Florida wrestles with impossible question: when can schools reopen safely?

Sunday, 12 July 2020

Broward county, Florida, is America’s sixth largest school district, where more than 10,000 teachers are tasked with educating more than 270,000 students. Now, it is also a Covid-19 hotbed.

When in-person classes ended here on 13 March, there were 11 cases of Covid-19 in the county, according to Johns Hopkins University’s virus tracker. Now, there are more than 23,000 cases, with a curve bending vertically. Covid-19 cases have doubled in 20 days.
As the virus spreads and reopenings are placed on pause, no one in Broward county seems to agree on a fundamental question: when should students return to school, and how?
“It’s very tough right now, with the amount of cases we have,” said Burt Miller, president of the Broward County Council of Parent Teacher Student Associations, a coalition of groups made up of hyper-involved parents, and a father of a future high school freshman.
“I sit on meetings almost every day with the school board, different committees, trying to figure out how this is going to happen,” said Miller. “Nobody has a set plan, because every time you think of something, something else comes up that’s going to counteract that.”
In the last week, all eyes have been on Arizona, California, Florida and Texas, which have seen spikes in Covid. With the exception of California, these states normally resume classes in early to mid-August. That now feels worrying close to the Fourth of July, a holiday known for socializing, partying and drinking – all behaviors public health officials warn can help spread the virus.
Amid this trend, Donald Trump has heaped pressure on educators. He criticized “tough and expensive” guidelines from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which the agency said it would revise after his comments. The CDC director, Dr Robert Redfield, said he would be “very disappointed” if schools used guidelines put out by his agency as a reason not to reopen.
Trump’s administration has also threatened schools’ funding, at a time when local governments are expected to slash school budgets in response to cratered sales tax revenue. Educators across the country have begged for federal support, but have received none of the $250bn they proposed in a letter to Congress.

With the school year now getting near across these states, anxious teachers, frustrated parents and overwhelmed school districts are wrestling with how to bring students back, if at all, amid a pandemic whose trajectory only seems to reach skyward.
“It’s very exhausting,” Miller said. “I would not want to be a part of the decision-making the school board’s got to make.”
Arizona already delayed school reopening once in June, when there were 74,000 Covid-19 cases. There are now 108,000, and ticking up. Texas’s education agency will require students aged 10 and older to wear masks to attend in-person classes. Parents there can request virtual instruction.
Florida’s governor, Ron DeSantis, this week ordered “brick and mortar” schools to reopen at least five days a week for students, in consultation with health departments, this fall. Some school leaders have said there is still flexibility in the order, but worry about the pandemic escalating further.
On the day the governor made the announcement, one of the local hospitals in the Broward county city of Deerfield Beach had just one available intensive care bed.
“We do not see a path to reopening all district schools with 100% full enrollment every day, as we were before we closed schools due to the coronavirus pandemic,” the Broward county superintendent, Robert Runcie, said in a video message to his district.
He also shot down comparisons to other countries, made by Trump, which had reopened their schools and economies.
“These countries have done widespread testing and contact tracing,” he said. “We have not done so, and consequently don’t have the infrastructure and systems in place that are necessary.
“The sad fact is that there is no national plan.”
Pediatrician Dr Tommy Schechtman, a past president of the Florida chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, who practices in nearby Palm Beach, said: “We all want our kids back into school, but we need to do it safely.”
Fall classes were scheduled to start on 10 August in Palm Beach. The board announced this week all classes would still be virtual.
“We’re in the middle of a horrific surge,” said Schechtman. “Our hospitals don’t have ICU beds, our numbers are rampantly increasing.”
In the past week, his practice’s order for 400 Covid-19 tests went from back-ordered to canceled. The delay in test results grew from two days to six, and is now up to 12. And the practice is struggling to obtain basic personal protective equipment such as surgical gowns.
“You can’t do contact tracing when [test results are] 10-12 days out,” Schechtman said.
Broward county schools are among those still developing a model for students and teachers, now amid public acrimony. In the current “hybrid” proposal, Broward kids would go to in-person classes two to three days per week, and attend virtually on off days. But that plan has split the community.
“I don’t care if they sit side by side,” said a poster in a new Facebook group called “Broward parents for the return to school”.
The group, with more than 4,400 members, is advocating for full-time, in-person instruction. “The six-feet-apart nonsense is a joke. Just get them back in the classroom so we don’t have a country filled with anti-social dummies.”
Members have organized protests, letter-writing campaigns, shared letters from hopeful children, and even made T-shirts reading “five days, face-to-face”.
No matter the return-to-school policy, all are fraught with seemingly unanswerable questions. After all, how do you get a five-year-old to keep a mask on? How does a teacher refuse a hug to a crying child? Are children in part-time school eating enough? Are they suffering abuse? Is their mental health deteriorating?
Third-grade teacher and single mom Jamie Delerme, whose six-year-old daughter attends Broward schools, described it as a “no-win” situation.
“Ask any teacher: we would rather be back in the classroom,” she said.

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