Florida Plans To Send Kids Back to School Next Month, Despite Surge in COVID-19 Cases

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It's been pretty hard not to be alarmed by what's happening in Florida right now, as each new day brings with it another headline about skyrocketing coronavirus rates. Just last week, data showed that the state's COVID-19 cases had jumped fivefold in just two weeks, and as of this writing, there have been more than 213,700 cases and 3,840 deaths reported in the Sunshine State. You wouldn't know it, though, if you talked to Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran, who seems to be moving full speed ahead with plans to reopen Florida's schools next month.

  • In an "emergency order" filed Monday, Corcoran ordered schools to reopen for in-person instruction in August.

    That's right -- not for remote-learning or even partial remote-learning, but full-on in-person five-day-a-week school. 

    The order applies to all public and charter schools within the state that service grades K to 12, and it does give parents the option to stick with only remote-learning if they feel more comfortable. Still, the order seemed out of step with the public health crisis the state is battling.

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  • Just hours after Corcoran's order was signed, news broke that dozens of Florida hospitals were out of Intensive Care Unit beds.

    That's because many area hospitals have been inundated with new patients in the past several weeks, as coronavirus cases have continued to rise.

    According to data published by the state's Agency for Health Care Administration, ICU beds are full at approximately 54 hospitals across 25 of Florida’s 67 counties, Reuters reported. Thirty other hospitals reported that their ICUs were more than 90% full and may be at capacity soon. 

    Also alarming? Throughout the entire state, only 17% of the total 6,010 adult ICU beds were available as of Tuesday, according to Reuters. This is down from 20% from just three days ago.

  • Florida is just one of many US states facing a COVID-19 surge after reopening.

    (Others include Texas, California, and Arizona, to name a few.)

    It's something that countless health experts had warned about as many states began reopening their economies by letting businesses and restaurants reopen their doors and residents return to public parks and beaches.

    On Monday, the nation's leading infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, reminded Americans what it seems we were all too quick to forget: "We are still knee-deep in the first wave of this."

    "COVID is not controlled in the U.S.," Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious diseases expert at Vanderbilt University, told Healthline this week. "The surge in hospitalizations is a result of the surge in new cases. The surge in new cases is the result of opening up without complete adherence to mask wearing, social distancing and avoiding large gatherings."

  • Put that way, it seems difficult to imagine students returning to school in just a matter of weeks.

    That's likely what prompted a statement from the Orange County Classroom Teachers Association this week, which accused Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis of putting politics ahead of health and safety.

    "While we know that face-to-face learning is optimal, CTA will not support a reopening plan that could expose students, teachers or their families to illness, hospitalization or death," the organization stated in its response. "Lost academic time and lessons can be made up -- a life cannot."

    But members of the association aren't the only ones who've responded.

  • On Monday night, Broward County Superintendent Robert Runcie spoke out in defiance of the order.

    "It is up to each individual school district how it reopens in the fall and we will submit a plan to [the Florida Department of Education]," Runcie tweeted. "We will continue to follow the advice of our public health and medical experts as to how and when it is safe for our @browardschools community to return to school."

    In other words: If they don't want to open next month, they're not going to.

    In a follow-up statement Tuesday, Runcie said "We do not see a realistic path" to every school in the county opening five days a week this fall, according to the Sun-Sentinel. "We will never compromise the health and safety of our students, teachers and staff."

    However, it should be noted that just last week, Runcie also tweeted: "We have to get our children back in classrooms this fall; please wear masks and practice social distancing so we can start moving in the right direction. #WearYourMaskFL."

  • Much debate still looms around how risky a return to school might be.

    Although children remain at a lower risk of contracting the virus and are even less likely to die from it, the fact remains they are not immune to it. There's also lingering concern around how many children may be so-called "silent spreaders," passing on the virus to others while remaining asymptomatic. In fact, new data suggests that 30 to 60% of spreading may occur when people have no symptoms -- something that could put teachers and administrators at risk, as well as parents, should they bring the virus home.

  • For now, though, it's important to note that all reopening plans are subject to change, particularly if the virus continues to surge across the US.

    Just as many states are walking back their phased reopenings, school plans could be similarly halted if rates don't continue to get better. And, at the end of the day, parents have the right to make their own decisions when it comes to their children's health and safety.

    That may be why many parents already are saying that they'll opt to homeschool in the fall -- no matter what happens with the virus. 

    "In August, for schools, it's a petri dish when it's not a pandemic," Phoenix mom Uzma Jafri recently told the Washington Post. “We both know how viruses work, and we cannot understand how schools can open and be safe.

    "The best thing for my mental health is to keep them all home," she added. "And it's working for us. We get all our school work done in two hours a day and they are free to do what they want."