Florida school campuses must open five days a week this fall, state says

Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran on Monday ordered public schools to reopen in August and offer “the full panoply of services” to students and families. 

As COVID-19 outbreaks spike in Florida, Corcoran's mandate said that extending school closures can impede students’ educational success and prevent parents and guardians from returning to work.

“There is a need to open schools fully to ensure the quality and continuity of the educational process, the comprehensive well-being of students and families and a return to Florida hitting its full economic stride,” the order states.

Under the emergency order, all public schools will be required to reopen in August for at least five days a week and to provide the full array of services required by law, including in-person instruction and services for students with special needs. 

“Required services must be provided to students from low-income families, students of migrant workers, students who are homeless, students with disabilities, students in foster care, students who are English-language learners, and other vulnerable populations,” the order says.

Corcoran's order also instructs school districts to follow the advice of state and local health officials as well as executive orders issued by Gov. Ron DeSantis. 

MORE: Read the full order here (PDF)

The Republican governor and Corcoran, a former Florida House speaker, have been determined to reopen public schools at full capacity next month, even as state health officials have reported a minimum of 5,000 new COVID-19 cases in each of the last 13 days.

Teachers, however, are concerned about their safety, according to Florida Education Association President Fedrick Ingram.

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“It’s clear in communications with our members that educators are scared. They don’t trust politicians to make sure things are safe --- rightly so, with the record-breaking number of cases being reported,” Ingram told the News Service of Florida in an email Monday. “The governor is trying to brush that off.”

Ingram, who heads the state’s top teachers’ union, said students and school employees “need to be at the center of our conversations about reopening schools.”

Department of Education spokeswoman Taryn Fenske said in an email last week that the state has a “moral imperative to do our absolute best to return our schools to full operation by August.”

“Our children’s education, the comprehensive health of our families --- mental health and stability in homes --- and our economy are all depending on us to make every effort to reopen our school campuses,” she wrote.

Fenske, however, would not say if specific metrics about COVID-19 cases would prompt the education department to backtrack on the school reopening plans. 

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Under the order issued Monday, school districts and charter-school governing boards are required to submit reopening plans to the Department of Education showing how all schools plan to fully reopen and offer all services to students.

The plans need to include the percentage of students in the district who are projected to continue with distance learning, which schools began using following a statewide shutdown in March.

The order also requires districts to disclose efforts to address achievement gaps and monitor students’ progress. 

Hillsborough County is among the districts that recently asked parents to decide whether they wanted to send their kids back to campus or enroll in full-time online learning. Corcoran’s order leaves the door open for virtual classes, but says districts must allow on-campus learning, too.

“Although it is anticipated that most students will return to full-time brick and mortar schools, some parents will continue their child’s education through innovative learning environments, often due to the medical vulnerability of the child or another family member who resides in the same household,” the order says.

Because enrollment numbers could impact per-student funding for public schools, the order says that school districts and charter school governing boards with approved reopening plans will be offered “reporting flexibility” to ensure their funds are not interrupted during the 2020 fall semester. 

For example, students who learn in an “innovative learning environment” during the fall semester would be able to receive a full-time enrollment credit.

Monday's mandate also waives "strict compliance" with a Florida law requiring schools to operate for at least 180 days, "to the extent necessary to give effect to this order." And the order waives a state law requiring "school districts to have a uniform and fixed date for the opening and closing of schools."