(CNN) — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is pushing to reopen schools in the fall against the advice of some of the nation’s top health officials, and said if Walmart and Home Depot are open, schools should be, too.
“We spent months saying that there were certain things that were essential — that included fast food restaurants, it included Walmart, it included Home Depot. If fast food and Walmart and Home Depot — and look, I do all that, so I’m not looking down on it — but if all that is essential, then educating our kids is absolutely essential,” DeSantis, a Republican and ally of President Donald Trump, said in Jacksonville on Thursday.
“I have no doubt we can do this safely,” DeSantis said. The governor said he told Florida’s education commissioner, “Different parents have different calculations. If a parent wants to opt for virtual education, they should absolutely be able to do that. We shouldn’t be forcing them to do any types of decisions.”
He continued, “But I’m confident if you can do Home Depot, if you can do Walmart, if you can do these things, we absolutely can do the schools. I want our kids to be able to minimize this education gap that I think has developed.” DeSantis added that online learning is “just not the same,” and that he worried about kids not being able to socialize and “missing out on activities.”
The governor’s comments come days after Trump said he was going to put pressure on governors to reopen schools this fall, even as the virus surges in states across the country. Florida has become a new hotspot for the virus, with the state reporting more than 230,000 cases, according to data provided by Johns Hopkins.
The state’s Commissioner of the Department of Education Richard Corcoran issued an emergency order on Monday requiring all “brick and mortar schools” to open “at least five days per week for all students.” Under the order, schools must reopen in full to “ensure the quality and continuity of the educational process, the comprehensive wellbeing of students and families and a return to Florida hitting its full economic stride.”
But teachers and local school officials have raised concerns about reopening in the fall. Florida Education Association President Fedrick Ingram told CNN this week, “Right now it’s irresponsible to talk about how, if schools will reopen in the fall for Florida. Right now we need to be talking about how we get this virus under control, how do we keep schools and our communities safe.”
“The Governor and Secretary are pushing a political and economic agenda over the safety and well-being of students, teachers and school employees,” the Orange County Classroom Teachers Association said in a statement this week. “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.”
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, said last week that reopening schools depends on the “dynamics of the outbreak” where the school is located.
“One of the things we want to emphasize and have been emphasizing is to take a look at where you are in the area of the so-called opening America again. Are you at the gateway phase one, phase two, phase three?” Fauci said, while testifying before a Senate committee on Trump’s coronavirus response. “The CDC has guidelines about the opening of schools at various stages of those checkpoints. The basic fundamental goal would be as soon as you possibly can to get the children back to school and to use the public health as a tool to help get children back to school.”
Trump this week threatened to cut off federal funding for schools if they don’t open in the fall. The President can’t unilaterally cut current federal support of schools, but Trump could try to restrict some recent pandemic relief funding or refuse to sign future education grants and bailouts, and any reductions in federal funding would hit schools hard. The President also called the CDC’s guidelines for schools to safely reopen “very tough & expensive” and said the CDC was “asking schools to do very impractical things.”
In May, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued guidelines for schools to safely reopen that included placing desks 6 feet apart and children using cloth face coverings. The CDC suggests the closing of communal areas like dining rooms and playgrounds and the installation of physical barriers like sneeze guards where necessary. Existing CDC guidance also include temporary school dismissal if there are confirmed cases of Covid-19 at the school or substantial transmission within the community.
Hours after Trump’s tweets, Vice President Mike Pence told reporters that the CDC would issue a “new set of tools” next week to give more clarity on the guidance. CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield said Thursday on ABC’s “Good Morning America” that the guidelines for reopening schools would not be revised, but additional reference documents would be provided.
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