TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Ron DeSantis, in his push to reopen classrooms this fall, said Thursday that if retailers are allowed to operate, schools should be, too.
The risk of children getting sick is “extremely, extremely low,” DeSantis said, and if fast food eateries and hardware stores could operate as “essential” businesses during the coronavirus pandemic, then schools should reopen as well.
“We spent months saying that there were certain things that were essential,” DeSantis told reporters in Jacksonville. “That included fast food restaurants. It included Walmart. It included Home Depot.”
“But if all that is essential, then educating our kids is absolutely essential,” he said. “They have been put to the back of the line in some respects.”
Teachers and local school officials have raised concerns about the push, with Florida Education Association President Fedrick Ingram calling DeSantis and state officials “irresponsible” and acting for political reasons.
“Our governor is content on using us as a petri dish for the nation,” Ingram said in an interview.
U.S. Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia, who joined DeSantis at the Jacksonville event, echoed the governor’s remarks, noting that the American Academy of Pediatrics has advocated for having students physically present in school. He said open schools would help the economy by allowing parents to return to work.
The DeSantis administration’s push has coincided with President Donald Trump’s demand that schools open their doors to students this fall — or risk federal funding, even though the administration has walked back the threat. The president is facing an increasingly difficult reelection challenge from Democrat Joe Biden, and Florida could make or break his campaign.
But the reopening campaign also has forced DeSantis to explain away the rapidly rising number of coronavirus cases in the state.
Florida’s total number of coronavirus infections grew by nearly 9,000 cases on Thursday, and the statewide total has more than doubled to nearly 233,000 in only 17 days.
The Republican governor has put most of the blame for the growing outbreak on young people, who are less likely to get sick.
While DeSantis has expressed concern about rising positivity rates — more than 18 percent percent of people tested on Wednesday were positive — he said Thursday that he worries about children relying on online instruction only and missing out on socializing with other children and extracurricular activities such as football.
The father of three said he wouldn’t hesitate to send his own children to school — all are still preschoolers — but said parents are free to let their children learn virtually.
Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran, acting under the governor’s emergency powers, on Monday ordered brick-and-mortar schools to open five days a week unless local and state health officials directed otherwise.
On Tuesday, the state Department of Education told school districts to submit reopening plans by the end of the month unless they were following a traditional 180-day school calendar. The agency said state funding to districts will be contingent on getting reopening plans approved.
That same day, at the White House, Trump vowed he would “put pressure” on governors reluctant to open schools amid rising cases of coronavirus, and U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos blasted education leaders who “gave up and didn’t try” to launch summer instruction.
“The Dems think it would be bad for them politically if U.S. schools open before the November Election, but is important for the children & families. May cut off funding if not open!” Trump tweeted Wednesday.
The order to reopen Florida schools caught some school districts by surprise and has raised questions about its legality.
Ron Meyer, a Tallahassee attorney who has represented the state’s teacher union, accused the administration of overreach and said the order wasn’t supported by the governor’s emergency powers or the Florida constitution.
School districts in South Florida — which remain under phase one of the state’s reopening — have said they will stick to reopening plans already under way that rely heavily on online learning.
“We do not see a realistic path” to every school being open five days a week, Broward School Superintendent Robert Runcie told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.