TAMPA BAY, FL — With the reopening date of Tampa Bay public schools looming, teachers are taking to the streets and airwaves in the hopes of convincing state leaders that it's too risky to go back to school.
In Pinellas County, teachers, parents and students protested outside the school board offices in Clearwater on Tuesday as Pinellas County School Board members perused the 37-page plan to reopen public schools Aug. 12.
Teachers in Hillsborough County are equally concerned. They protested outside Strawberry Crest High School in Dover on Wednesday as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and the State Board of Education met inside to discuss reopening Florida schools amid a global coronavirus pandemic.
Ultimately, however, DeSantis stuck to his July 6 emergency order mandating that all school districts must open brick-and-mortar schools at least five days a week in August to be eligible to receive state funding.
While he said he's all in favor of giving parents the option of continuing to educate their children online, he said research has shown there's significantly less risk of children contracting the coronavirus in a group setting.
"We're in a situation where we have to give parents as many options as possible so we’re empowering parents to make this decision. I think it’s important that parents have the ability to make a choice. The last thing you want to do is shove people into a situation where they’re not comfortable," he said.
"At the same time, I have three young kids at home, and I'm amazed at how people under 18 are so low risk."
He noted that Florida never mandated the closure of day care centers after the pandemic was declared "and you never had major issues resulting from that."
"Particularly primary school kids are not significant transmitters to adults," he said.
DeSantis said that's one of the reasons he feels comfortable with administrators and teachers returning to school next month.
"The best interest of the child is obviously paramount, but we also understand that there’s a whole host of adults working in our school system, too," he said. "I’m confident it can be done in a safe environment. It'll take effort and attention to the risks involved."
He said he's heard from many parents who want their children back in school.
"Yes, some of it’s linked to the economy. Some working parents might not have child care options," he said. "But the decision should rest on what’s best for our children. Socialization and activities are very, very important, and I’m concerned that that’s not available."
Classroom teachers found on ally in Pinellas County School Board member Rene Flowers, who spoke out during Tuesday's school board workshop against reopening school while coronavirus is on the rise in Pinellas County.
"We've seen the numbers in our own communities rise and heard reports about hospitals in Pinellas County that are already at capacity," she said. "We just can't guarantee the safety of anyone through this. It's nobody's fault, but I'm not in support of exposing our staff and students to further harm."
School board member Carol Cane agreed.
"If we as a community do not feel it is safe to open every business and send adults to work, it’s incomprehensible that it is safe and acceptable to send children into a building to go to school,” she said. “If we don’t feel comfortable letting parents come in to do PTA meetings, how can we expect them to feel safe sending their children into the building?”
Members of the Hillsborough County School Board are having similar reservations as Hillsborough County prepares to reopen schools Aug. 10.
Board members Cindy Stuart and Tamara Shamburger urged Superintendent Addison Davis to delay the start of school by at least two weeks, prompting Davis to recommend delaying the opening until Aug. 24.
The Hillsborough County School Board will hold a special board meeting July 23 from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. to vote on the proposed school reopen including Davis' recommendation for an Aug. 24 starting date.
Davis will present the school reopening plan and discuss his reasons for recommending the delay Thursday at 1 p.m. during a live workshop of the Hillsborough County School Board.
Afterward, at 6 p.m., Stuart will take questions from parents, students and staff during a Facebook Live broadcast.
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