TAMPA, Fla. - When Hillsborough County decided last week to start the school year with only virtual classes, they cited the testimony of local health experts as a large part of that decision. But some school districts in Florida say their county health officials were placed under state order not to offer recommendations on reopening schools, and that's making their job more difficult.
The state’s order for schools to offer the choice of in-person classes included a clause which states re-openings must be consistent with safety precautions as defined by state and local health officials.
Some counties saw that as a potential workaround: If their county health directors determine reopening is inconsistent with controlling the virus, they could offer online classes only.
However, county school board members across the state quickly discovered their county health officials were not offering recommendations one way or the other.
And as the Palm Beach Post first reported, health directors in Volusia and other counties said they weren’t giving guidance on whether to reopen because the state told them not to.
While the state said schools would need approval from their county health officials to offer virtual classes only, health officials say the state’s surgeon general instructed them to give no such approval.
Governor Ron DeSantis addressed this when reporters asked him about it this weekend.
“You can’t just delegate that out to somebody who is not accountable to the people,” DeSantis said. “They can give input but it’s not up to the health department to say a yes or a no. They inform the policymakers. They provide information and they should absolutely do that.”
County health officials across much of the state take that to mean they can give stats and information along with advice for safety in the process of reopening school buildings, but not a recommendation on whether they think reopening itself is safe.
“What I don’t want is a situation in which you have a school district that has a plan to go back offering virtual and in-person [classes] and the teachers want to be there, and then have one person say, 'Don’t do it,'” DeSantis continued.
The governor said he is concerned about giving county health directors the power to effectively override elected school board members if they disagree with the safety of their plans.
“To say that they should be the one that would have effectively veto power, that’s just not the way it works,” he added.