Let’s Talk Back to School – Florida Edition

Yes, I know it’s early, but I think most people will agree that this year, more than most, has been a bit unusual.

For many, the last time they saw the inside of a classroom was March. As we are fast approaching August, that is very nearly six months since schools first began shutting down. But with new cases once again on the rise and a resurgence putting vulnerable populations at risk, what does that mean for schools?

How Coronavirus will Affect School Reopenings

There WILL BE a spike in new cases this fall with back to school. No one with any kind of medical or health care background is denying this. We see it every year with fall and spring break, as students travel outside their normal routes and carry back germs and bugs resulting in flu outbreaks and bouts of the common cold.

This will affect schools differently across state lines as no clear federal mandate or guidelines have been issued as of this time.

As a Floridian, I will be focusing my attention on the local and statewide guidelines and policies affecting my state. While these specific rulings here may not affect you, Florida, as one of the worst affected by the resurgence, serves as a testbed for the efficacy of these policies, the potential restrictions that could be placed on other states if numbers continue to rise and, quite frankly, as an example for either how things can go right or how they might go very very wrong.

*This is a continuously evolving situation as numbers fluctuate and state and local officials balance the costs of remaining closed over reopening. For the most up to date information, please check in with your local school districts website and with county officials.

The State Response

The state has released a detailed plan outlining potential safety measures and operations changes necessary to protect students, the budget taken from the CARES act to assist students, and the resources allocated to help close achievement gaps as many of the most vulnerable students have been left behind.

The entire document is 143 pages long and goes into various potential outcomes and crisis management responses as well as basic safety policies. You can read the entire plan, as I have, HERE. But I would like to draw your attention to are the opening four lines presented as the Theory of Action;

  1. Presume the reopening of school campuses, safely.
  2. Open schools with a moral purpose – closing achievement gaps.
  3. Florida can only hit its economic stride if schools are open.
  4. To ensure safety, take a “dimmer switch” (step-by-step) approach rather than flip the light switch approach.

I personally take issue with the first point. To presume is pretty close to ‘assume’ and this act tends to make an …. well let’s just say it’s not a good idea to assume (or presume) anything. But this could be overlooked for optimism’s sake. It is the third line, however, which is truly enlightening.

In a State Department of Education Document, whose priority should be the education, safety, and welfare of the student body and their employees, is making crucial decisions based on economic ramifications.

To be clear, I’m not saying they’re wrong. If schools are closed Florida would struggle to regain it’s economic footing as parents need to find alternative solutions and some would simply have to choose between being at work and being with their kids. This leaves the most vulnerable populations, those who are in lower-income brackets and frequently work jobs that are not able to be performed remotely, in even greater jeopardy.

The simple fact is that if schools are closed some parents may not be able to return to work. In addition, thousands of education jobs across the state that are not specifically ‘teaching’ would likely be further furloughed or cut completely. And on a more long term scale, a broad spectrum negative impact on education may lead to lower graduation rates, a lower post-secondary matriculation rate, and fewer students going on to receive advanced degrees. This could have long term implications not just for the state economy but also nationwide and internationally as well.

But using economic repercussions as a reason to reopen schools in the midst of a pandemic and expose students and faculty alike to increased health risks reeks of political bias and brings up questions as to the department of educations priorities; the welfare of students (both their education and their health) or income and votes.

The Online Option

Governor DeSantis has completely scrapped the 30 million dollar proposed budget for ‘Complete Florida’. This suite of online learning platforms, complete with a catalog of course material and full library, is one of several resources that have been crucial for students and educators as the months rolled on and distance learning took priority. In an effort to force the state into adopting the ‘all or nothing’ reopening of schools policy that the governor’s office seems to prefer he has crippled the resources for students and educators to choose an alternative option through the state.

However, online school options do still exist.

Both Florida Virtual School and K12 are free to all Florida residents and provides 100% online curriculum. These services are essentially digital school districts and still receive state funding, though how the Governor’s budget veto may impact them is still to be determined. The difference between these programs and previous distance learning was that, in essence, students were still ‘attending’ their previous schools, just remotely.

With FLVS students are in an entirely new school district and program, new teachers, new classmates, maybe even new course options. Similar to swapping from one high school to the next, this is still a Florida public ‘school district’ and students would be changing schools to attend, but it is still an accredited school and 100% free for Florida Residents. There are many online learning programs in Florida,

*FLVS and K12 are both owned by Connections academy, this is a highly structured, content, and screen time-heavy Common Core Program. There are problems with the Connections Academy systems but I use them as an example because they are universally accessible and free.

Regulations and Guidelines for Schools Reopening

The guidelines issued by the State are pretty comprehensive with a particular focus on closing achievement gaps that disproportionately affect marginalized groups. Special emphasis on ‘choosing to act with compassion and grace’ is interesting as an indicator that mental health has taken on a higher priority in the DOE’s priorities list.

The recommendations also offer a broad array of options and suggestions for keeping kids safe. There are no 100% set mandates, however. All of these recommendations are up to the individual districts and even the individual schools to choose to enforce or not. This is both good and bad.

On the positive side it empowers local superintendents and principals to make decisions as to what sort of policies would be most effective in their schools and with their students. On the down side, it means there is no clear and consistent policy to hold to and a school may choose not to implement safety measures for a myriad of reasons, not the least of all including budget, rather than student and employee safety.

Interestingly enough, the plan also included this set of priorities;

  1. Optimize student learning through in-person instruction.
  2. Respond to crisis in concert with the scale of the crisis, preserving in-person education to the extent possible.
  3. Move to distance learning only when educationally beneficial or necessary under the guidance of local health professionals.

So while the department of education and the governor’s office are prioritizing the reopening of schools, they have laid out the groundwork to maintain those openings for as long as possible when the inevitable spike takes place, as well the inevitable potential for necessary closures.

The DOE plan recognizes that schools are inherently designed to bring people together and, as such, are completely incompatible with social distancing measures. Mask wearing has, as of right now, been left up to the individual schools. However enforcing mask-wearing, particularly with younger students, is not particularly realistic.

*UPDATE – Palm Beach County, Broward, and Miami-Dade schools have all made statement that they will not be reopening. The governor has responded by suggesting an executive order to force the issue, which the state health authorities say is not within his power to issue. The situation is continually evolving but it does look like, at least for now, that Palm Beach Schools will remain closed for the coming term.

What to do now

What happens now will depend very much on your families circumstances and your particular situation.

For many people, not going back to work is simply not a choice they are able to make, they rely on that income to feed and support their families. If you have younger children and no one can be at home with them, that means that you may not have a choice in the matter and the fact that schools will be open is a stressful but necessary resource.

Others may also be back to work, but able to work from home. However, if their children require one on one attention or struggle with academics, online learning may not be a good fit for them.

Likewise, if you, your child, or someone in your household suffers from a chronic health condition that puts them at risk, then going back to school may not be an option for health and safety reasons. And of course, none of this even considers special needs students who rely on school for so much more than education- they rely on it for socialization, routine, life skills, and as a safety net for their development.

There will be many students who simply have no choices available when it comes to going back to school this fall. Their decision will be dictated by their circumstances.

But what about those of us who do have a choice?

If you have younger children but are able to work from home, or if your spouse is a stay at home parent or you have an extended family network that you can rely on. Or if you have an older child who is comfortable staying home alone. And most importantly if your child enjoys and responds well to distance or online learning.

There will be a point at which families will need to choose whether or not they are sending their children back to school this year. As cases in Florida continue to rise, parents and families will need to consider what their options are for the coming months.

While the start of school is still a little way off, enrollment can take a little time and parents may want to have discussions with educators and with your kids. What path you choose to take this fall will be entirely dependent on your circumstances and what resources your family has available.

I will say this. If you are in a position where you have the option, talk with your kids. Pay attention to what your schools are saying. Look at your individual circumstances and see what options are available to you.

We are in a pandemic. As important as your child’s education is, if you have serious health concerns or are worried about the potential ramifications of holding your child back know this –

The decisions you may this fall are not permanent. You CAN choose to find an alternative arrangement for this fall and wait to see how things play out. Coordinate with your child’s school, look at homeschooling or virtual options, and make a plan that works with your family and your families’ needs. So long as you coordinate with your child’s school and do your research, choosing not to go back to school this fall is a completely valid option.

Hopefully, the numbers will improve, and by spring schools will be a place of refuge and learning rather than risk or uncertainty. If the numbers increase to a critical mass then students will likely be relegated distance or online learning at various points this fall regardless of the governor’s intention.

The best situation for you and your family is entirely up to you and your circumstances. You may have more options available to you than you know. Take the time to raise the question, talk with your kids, and stay informed as to updates from your school district.

You can find more information on educational resources, tutoring, or kids books and activities at TheNerdyNanny.com


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