Controversy, Confusion, Concern Looms Over What Back-To-School Will Look Like

Jul 9, 2020

There’s a battle brewing over what back-to-school in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic might look like in Florida.

School districts throughout the state - including Duval and St. Johns counties - have shared their proposed plans in the last few weeks.

But earlier this week, Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran announced all Florida schools would be back in session five days a week in August, when the new school year is scheduled to begin.

Corcoran’s announcement has led to some controversy - as well as confusion and concern amongst parents and educators - as they try to determine if he was referring to brick and mortar schools, and what that might mean for districts’ existing plans, many of which included virtual options.

Emily Bloch, Education Reporter for The Florida Times-Union, appeared on First Coast Connect with Melissa Ross Thursday morning to explain.

The original interpretation is, yes, that brick and mortar schools have to be open five days a week. Bodies have to be in classrooms five days a week. Teachers have to be in classrooms. Faculty has to be in school five days a week.”

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But Bloch added now there’s pushback across the state, depending on the school district and how COVID-19 is impacting the area. “So for instance, Broward Schools has already said that's not going to happen. Miami-Dade has already said that they don't intend to comply. Palm Beach County Schools have already said the same.”

Bloch added that locally, Duval County Public Schools is still trying to figure out how the commissioner's executive order will apply to its existing plan. 

“They released a tentative plan about two weeks ago that had an option for elementary school students to be in school five days a week,” she noted. “And then for various models with different scheduling, depending on grade level. But from the get-go elementary school and teachers were supposed to be in classes five days a week, and that was already getting push back.”

Bloch said now the district has to figure out how it applies to Corcoran’s order. “At the school board meeting, [Superintendent] Diana Greene said that, in theory, elementary school is already compliant with the existing plan. And now they're just kind of trying to figure out what that means for everything else. But it does sound like the intention is to figure out a way to have a five day open structure along with some sort of hybrid structure.”

The assumption is that means parents would be able to decide if they send their children back to school full time, continue with distance learning, or a combination of both.

Earlier this week, Tim Forson, the St. Johns County School District’s superintendent announced that he was putting the district’s proposed plan on hold, due to the state’s executive order.

Justin Vogel, a high school teacher and the chief negotiator for the St. Johns County Education Association - which represents approximately 2,700 instructional personnel in the St. Johns County School District - also appeared on Thursday’s First Coast Connect. He shared some of the concerns educators have about the working conditions affiliated with returning to campus full time. 

“We have to consider the health and safety of our faculty and staff,” he said. A school is a very high risk environment. And on top of that, we have at risk and elevated risk employees. Twenty-three percent of our staff and faculty are at elevated risk and 33% live with someone at elevated risk. So we have to treat school like we treat other high risk environments. We have to consider mask regulations for example.”

Vogel added that “75% of teachers in our county believe that there should be a mask requirement for both teachers and students.” However, there is not currently a mask mandate in St. Johns County, although the City of St. Augustine has implemented one.

He would like to see additional safety measures put in place. “We have to consider social distancing wherever possible. But we also have to consider, you know, hand hygiene. And what to do with someone who is quarantined? What do we do if a teacher does get exposed or does get sick? What does that look like? What does distance learning look like? 

Vogel said Corcoran’s mandate has thrown many school districts for a loop.  “A lot of the districts that were planning to do two days on, two days off with a flexible day. This is, all of a sudden, we have to figure out how to make a school 100% safe and we're just not going to get there. I mean, we're going to get as close again.”

Ultimately, Vogel said there are “so many  scenarios,” and “that's why I keep coming back to the mask. You know, unfortunately, that's a political issue and I don't want it to be, but I don't know how else we can go back to school without a mask requirement.”

As for masks in Duval schools, where there is currently a county-wide mask order in place, Bloch said, “we're seeing ‘mask recommendations, mask encouragement,’ phrases like that. And it is, unfortunately, to Justin's point, becoming a political issue when it really shouldn't be. So as far as a good scope of how people are feeling was public comment on Tuesday night at the [school board] meeting, and most of the comments were in favor of some sort of mass mandate. I remember teachers were saying, ‘Don't put it on me to enforce mask wearing, if it's what's going to keep me safe, just, you know, make it uniform, make it something unilateral, so that it can't be up to a student.’ But of course there are different intricacies there.”

The First Coast Connect segment generated a lot of questions and comments from listeners, including several parents and educators. They made it clear that there’s still a lot of unanswered questions, and that what’s best for one person may not be best for another.

Bloch said she has found the same thing in her reporting, noting, “it's not a one size fits all issue. Unfortunately, there are students that want so badly to get back to class, that school is their haven, and teachers feel that way too. For so many that is what they look forward to, to seeing their classmates and seeing their peers, seeing their students respectively. But there's a lot of intricacies that come along with it. So it's trying to find that balance, unfortunately.”

However, before that balance can be found, a number of variables - aside from the ones relating to safety - still need to be sorted out. 

“There are a lot of unanswered questions when it comes to distance learning. We did this in the fourth quarter last year, just coming out of spring break. We did the entire fourth quarter as remote distance learning, but I think we need to be careful not to confuse that with virtual school. Parents certainly have the option for virtual school, they have that option every year,” said Vogel.

He said if there is going to be some sort of combination of brick and mortar and remote distance learning, there needs to be more discussion about what that looks like.  “What are the expectations of students? What are the expectations of teachers? And don't forget we are all here for students, and we have students of various ages, and in various socioeconomic backgrounds. So we have quite a range of variables to handle,” Vogal concluded.

With school set to begin in just about a month, the districts are on what Bloch calls a “ticking timeline” to find this balance.

Heather Schatz can be reached at hschatz@wjct.org or on Twitter at @heatherschatz.