On Tuesday morning, school board members in Hendry County, Florida, logged onto their computers for a virtual “emergency” session about the upcoming school year. For some teachers watching, the meeting amounted to a disturbing surprise.
The week prior, the county school board had approved a plan that would require students learn virtually until the county’s coronavirus case positivity rate dropped below 10 percent for at least 10 consecutive days. Hendry County, an area 65 miles east of Fort Myers with a population of 42,000, currently has one of the highest infection rates (4.2 percent) in all of southwestern Florida. Multiple teachers in the county told The Daily Beast they’d viewed the decision to hold off on sending kids back to the classroom as a safe choice.
But on Tuesday, Superintendent Paul Puletti delivered a major announcement: The county had, over the weekend and within the course of just a few days, decided to reverse course. As of Tuesday morning, Hendry County planned to reopen schools on August 31 for those students who choose to return to the classroom. The county is also offering students the chance to continue learning virtually with county public school teachers or through an outside educational service.
The change in policy came as Gov. Ron Desantis (R-FL)—along with senior officials in the state’s Department of Education—continue to press counties to reopen schools fully for the fall semester, including those experiencing significant upticks in coronavirus cases. DeSantis, a close ally of President Donald Trump, has been viewed inside the top echelons of the administration, including within the president’s coronavirus task force, as leading the way on the school reopening issue. On several private phone calls with the nation’s governors, Vice President Mike Pence has praised DeSantis for his work in containing the virus and flattening the curve, even as cases and deaths have piled up in the state. Dr. Deborah Birx, the task force coordinator, too, has highlighted DeSantis’ efforts in recent weeks to stop the spread.
But on Monday, Florida recorded a record number of coronavirus-related hospitalizations—as well as record COVID-19-related deaths on Tuesday. And the total number of cases in children under the age of 17 has increased by 137 percent in the last four weeks.
Against such a disturbing epidemiological backdrop, state mandates to reopen schools have been viewed by some officials in counties such as Hendry and Hillsborough County as too restrictive—and have forced administrators such as Puletti to roll the dice.
“I made the choice because I didn’t want to risk losing funding for this district,” Puletti, who is set to retire in November, told The Daily Beast. “It’s all very stressful.”
The decision to reopen schools in Hendry County, announced during the board meeting Tuesday morning by Puletti, came after the superintendent spoke with senior officials in the state Department of Education over the weekend. Puletti told The Daily Beast that following a school board meeting August 4, in which members voted to extend virtual learning until further notice, he called the department “immediately” to inform the state about the decision. The state was not willing to allow the county to delay in-person learning, Puletti said, even with the increasing case numbers in the county.
“I told them we needed to amend our working plan to do this,” Puletti said, referring to the plan to implement virtual learning. “I explained it and I was sort of walking around the brick-and mortar-mandate. I was hoping that I could walk around it. They basically said the bottom line is the commissioner of education had made the decision to have brick-and-mortar schools open by the end of August and we needed to follow that order.” (Brick-and-mortar schools are schools that offer in-person learning as opposed to virtual learning.)
In the beginning of July, Florida’s Department of Education issued an executive order requiring brick-and-mortar schools to open classrooms by August 31. Since the issuing of that order, the state has shown some flexibility, allowing schools to reopen first online before switching to in-person learning by the end of the month. Hendry County will offer students virtual learning starting August 24 and brick-and-mortar by August 31.
A senior official at the state Department of Education who spoke with The Daily Beast would not comment on deliberations between Puletti and the department, but said Hendry County had not submitted an “official plan” until Monday. That plan included the proposal to reopen schools on August 31, the official said. The governor’s office and the state’s Department of Health did not return requests for comment. A spokesperson for the Hendry County Department of Health Department said the office worked with Hendry County Emergency Management to provide masks for schools.
Puletti repeatedly mentioned during the school board meeting Tuesday morning the possibility that the county will have to shut down schools completely if students begin to test positive for the coronavirus. Puletti said a handful of teachers in the county over the last two weeks have reported coming into contact with an individual with COVID-19 or have asked for leave because they are experiencing symptoms.
“The problem with all this back and forth is that it really doesn’t give teachers the time to plan properly,” said one Hendry School elementary school teacher who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak more freely about the matter. “Now we have to completely change how we teach. But there’s also a ton of risk to going back to school right now. Our county numbers are extremely high and those don’t go away overnight or in two weeks.”
Hendry County was not the only region in Florida to tussle with state leaders over virtual learning. In Hillsborough County, in Central Florida, the school board voted to change the district’s reopening plan that had been approved by the state so that only online learning would be available for the first four weeks of the school year.
Since then, the state has inquired with the county about its decision to go virtual, sending the school board a letter requesting more information. And on Monday, Governor DeSantis and Richard Corcoron, his education commissioner, traveled to Hillsborough County to press the county to reopen classrooms.
“Some of this stuff is just not debatable anymore,” DeSantis said at a roundtable at Winthrop College Prep Academy in Riverview, according to Politico. “We’re going in a good direction in this area and that’s just the reality.”
Cocoran informed Davis the move was in violation of the state’s order to reopen campuses and that the Hillsborough public schools district was risking possible loss of state funding; as much as $23 million, according to The Tampa Bay Times. Cocoran’s office did not return messages seeking comment for this story.
Hillsborough school district spokeswoman Tanya Arja said Addis was not available for interviews, but late Monday, she issued a press statement addressing Cocoran’s comments. It read: “Our district explicitly followed the state’s executive order. The order provides school districts the option of not opening brick and mortar “subject to advise or orders of the Florida Department of Health, (or) local departments of health”. Last Thursday, our School Board made an informed decision after hearing from the local public health authority and local infectious disease experts. The panel was asked if we should open our doors and not one medical professional could recommend opening today. The state’s order goes on to say the day-to-day decision to open or close a school always rests locally.”
David Pogorilich, a 60-year-old father of a student at Brooks DeBartolo Collegiate High School in Tampa, was among those parents who wanted the Hillsborough school board to follow Cocoran’s executive order.
In a phone interview with The Daily Beast, Pogorilich said switching to virtual classes for the first four weeks so close to the start of the school year was probably the wrong approach. “It ignored the state and it ignored the parents,” Pogorilich said. “The biggest mistake they made was to fly in the face of the governor and ignore their constituency. They did a poll and a good percentage wanted kids to go back to class.”
Pogorilich, who is a former city council member representing Temple Terrace in Hillsborough, said parents and their children should be allowed to decide the best option for them. His daughter, a 17-year-old starting her senior year, definitely wants to go back to class, he said.
“She has been part of the conversation and we agreed that the school is taking proper precautions that kids will stay safe. The best way to learn is in the classroom. They need the interaction, the face-to-face time with teachers and being able to ask questions, especially her senior year. We don’t want her education to be short-changed.”
His teen also doesn’t want to miss out on the experience of enjoying her final year in high school, Pogorilich said. “If she was five-years-old, obviously it would be a different conversation,” he said. “But my niece graduated last year. She was short-changed. They didn’t have a prom. They didn’t have a graduation and she got her diploma in the mail.”
Damaris Allen, a 42-year-old mom whose two teens attend H.B. Plant High School in Tampa, said she also prefers her kids go back into brick-and-mortar learning, but doesn’t believe the district should reopen schools this month. “Neither of my kids want to go back to school,” she said. “They just want to do e-learning. They are pretty aware of what is going on in the world. They understand that increased exposure means increased risks.”
Allen, who works as a public education advocate, said her fear was rushing back to reopen schools would lead to closing them down again quickly if an outbreak occurs. “My kids are really fortunate they attend a school with a ton of resources,” she said. “But even on a good day, our school can’t keep enough soap in the bathrooms. The state has asked us to send kids back to school without giving us the funding to send them back safely.”
She also claimed Hillsborough County Public Schools did not have the necessary funding to provide soap, hand sanitizers, wipes and masks to more than 200,000 students on a daily basis.
“I definitely think the school board made a wise decision,” Allen said. “Given our positivity rate, it isn’t safe to reopen schools. It’s in the best interest of our students, our educators and our whole community to start with e-learning and evaluate as time goes on to see if our numbers do fall.”