EDITORIAL: School opening should be a local decision

Staff Writer
The News Herald
The News Herald

Florida’s leaders, who ironically are prone to throw important decisions to locals (see mandatory facemasks) shouldn’t play politics with the safety of schoolchildren and educators by ordering local districts when to reopen.

Yet that’s exactly what Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran appears to be doing with his broad-sided mandate that all school districts in Florida should prepare to open their classrooms for in-person lessons in August, even as Florida continues to post alarmingly high levels of new coronavirus infections.

And as much as we’d like to, we can’t forget the area from Apalachicola in Franklin County to the western end of Bay County that is still reeling from Hurricane Michael’s impact on the school system with many schools still under repair.

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We believe — as do many — that Corcoran overstepped the boundaries of his position as the appointed education chief for the state. Florida’s constitution leaves much of the authority to operate schools in the hands of elected district officials, and most have already begun crafting their own plans for the coming school year.

While Corcoran couched his order as an emergency, Florida’s school districts have been dealing with this situation long enough to understand what their various options are and how they would play out. They don’t need a one-size-fits-all dictate from Tallahassee.

And the “out” detailed on Corcoran’s order — saying that districts can disregard his command if local health officials say it’s necessary — doesn’t reel him back onto firm ground. Unlike school districts, local health departments operate under the aegis of the state Department of Health — and the state has already been accused, with a fair degree of backup, of playing politics with COVID-19 statistics and dictating local responses.

The political angle here, unfortunately, is all too obvious. Corcoran’s order was issued the same day President Trump tweeted that schools “MUST OPEN IN THE FALL!” And it’s clear they knew districts might get clever by including language that specifies five-day-a-week in-class instruction and tightening restrictions for districts that want to offer a blend of in-person and online instruction.

With that said, there are some obvious truths couched in the wording of Corcoran’s order. In a non-pandemic world, in-person school would clearly be preferential for most students. Distance learning has left some students lagging, particularly in those families where parents didn’t have enough time or interest to monitor online course work. Many teachers don’t like online education either, saying it robs them of the chance to closely monitor their pupils’ progress. Physical attendance at school also offers benefits beyond the educational. Many students rely on schools to access counseling, health care, even food. Meanwhile, many parents need to be able to return their full focus to work.

But none of this justifies pushing students and their teachers into crowded classrooms while a pandemic is still raging. If local school officials have a way to minimize that risk then that’s great. And even in those counties that have decided to re-open classrooms, it’s important that they follow strict rules including distancing, temperature checks and mandatory masks.

School districts, individually, must choose the option that is best for our children, without regard for whether it will please Corcoran and the president.