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In Two Big States With Surging Virus Rates, Schools Urged to Open

By Evie Blad — July 09, 2020 7 min read
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Two states that have become the target of national concern for spikes in COVID-19 cases have directed their schools to reopen their buildings in the past week, and one of them has been held up as an example by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos for doing so.

Reopening guidance in those states—Florida and Texas—comes with some caveats. And it has drawn concern from administrators there who face great challenges welcoming students back to buildings while they implement dozens of new precautions designed to slow the spread of the virus in their communities.

Florida and Texas have seen dramatic spikes in virus cases since June, and they rank first and third among the states for new COVID-19 cases reported in the last seven days, federal data show. California ranks second. Federal agencies are sending aid to the states to assist with the swelling need for hospital care and testing, officials said this week.

The states’ decisions about schools came days before the president of the American Academy of Pediatrics warned that states shouldn’t set blanket mandates for schools to open.

President Donald Trump committed this week to put pressure on governors to reopen school buildings, seeming to reject the hybrid in-person and remote approaches many districts have floated, and threatening to “cut off funding” for schools that continue remote learning. And his re-election campaign has sought to leverage the issue.

Schools “must fully open and they must be fully operational,” U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said on the second of a two-day administration push Wednesday. On Tuesday, she praised Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran for his order requiring schools to open buildings for instruction in August.

With all of the attention on the two states, and all of the pressure to open buildings, will other states follow?

What Florida’s School Reopening Order Says

Corcoran’s Monday order says that, when they reopen in August, “all school boards and charter school governing boards must open brick and mortar schools at least five days per week for all students.” But those decisions are “subject to advice and orders of the Florida Department of Health, local departments of health” and other state orders.

Calling on schools to open “at least five days per week for all students” seems to eliminate the possibility of hybrid remote learning plans that have been among the most popular models for districts around the country. While the Trump administration has not clarified what exactly it expects from schools, DeVos has criticized hybrid plans as inadequate.

But the order’s caveats about the advice of health officials seems to leave a pretty big loophole.

On Wednesday, for example, the Palm Beach County school board voted to continue remote instruction for the district’s 174,000 students, citing the advice of a panel of local health officials. The district’s teachers’ union had also pressed to keep schools closed, the Palm Beach Post reports.

“In Miami-Dade County, the schools superintendent said this week that teaching will be done virtually until the county emerges from Phase 1" of the state’s reopening plan, which depends on virus rates, the paper reports. “Broward County’s schools superintendent said he, too, ‘does not see a realistic path’ to reopening classes five days a week.”

In other words, schools in the state DeVos held up as an example are doing what districts around the country have pressed to do by making plans sensitive to the recommendations of local health officials, even if that means an approach that relies in whole or in part on remote learning.

However, districts must submit their reopening plans to the state for approval, and it remains unclear what local health advice the Florida education department will accept as justification for keeping school buildings closed.

“Logically, I don’t think they could say schools aren’t safe if they are allowing people to be out in public,” a spokesperson for the agency told the Sarasota Herald-Tribune Monday.

What Texas Says About School Reopenings

The Texas Education Agency issued guidance Tuesday directing all districts to offer daily on-campus learning “to all parents who would like their students to learn in school each day.” Under the guidance, families will have the option to choose remote instruction and to switch back and forth during the school year. Masks are required for staff and students over age 10 for as long as a recent statewide directive from Republican Gov. Greg Abbott remains in place, and the state will offer free teacher training and protective equipment, the agency said.

Schools have the option “to establish a phased-in return to on-campus instruction for up to the first three weeks of the school year, to ensure all appropriate health and safety procedures are fully in place,” under the reopening guidance. But the guidance seemingly rules out the option of offering a hybrid model to all students.

Texas was originally set to unveil its school plans weeks ago, but state leaders tabled the announcement at the last minute as hospitalizations and documented COVID-19 cases continued to rise.

Teachers around the state reacted to the state directives, saying they feel unsafe returning to schools as hospitalizations rise. In Austin, where the teachers’ union demanded schools open with online-only classes, the city council discussed Thursday implementing additional community restrictions to try to bring down case numbers before the first day of school Aug. 18.

University of Texas epidemiologist Lauren Ancel Meyers warned the council that a 500-student Austin school could expect 15 to 20 students to “arrive infected” on the first week of school, KUT reports.

“Even if you slam on the brakes today, we’ll still see a rise in cases before it starts to subside because there is pent-up infection in our community,” Ancel Meyers said.

Austin has not yet finalized reopening plans, KUT reports.

Should States Require Schools to Open Buildings?

Trump administration officials conceded there may be some cases where schools should transition to remote learning in response to local health conditions, but they provided few specifics about when that would be acceptable.

Many districts that have announced hybrid learning plans have said they can’t have all students in the building at once and still comply with recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about cleaning, spacing desks, and closing common spaces.

This week, CDC Director Robert Redfield said districts shouldn’t use the guidelines as an excuse to close buildings. And Trump criticized the guidance, calling it overly restrictive.

The agency plans to release additional guidance next week on issues like health screenings for students and masks in schools, Redfield said. But the CDC won’t revise its original guidelines under pressure from the White House, he told ABC News Thursday.

As the national debate continued Thursday, Nashville schools announced plans to start the year remotely, citing high virus rates. In Arizona, a school district announced that a teacher had died of COVID-19 after teaching summer school remotely in a classroom with two other teachers. All three of the educators had contracted the virus.

Trump administration officials frequently cite a recent policy statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics that “all policy considerations for the coming school year should start with a goal of having students physically present in school.” At a White House event Tuesday, AAP President Sally Goza said schools play an important role in students emotional, social, and intellectual development. She urged Trump to ensure schools have the resources necessary to reopen.

In an interview with NPR Wednesday, Goza said rejected the idea of rigid state school reopening mandates.

“We will be sticking to what our guidelines say —that if it does not look safe in your community to open schools, that we need to really have that looked at. We also need to make sure that schools have the needed resources to reopen safely so that a lack of funding is not a reason to keep students home, which we’re hearing in a lot of communities—to do what we’re asking people to do to make schools safe is not really financially feasible in some of these communities.”

Education groups have pushed Congress for more relief funding to assist school in logistically difficult reopenings as they face steep state budget cuts.

Trump administration officials have said they support additional relief funding, but they may condition that aid on school reopening plans.

Photo: A teacher holds up a sign while driving by the Orange County Public Schools headquarters Tuesday as educators protest a decision by Gov. Ron DeSantis and the state education commissioner mandating that all public schools open in August despite the spike in coronavirus cases in Florida. (Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel via AP)

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