With the start of the school year looming across northeast Florida, parents, teachers and students are ringing the alarm. Education chiefs plan to welcome tens of thousands of students to class. But with coronavirus cases soaring in the state, parents and teachers say it’s way too soon.
“There may be other cities or countries who are going back to school, but their case numbers of Covid-19 are so low,” said Rolline Sullivan, a mother of four students in Duval County, home to Jacksonville. “The biggest thing I think that is missing is the science of it.”
Sullivan recently joined a caravan of “motor marchers” – parents and teachers who drove to the Duval County Public Schools headquarters to demand in-person teaching be delayed until the county reports at least 14 days of no new Covid-19 cases. Currently, hundreds of new cases are being reported each day, according to Florida’s Department of Health.
“I don’t want to plan a funeral for anyone in my family, or let alone from my school. The people at my school are my family,” said Lauren Hammock, a teacher in Duval County schools for 23 years.
Students and their families have been given a choice: They can study entirely online or attend classes starting August 10, but Duval County elementary schools will be open five days a week. Middle and high schools will run on a hybrid schedule, which won’t require daily attendance at a brick-and-mortar school.
The district says masks will be required in buses and “throughout the day,” but not during physical education, band or music classes.
Duval is meeting the expectations of the state’s Commissioner of Education, Richard Corcoran, Gov. Ron DeSantis and President Donald Trump, all of whom have called for schools to open their doors while taking safety precautions for students and staff.
Some superintendents, including the head of Broward County schools in south Florida, recommend schools start entirely online next month, but there is no uniformity.
Thirty miles southeast of Jacksonville, in the country’s oldest city, St. Augustine, Tim Forson is already inside a middle school. As school superintendent for St. Johns County, he walks the hallways, where in one classroom a dozen students were recently taking an algebra test for high school credit. In another wing, teachers were training.
Forson knows he faces challenges, as the head of his school district and as a parent to a five-year-old. “I have hesitations. That probably makes me be even more attentive to what we’re doing in our schools,” he said. “The fact that it’s not just your child, it’s my child.”
His daughter will be going to school in person in less than four weeks. He’s seen her struggle to wear a mask at home and thinks face shields might be a better option for the youngest students. Children will be required to wear face coverings in buses and transition areas. In the classroom, students will have to wear them only if social distancing is not an option.
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But there are still many fears. “I want you all to know that teachers are updating and making wills. I’ve heard this from several teachers, and I, a healthy 38-year-old, have prepared my own will,” teacher Andrea Clark told a virtual public meeting of the St. Johns School Board.
“We know that if we go back into the buildings full-time and at full or mostly full capacity, some of us are going to die,” she said.
Families have been given until Friday to decide whether their children will go to school in person or online. Forson told CNN that as of Wednesday, about 12% of parents had chosen virtual learning.
Forson knows he may not be able to keep coronavirus out of all his schools. But when asked if he thought teachers would die, he replied: “Goodness, I hope not. I certainly would never take an action that I believe would cause teachers to die.”
This story has been updated to correct that 12% of parents had chosen virtual learning, according to Tim Forson.