TAMPA, Fla. - With students returning to classrooms throughout most of the state, Gov. Ron DeSantis and an adviser to President Donald Trump on Monday tried to bolster support for offering in-person learning during the coronavirus pandemic.
Scott Atlas, a physician and member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, said during a news conference with DeSantis that evidence is “incontrovertible” that children are at extremely low risk from COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus.
“We can’t panic. There’s no place for fear in public policy,” said Atlas, a senior fellow at the conservative Hoover Institution at Stanford University. “The children are not at any significant risk, although there are exceptions. But the exceptions, of course, exist in every medical illness. If you are a doctor you understand that, they do not overwhelm the rest of the evidence.”
Atlas and DeSantis also emphasized focusing on people who show symptoms of the virus and are particularly vulnerable to its effects, rather than people who are infected but asymptomatic. DeSantis said one of his priorities has been to “keep our society functioning.”
“To put society on its knees is kind of cutting off your nose to spite your face,” DeSantis said. “The schools, I think, are an important part of that.”
The news conference, held in the state Capitol, came as school districts in almost all areas of the state were required Monday to offer in-person classes. Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran last month issued an order directing schools to reopen by Aug. 31. Districts in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties, which have had the largest numbers of coronavirus cases, did not have to meet the date for in-person classes.
DeSantis and Corcoran have emphasized a need to give families a choice of using in-person instruction or distance learning. Corcoran estimated Monday that about 60 percent of students statewide are taking part in face-to-face instruction and about 40 percent are taking part in virtual or “hybrid” learning, though the numbers vary by district.
But while DeSantis and Corcoran have spent weeks touting the approach, it has been controversial and has drawn legal challenges from the Florida Education Associations teachers union and the Orange County teachers union. In part, the unions have argued that Corcoran’s reopening order last month violates the Florida Constitution’s guarantee of “safe” and “secure” public schools.
Leon County Circuit Judge Charles Dodson last week ruled in favor of the unions and issued a temporary injunction against the order. But the 1st District Court of Appeal late Friday imposed a stay on Dodson’s ruling --- effectively meaning that the order remains in effect as schools reopen.
Nevertheless, Florida Education Association President Fedrick Ingram vowed to continue the legal fight.
“We are going to keep fighting because lives are at stake,” Ingram said after the appeals court issued the stay. “This is not about closing schools or opening schools. This is about allowing local districts to do what is best to protect local families."
At least part of the unions’ concern has been that teachers and other staff members could be exposed to the virus, which is particularly dangerous to people with underlying health conditions. Schools shut down in March and students were shifted to distance learning as the pandemic hit the state.
During Monday’s news conference, Atlas said the focus of testing and other measures should be on vulnerable people. But he also warned about the effects of locking down schools and other parts of society. He said the United States is the “only country of our peer nations in the Western world who are this hysterical about opening schools.”
“You cannot shut down schools and then just assume you are doing something good because there is some infection in the school,” Atlas said. “We know that there is a significant drop in learning, but also all the socialization that children need, all of the physical activity, all the health, all of the nutrition.”
--- News Service Assignment Manager Tom Urban contributed to this report.