While no decision nor consensus was attempted or reached, a Gov. Ron DeSantis’ Re-Open Florida Task Force Industry Working Group began working with the assumption that Florida’s schools would reopen by the fall, if not the summer.
The discussions Wednesday focused largely on K-12 schools, with some discussions of colleges, universities, and utilities, at the opening meeting of the Florida Task Force Industry Working Group on Administrative, Education, Information & Technology, Manufacturing, Utilities and Wholesale.
The focus on reopening campuses comes as Florida’s schools prepare to finish the 2018-19 school year completely using distance education. It’s a platform put together on the quick in March when the coronavirus crisis led to conclusions that the school buildings could not be reopened coming out of spring break.
The distance education effort drew widespread praise for success Wednesday, with the prospects that some parts of it might be adapted to a new hybrid model for education. But the priority of the group was to move back to face-to-face education.
The discussion began with comments from Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran, Public Schools Chancellor Jacob Oliva and others focusing on what it will take to get Florida’s 4,200 public schools, as well as private and charter schools, reopened in time for the fall semester, and how to best serve the state and its 2.8 million students.
An assumption never challenged in a working group meeting that also included numerous industry representatives: that getting the schools reopened will be critical to reopening all of Florida’s economy.
“Honestly, we have a lot of decisions to make, to coming to the end of the school year, to the summer, and to the fall. Our main focus is to get schools open,” Corcoran said.
“We know that by opening schools it will have a tremendous emotional impact, a tremendous physical impact, economic impact on our citizens and our businesses,” he continued. “And so that is going to be our focus: how do we get schools open, how do we keep them open, and what does all that entail?”
While both Corcoran and Oliva [and others] repeatedly said their number one priority is the safety and security of students and staff, most of the discussion of the nearly two-hour virtual meeting of the 23-member task force was about what reopening school campuses will mean to the economy and to students’ educations, and about some of the challenges that must be addressed.
“One of the major tenants that we want to guide this conversation around is: what is education’s role in the recovery, in supporting the economy? What the Department of Education is going to continue working to do is to make sure that Florida’s entire education family is able to return to schools,” Oliva said.
He cited data from the Florida Council of 100 survey that showed nearly two-thirds of employed parents of minor children in Florida say that the school closures and lack of child care have somewhat or greatly impaired their abilities to perform their own jobs. He also noted that in many counties the school district is the largest employer, thereby fueling other economic sectors.
“So we know the importance of opening those schools, because that also opens up the support that families need so that they can return to work,” Oliva said.
Also chiming in were representatives of charter and private schools, who echoed many of Corcoran’s and Oliva’s commitments. They also expressed concern that many of their parents could face great economic hardships that might prevent them from being able to afford tuition, so therefore they requested additional aid.
Pinellas County Superintendent of Schools Michael Grego and Orange County elementary school teacher Melissa Pappas offered their suggestions for reopening priorities. They include making sure local medical and health department officials are consulted about how best to do it; and making sure teachers have time to work with students on a very personal basis to help them overcome individual traumas.
There also was some, though only a little, discussion of the prospect of the schools reopening with a hybrid education system. That would still carry forward some elements of distance education, perhaps available to students who, for a variety of reasons, cannot physically return to classrooms in August. There might be teachers teaching to students sitting in classrooms and sitting at home via internet links.
Oliva and Grego also touched on numerous other challenges that begin with the summer sessions: school campuses are used for summer classes and summer education programs such as reading camps, as well as a host of community functions, many geared to help at-risk students and others on the wrong side of educational achievement gaps. Which of those can be geared back up?