Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran should not require that all Florida public school students return to classrooms in January.
In his executive order for the fall semester, Corcoran allowed state financing to continue for students enrolled in remote learning, but that order expires on Dec. 31. Corcoran said last month that an updated order would come “before Thanksgiving,” which is next Thursday.
Statewide, 37 percent of students remain in remote classes. In Broward County, however, 83 percent have not gone back to campuses. In Palm Beach County, 60 percent are still learning at home.
In the worst case, the state could withhold money for each student who is not in a classroom. Without that money, Palm Beach County Schools Superintendent Donald Fennoy told the Sun Sentinel Editorial Board, “There’s no way we could function.”
A Department of Education spokeswoman told us “this talk is a false narrative, and the confusion is unfounded.” Yet the worry persists because recent history shows that Corcoran will use money to force policy changes.
Before the year began, Corcoran ordered all districts to offer in-person education as an option. The Department of Education, which Corcoran leads, required each district to submit its reopening plan for approval.
When Hillsborough County wanted to open offering only virtual classes for the first four weeks – COVID-19 cases were rising quickly in the area – Corcoran threatened to withhold $23 million per month in state money. The school district capitulated.
During an online meeting with superintendents last month, Corcoran called virtual classes “Tier 2” education. He wants to “incentivize face-to-face instruction,” but said that “maybe there’s a hold-harmless somehow,” meaning that districts wouldn’t lose money if more – but not all – students came back.
As Corcoran decides, virus cases are rising in Florida, along with hospitalizations. The state recorded 10,000-plus new cases on Sunday. That’s the highest one-day total since August.
Fortunately, the latest research suggests that schools contribute much less to community spread than restaurants, gyms and coffee shops. The dean of Brown University Medical School notes, however, that lessened risk comes only with mask-wearing policies and separating students as much as possible.
Like Corcoran, Gov. DeSantis wants all students back in classrooms. Though he refuses to issue a statewide mandate, he could help ease parents' fears by at least coming out more forcefully on the benefit of mask-wearing, rather than listen to the out-of-state doctor who wants Floridians to be part of a dangerous experiment in herd immunity.
Unfortunately, school re-openings have been linked more to politics than science. Two researchers, writing for the Washington Post, found that school districts in areas with high support for President Trump were more likely to send students back to campuses. In other words, political leanings mattered more than the rate of COVID-19 cases.
Perhaps that’s playing out here. South Florida went for President-Elect Biden. Fennoy said Broward, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties are working on a “joint communication” asking Corcoran to support an extension of remote learning. (Broward Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie could not be reached for comment.)
“We like to present parents with a choice,” Fennoy said. “And a significant amount of them are choosing to keep their children home.” He pointed out that public health experts expect a greater case surge after Thanksgiving and perhaps Christmas.
Parental concerns aren’t unique to South Florida. The Orlando Sentinel reported that more than two-thirds of parents in Seminole County, responding to a district survey, want their children to continue learning online in January.
The Florida Times-Union quoted a mother in Duval County whose daughter has pre-existing conditions and takes classes remotely. “Every parent has the right to keep their children safe,” the woman said, “even if the people who are supposed to care about that seem to have lost their minds. If we’re forced back to brick-and-mortar, I’ll yank her — and the funding that goes with her — out of Duval County’s school system with zero qualms.”
On Monday, the Times-Union also reported that a teacher in next-door Clay County died from COVID-19 complications. She was second district employee to succumb to the virus in two months.
Corcoran is right about the potential problems of online education, especially for children from struggling families. Thirty percent of students in Florida, Corcoran said during that online meeting, haven’t achieved basic learning levels.
Likely more than Corcoran and DeSantis, teachers and superintendents also understand what students are missing by not being on campus. Fennoy said his district’s online platform is “much better than it was in the spring,” when everyone had to improvise. His children use that platform.
The problem is that too many parents still worry about the virus. Though Corcoran said schools “are one of the safest places to be,” they are part of the community. Cases in children also are increasing, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, especially over the last two weeks.
According to the spokeswoman, the Department of Education is reviewing the latest enrollment data and will “always fight for what’s best for students' total health and safety.” Forcing a choice on parents – especially those whose children have COVID-19 risk factors – would not promote health and safety.
The Board of Education meets Wednesday. It’s the last meeting until mid-January. Corcoran’s executive order is not on the agenda. The spokeswoman did not respond to a question about whether the issue would come up.
We hope that the threat is a “false narrative.” Wednesday offers Corcoran a chance to end the confusion.
Editorials are the opinion of the Sun Sentinel Editorial Board and written by one of its members or a designee. The Editorial Board consists of Editorial Page Editor Rosemary O’Hara, Dan Sweeney, Steve Bousquet and Editor-in-Chief Julie Anderson.
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