, according to the Department of Health. The county has had 1,396 hospitalizations and 388 deaths. Broward County has reported 3,904 hospitalizations and 821 deaths from the coronavirus.
Democratic state lawmakers used Monday’s event to bash DeSantis for his response to the pandemic and schools. Sens. Janet Cruz (D-Tampa) and Lori Berman (D-Delray Beach) said the Republican governor needs to keep students safe instead of holding a “self-congratulation tour.”
“The governor is failing miserably at leading this state through one of the worst disasters in our history,” Cruz wrote in a statement.
With teachers in at least 10 districts returning to classrooms this week, the Florida Education Association lawsuit against the state has yet to be heard. The case as of Friday has been assigned a judge in Leon County, but no hearing currently is scheduled.