As Gov. Ron DeSantis and Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran continue the push to have classrooms open next month, they are highlighting the importance of face-to-face learning for children with special needs.
The DeSantis administration faces criticism over the emergency order issued earlier this month over concerns it puts children and their families in danger. But the Governor says it provides choices to parents, teachers and schools, and ultimately “empowers” parents, Corcoran added, to send their children to class if they feel comfortable.
That choice is even more important for the parents of children who attend schools for children with special needs like Paul B. Stephens School, where the two officials hosted a roundtable Wednesday.
Parents who need to make a living might be forced to stay home, an even greater concern for the parents of children who need additional attention to assist their education.
“If virtual was our only option, I don’t think it would be a very good option at all,” said Erica Raff, a parent of a 13-year-old Paul B. Stephens student with Down syndrome and a sensory processing disorder. “I would see it as a negative.”
Principal Debbie Thornton shared the struggle that online learning created for parents, students and teachers in the spring. Teachers were startled and panicked to not return to classrooms after spring break, she added.
“Our students participated to the best of their abilities, but their parents were always there, even if they had work to do or other things,” she said. “They made it a point to be there because our students really need that hand over hand and that extra support.”
Beyond specialized schools, virtual learning has put children off track. Educators say virtual learning has exacerbated the achievement gap, and without internet and without direct oversight, many have fallen behind.
“There’s some major parts of the country that went virtual, and you have like huge percentages of students (who) never logged on once since mid-March, and you just wonder, what’s that going to mean as we go months and years ahead,” DeSantis said. “That’s going to be very difficult to put that genie back in the bottle.”
Glen Gilzean, president and CEO of the Central Florida Urban League, endorsed the decision to reopen classrooms. Citing reports from CNBC and CBS, he noted 40% of Black-owned businesses have closed or will close because of COVID-19, cutting off employment and entrepreneurship that he called key for the Black community.
“If I already told you one anchor, if we let go of the other anchor, you’re basically saying game over for our community,” he added.
Having classrooms available will require special accommodations for teachers and students who are at risk for severe infections. Both students and teachers shouldn’t be forced to enter classrooms, DeSantis said.
“Let’s just make do with what we have and get the folks back in the classroom who are comfortable being there,” he added.
Last week, he gave the OK for school districts to delay the first day of classes if they can’t yet meet the necessary accommodations to reopen. He reiterated that Wednesday.
“Make sure you have your ducks in a row,” the Governor said. “Much rather have a successful school year if it’s a couple weeks late than kind of go into it and not be ready to handle the situations that may develop.”
Flexibility provided through this month’s emergency order is especially important for schools serving students with special needs, Pinellas County Schools Superintendent Michael Grego said.
“I think sometimes we lose touch with schools like Paul B. Stephens and we think about a typical elementary, a typical middle, a typical high school.”