Education leaders eye ways to reopen Florida schools

Rapid and repeated coronavirus testing for students and staff, daily temperature checks and adjusting class sizes and bus rides to allow social distancing are among many measures that Florida education leaders are considering as the state prepares to reopen public schools in the fall.

As specifics continue to be ironed out, State Board of Education member Michael Olenick on Wednesday requested that Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran create a pandemic task force that would focus on the numerous changes that schools will need to make in the coming months.

“We have a new normal here, and that new normal will also require this task force to prepare for a very likely event that there is going to be a spike again in the fall,” Olenick told Corcoran during a State Board of Education meeting.

Olenick said the task force would be different from Gov. Ron DeSantis’ Re-Open Florida Task Force and would include health experts, community members and school officials.

The proposed task force would dive deeper into the details of how to screen people who come into schools, how to adjust transportation plans and class sizes, how to address academic gaps and the digital divide among students and how to address myriad budget concerns sparked by the pandemic.

“I think that there are so many aspects that are bigger than just the state,” Olenick said. “I think districts need and want your help --- our help. And I think it is our responsibility as the State Board of Education who oversees K-12.”

The task force, Olenick said, would also dig into the “many unknowns” of how COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus, affects children.

Corcoran did not commit to creating a task force during the meeting but thanked Olenick for the suggestion.

“All of that stuff is being evaluated, but I appreciate your comments,” Corcoran said.

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During the meeting, the Florida Association of District School Superintendents also laid out "preliminary and broad" recommendations about steps schools would need to take to reopen classrooms in the fall. Campuses were shut down in March to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, with students finishing this academic year through online classes.

"The majority of the recommendations align to operational guidelines to ensure the safety, health and well-being of the students and staff within public schools across the state of Florida," a Florida Association of District School Superintendents report presented Wednesday said.

Superintendents want schools to limit visitors on campuses, have rapid coronavirus testing for students, families and staff, do daily temperature checks, set protocols for the use of face masks and other protective gear and boost cleaning throughout the day.

Superintendents also recommend adjusting class sizes, recess, lunch time and physical education and changing the number of students on buses. The recommendations also include setting protocols for a “blended” approach to instruction that could include a combination of in-person and online teaching if face-to-face classes or social distancing are not possible at certain districts or schools.

“As an additional note, superintendents feel strongly that when we return to the 2020-2021 school year, districts will need to quickly identify any student with remaining learning gaps,” Pinellas County Superintendent Michael Grego told the State Board of Education on behalf of the superintendents’ association.

Grego said superintendents want to test students during the summer to identify children who may need help catching up in the upcoming school year, something he referred to as the “COVID-19 academic slide.”

Once students who need extra help are identified, Grego said districts may need to bolster programs during the week or maybe even on Saturdays. More programming would require more money to help vulnerable students, he added

“To meet these challenges, we will need additional resources that take into account all available resources that can support the increased personnel, programming and operational capacity to implement what we know is essential,” the association report said.