Florida’s largest teaching union, the Florida Education Association, has filed a lawsuit against state governor Ron DeSantis over plans to reopen schools in August. DeSantis, along with Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran, gave an emergency order on July 6th, mandating all schools to fully reopen come the new school year. The suit claims the order goes against Florida’s constitution, which orders that “[a]dequate provision shall be made by law for a uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high-quality system of free public schools.”
The Board of Education has named itself as an additional defendant, as has Carlos A. Gimenez, mayor of Miami-Dade County. Miami-Dade is both Florida’s most populous county and the region with the most COVID-19 cases, with almost 90,000 cases in the county alone.
The suit has also found advocates outside the state in both of America’s major teaching unions. In a statement quoted by the Huffington Post, National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen García decried the governor’s lack of foresight. “Unfortunately,” García said, “Governor DeSantis, like Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos, has no plan to solve the real issues facing public schools during a pandemic, and that’s a major concern to students, educators, and parents.”
The Florida Education Association has made it clear that this is a life and death matter. Over 140,000 people are Association members, all education employees who would be in public school buildings every day. Ordering schools to reopen puts all of them at risk, but Governor DeSantis doesn’t seem to care about the cost. The suit is an attempt to push back against that disconnect. As FEA President Fedrick Ingram explained, “Governor DeSantis needs a reality check, and we are attempting to provide one.” The fact that this pushback comes from those passionate enough to dedicate their lives to teaching weighs heavily.
As the number of COVID-19 cases tops 300,000 in the Sunshine State, and the number of recorded deaths crests 5,000, plans to move forward everywhere are on unsure footing. Facing backlash against the emergency school order, Commissioner Corcoran assured that the proposal was not demanding a return to in-person learning, but simply pressing for students and parents to be given a choice. While the order does insist that schools fully reopen their campuses five days a week, families could still opt for online learning. The state, he said, has “complete flexibility” and would even allow schools to submit their own reopening proposals, should they have one – so long as the schools resume some in-person operations.
Many institutes of higher learning have chosen to continue with solely remote learning, but some schools, like Florida Atlantic University, intend to try a hybrid approach. While most courses will remain fully remote, some advanced courses and those depending on a hands-on experience will be offered in-person, with a much lower classroom capacity. This approach, though some may call it a risk, demonstrates one of countless ways to transition into our new society.
Naturally, the health and well-being of instructors and school staff is a top priority. Proper measures must be enforced to even consider opening, but open we must. In the same way that a language is best learned by speaking it and interacting outside of a textbook, children need to see their peers to learn social skills beyond what their lessons can teach them. Who among us does not have memories from our classrooms? Both good and bad, perhaps, but memories of these youthful experiences, nonetheless. Friendships, relationships, fashion and music trends; everything cycles through a school. Things that made the hallways buzz with chit-chat and laughter! If we suddenly revoke all schooling from our children, what will we truly be taking away?
The American Academy of Pediatrics, the figurehead of 67,000 pediatricians, is also pushing for schools to resume campus operations. The COVID-19 response section of their website insists that schools must follow “key principles” for a safe re-opening, aimed at protecting both teacher and student well-being. Still, the organization says, school policies should aim for in-person learning. “[T]here is already evidence of the negative impacts on children because of school closures in the spring of 2020,” the site writes. “Lengthy time away from school and associated interruption of supported services often results in social isolation.” No matter what preparations must be in place, students need interaction with each other to thrive.
The AAP site also makes the point that, without public schools running, many families do not have food security. Schools provide childcare, and may serve children in need up to two free meals a day. Though our counties are slowly re-opening and eager to resume activities, many parents were put out of work when the pandemic struck. These and other parents may be unable to return to the workforce, with young children at home and no childcare currently available.
There has been nearly no parallel to this disease before and we are, unwillingly, witnessing history in the making. It is terrifying and overwhelming, but we have one reassurance: we are all going through this together. Times like this call for brotherhood and unity, a strong defense against all of our unquelled fears. Separating ourselves from our state will only make us more vulnerable to this viral invasion. Surely the schools can find a way to minimize class sizes or alternate days of attendance? Perhaps they could split classes, so students only attend one or two days a week. There are many options and many combinations of possibilities to propose. Before suing the governor, the FEA should have rallied for him and the Education Commissioner to meet them face-to-face. Then they could demand the extra funding or manpower or whatever they need to make this re-opening safe.
MSN highlighted an article written by Dr. Ann-Louise T. Lockhart, Pediatric Psychologist and mother of two, in which she gave some gentle advice to parents moving into this new age. She wants to brace the nation for going back to public life, including school, saying, “As your kids return to school, it is important to accept that they will have gaps in their learning from the fiasco that was their last academic year.” Looking at things from this perspective, it could be dangerous to push our students’ limits further.
To be clear, remote learning is an amazing advancement. The benefits of portable learning are unbeatable, with chats and video calls connecting people around the globe in seconds. If staying home and helping children embrace this unprecedented digital era is a viable option for a family and brings peace of mind to a parent, they have the right to such securities with their loved ones. Nevertheless, the offer should be on the table for kids to go be among kids again for some amount of time, especially for those parents who cannot work remotely. Governor DeSantis needs to hear the truths and realities laid out in this lawsuit and respond with a plan of action.
With strategic and well-planned measures, we, as a state, can accomplish both his goal of re-opening and that of the educators seeking safety and respect.