Florida's education commissioner said Monday all public schools must reopen to students in-person when the academic year begins next month, even as cases of the coronavirus continued to surge in his state.
In the emergency order, Commissioner Richard Corcoran called schools "not just the site of academic learning" but also crucial places in students' lives that provide "nutrition, socialization, counseling and extra-curricular activities," adding that their reopening was critical to "a return to Florida hitting its full economic stride."
Corcoran's order, which applies to the fall semester, requires schools to open "at least five days per week for all students" subject to guidance from public health officials. It comes as coronavirus cases in Florida top 206,000 and the daily number of new cases has reached record highs.
The mandate shocked some Florida educators, including Amy Spies, a fourth-grade teacher in Daytona Beach whose small classroom cannot accommodate the recommended six feet of space between each of her 22 students.
"I can think of no other industry forcing an entire workforce into such an unsafe environment," she said, adding that she and other teachers were in "utter disbelief." "It is physically impossible to meet [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] social distancing requirements if schools are at full capacity."
Corcoran acknowledged that some families, particularly those with medical vulnerabilities, will not feel comfortable sending their children back for face-to-face instruction, and said school boards can submit remote learning plans for such students. But the order put a heavy emphasis on schools opening their doors to every student.
Last month, Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, recommended all Florida schools reopen at full capacity, arguing that if they did not, parents would not be able to return to work.
But the governor's recommendation did not go as far as Corcoran's order, and left the final say up to school districts in terms of how they would abide by the CDC's social-distancing guidelines for schools to reduce the spread of the coronavirus.
Some counties, such as Miami-Dade, one of the largest public school systems in the country, planned on offering a mix of in-person and remote learning courses — a hybrid model that many school districts across the country are weighing as they look to bring students back while minimizing the risks. The format varies from district to district, with some considering bringing a cohort of students back for part of the day or part of the week or for a week at a time before switching off with the rest of the students, so as to not have too many students in a building at once.
It was not clear how Corcoran's order would affect Miami-Dade's and other Florida districts' reopening plans. In a statement Monday evening, Miami-Dade Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho called the mandate "fair and measured" and said it "appears to fully align" with Miami-Dade's plan; his school district did not immediately respond to a request for more information from NBC News.
The sweeping mandate comes amid a growing push to send students back to school this fall after the pandemic shuttered most schools across the country in the spring. Earlier Monday, President Donald Trump tweeted, “SCHOOLS MUST OPEN IN THE FALL!!!” His education secretary, Betsy DeVos, retweeted that, calling it "absolutely right."
It is not just politicians calling for students to go back to their classrooms. Last month, the American Academy of Pediatrics said it "strongly advocates" having children physically present in school, citing some evidence that not only are children less likely to get severely infected by the coronavirus, but also that they may be less likely to spread the infection.
But while remote learning is widely considered to be less effective, with research suggesting low-income, Black and Latino students are experiencing the greatest academic losses, bringing students back to their brick-and-mortar schools comes with a host of challenges.
With their budgets decimated by the economic downturn that resulted from the coronavirus lockdowns, many school districts are wondering how they will pay for costly new cleaning procedures, health screenings and other safety measures for those reentering their schools. The average-size district could pay as much as $1.8 million to reopen all of its school buildings under the new safety guidelines, according to a joint analysis by the Association of School Business Officials International and AASA, The School Superintendents Association.
Dan Domenech, the executive director of the School Superintendents Association, called the Florida order concerning.
"We have always been a proponent of schools opening, but that they do so in a safe manner," he said. "Our concern is that any mandate to just open schools and totally disregard the guidelines that have been promoted by the CDC and all of the health specialists, including social spacing and the wearing of face masks, and just say 'open as business as usual' is a total disregard for the safety and welfare of students and staff who are going to be in that facility."
Some parents were unsure what to make of the commissioner's decision. Jennifer Restrepo, a North Miami Beach mother of two daughters who attend public schools in Coral Gables, was hoping her girls could do a hybrid model for their educations this year, and is waiting for confirmation from their principals on whether that will still be an option, should 100 percent of the students opt to return to their classrooms.
"It would give them the best of both worlds, which is being able to see their friends face-to-face as well as a teaching moment for them to learn to handle different situations," Restrepo said.
Mariana Foerster, whose daughter will be starting kindergarten next month in the High Pines neighborhood of Miami, said having her daughter home has made running her financial services business extremely difficult, and is looking for clarity on whether school will be open. Even with Corcoran's mandate, it doesn't feel like it's a sure thing, given the number of coronavirus cases in Florida, Foerster said.
"I would love no more than having my daughter going to school, and it’s a risk that I’m okay taking," she said. "I believe psychologically, she needs to go to school. I’m fine with hybrid, but I cannot have the luxury of having her at home."