By TENZIN SHAKYA and ANTHONY RIVAS, ABC News
(PENSACOLA, Fla.) — Florida is one of a handful of states that have mandated in-person learning in schools this fall. Parents, educators and students talk about balancing the risks as the state fights high transmission.
As Florida cases of the coronavirus continue to rise, Pensacola mom Latoya Floyd says she doesn’t want to risk her children’s health by sending them back to school next month but that she doesn’t have a choice, either.
The single parent of two elementary school kids, one of whom has asthma, works at a Publix where she has been an associate throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. While there, her kids stay at a daycare that she says is poised to become overwhelmed with children, making it difficult for them to learn adequately and maintain social distance, she says. She says she works too many hours to ensure her kids are getting a proper education on her own.
“I absolutely have no choice but to send them to school because I work 45 hours a week, so it would be extremely hard to try to juggle making sure that their curriculum is on task,” Floyd told “Nightline,” adding that her kids get too distracted learning from home. “I feel like they should have an environment that they can sit and learn, and know that when they’re in this environment, it’s all about education, it’s all about school.”
Over the weekend, Florida surpassed New York, the former U.S. epicenter of the virus, to become the state with the second most COVID-19 cases. There were record numbers of hospitalizations and deaths last week, as its rate of positive cases has begun to trend downward.
As Florida began seeing a surge in cases in early July, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed an executive order requiring schools to open for traditional in-person learning. In response to the order, some educators in Florida have sued the governor, Florida Department of Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran and Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez, asking for an injunction to stop state officials from taking action if schools don’t reopen for in-person learning, arguing that it violates the Florida constitution to open schools if it is unsafe.
“I would rather actually keep them home than to send them back right now because the virus is still yet rising,” Floyd said. “Nothing has really happened to decrease people being sick and there hasn’t really been a cure for COVID-19. So if my children contract COVID-19 then it’s all a waiting game on if they will get better, and with my son having asthma, that just puts a little bit more on him and his conditions.”
Floyd is not alone. An ABC News/Ipsos poll released Friday found 55% of American parents were against schools reopening for in-person instruction in the fall. Only 44% of parents said they’d be willing to send their kids back to school in the fall despite 59% of them saying they were concerned their children were falling behind in school because of the pandemic.
Floyd said her children, 10-year-old Tyler Floyd and 6-year-old Skylar Woods, are supposed to begin fifth-grade and first-grade classes at Ferry Pass Elementary School in Pensacola next month. The school, which is part of the School District of Escambia County, had given parents three choices for their kids 2020-2021 education: remote learning, virtual school and traditional.
The school had previously been scheduled to start classes on Aug. 10, but its start date was postponed to Aug. 24 last week after the school district’s superintendent Malcolm Thomas said twice the expected number of parents chose remote learning and virtual school over traditional.
“The number of students participating in the Remote Learning/Virtual School option means additional training for a number of our current instructors,” Thomas said in a statement on the school’s website. “Pushing the student start date … is necessary to provide our educators with the professional development required for quality virtual instruction. This also means students returning to Traditional School can improve social distancing within the classroom and school buses.”
Still, educators within the Escambia school district expressed concerns about the safety precautions their schools will have when they reopen. Math teacher Willie Craig is also the director of Camp Magnolia Summer Day Camp in Milton, Florida. When the pandemic began in the U.S. in March, he made the decision to shut down the program, saying the risk of “kids being sick and just spreading that among the other kids was too high.”
His sister, a music teacher and pastor, has been on a ventilator with COVID-19 for 19 days now. He says he’s concerned reopening in an area of high transmission will place teachers and students at risk of exposure. As a member of the Pensacola Citywide Choir, Craig said at least four other members are in the hospital fighting COVID-19.
“I really want to be there and see the students,” Craig told “Nightline.” “I have a passion for the kids. I absolutely love my kids. However … life is just too precious and we can’t get this wrong. … Safety has to be first before anything else.”
Carol Cleaver, a science teacher in the Escambia school district, says that while she wants schools to reopen, she thinks “we need to be realistic about in what fashion is the safest way.”
“I certainly have elderly people in my family that I’m concerned about. There are other people in my family that have immuno-compromised issues,” she told “Nightline.” “And so, I’m terrified that I might bring something back to their household. A lot of my students are being raised by their grandparents … and it’s just not realistically a safe situation for anyone.”
Cleaver had also been part of a task force charged with creating a reopening plan for the Florida Education Association teachers union. She says the group presented their plan to DeSantis and Corcoran in early June.
“I’m disappointed that the governor has issued a unilateral order… I really think that, especially in light of the rising numbers in Florida, we need a little more leadership. I feel like that the governor has put superintendents in a very difficult position — that he’s kind of making them make the tough decision of closing schools when I think it should be a statewide decision. I think we need leadership at the state level and we’re not getting that.”
Cleaver said the Escambia school district had “pre-purchased 400,000 paper masks” and “installed hand sanitizing stations,” but said she was worried the schools would run out of paper towels and soap, which typically “ran out early in the day.”
“We are not certain that we will be given anything else to help us keep our classrooms clean, like paper towels or … disinfectant” Cleaver said, adding that family members have been collecting these items so they’d be available.
As part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) guidelines for reopening K-12 schools, the agency says it’s critical that school administrators implement multiple COVID-19 mitigation strategies, including using cloth face coverings and social distancing, maintaining a healthy environment through frequent cleaning and disinfecting surfaces and making decisions that take into account the level of community transmission of COVID-19.
The School District of Escambia Superintendent Malcom Thomas did not respond to a request for comment on the school’s masks requirements or other steps it would be taking to ensure safety in schools.
However, the school district’s website says that “face coverings will be worn in district facilities as directed by staff and instructional leaders. If a situation arises whereas a student, member of staff, or a visitor is not wearing, or is incapable of wearing a face covering, such individual may be assisted or guided by appropriate authorities within the district to undertake alternative, reasonable and accommodating actions to protect self and others.”
The site also says “no one is expected to wear face coverings for six to seven hours at a time,” and that it’s particularly important to comply on school buses, in hallways and in shared spaces. Students will also be socially distancing “to the extent possible,” according to the website. Maintenance staff and custodians will also clean “frequently touched surfaces throughout the day and conduct overall cleanings at the conclusion of every day.” Non-custodial staff will be given spray bottles and microfiber cloths for additional cleanin, and “teachers will have access to cleaning supplies for their classrooms.” The schools are also changing their air conditioning filters and giving temperature checks to students and staff “as appropriate.”
In Clay County, Florida, kindergarten teacher Megan Carrigan has been teaching 18 students in an in-person summer school program at Charles E. Bennett Elementary School in Green Cove Springs, Florida, since July 8th.
“We take risk in all that we do each day. But given the circumstances that I’ve already gone through, I feel like I need to do the best that I can to live my life the fullest,” she said. “And as long as I know that I am taking all the precautions that I need to take. Then I’m going to be OK.”
Carrigan is a cancer survivor and diabetic who says she’s aware of the risks she’s taking every time she walks into the classroom.
“My family had to take extra measures to help keep my immune system strong. … We would naturally come in and sanitize our hands, change clothes, take showers — things like that,” she said. “And so, with COVID, we’re doing the exact same thing.”
She says that experience helped her with implementing new rules and procedures within her classroom.
“I actually have written it into our schedule … when they come in, we hand sanitize. We start our morning work. Then, we do bathroom break with hand washing, and then we do an activity and then we do bathroom break and hand washing,” she says. “So, we just built into the schedule more hand washing and sanitizing. And then, when they line up to go anywhere — the student center for lunch or dismissal — we’ve taught them to line up with social distancing.”
For these tough decisions parents and teachers across the U.S. will soon need to make, Carrigan says “to each their own.”
“As a teacher, as a person, as a parent, you need to do what’s best for you and your family,” she said. “And if you do not feel like it’s a place that you need to be at that time, then you need to stand true to what you feel. … For me, personally, being in the classroom is where I want to be and where I feel safe going.”
Dr. Jason Wilson, an emergency physician at Tampa General Hospital in Tampa, Florida, says it was difficult deciding whether he’d send his son to school, but that he ultimately decided he would.
“If this is so hard for me, how can any other parent make this decision right now,” he said. “I don’t even understand that, when the world is shifting so much, when our cases are as high as they are.”
Wilson says that after weighing the risks, he decided enrolling his son was the best option for his family. However, he’s hoping his son’s school district will consider delaying the reopening date until COVID-19 hospitalization rates go down.
“We’re having to make decisions about science and about policy and about our own children based on this serious virus that we know very little about. It takes time to make these things and bring these things out. And we really haven’t gotten it yet.”
Like many parents, Wilson is still struggling with his decision.
“I don’t feel completely safe in this decision I have made. I felt it was the best decision and that gave me the most options at the time that I signed the letter. But I don’t see how anyone can feel perfectly safe in this current place where I am right now in Tampa.” he said. “It’s a risk calculation and I’m not sure where the risk is going to sit three weeks from now, or a month.”
When compared to the speed at which schools had to transition to remote learning at the beginning of the pandemic, Craig says reopening the schools can be different.
“If we take time now and plan correctly, then we can make huge strides as far as education is concerned. But if we don’t … and we go back into brick and mortar [schools] and there is going to have to be quarantines here and quarantines there — we don’t do this effectively — then learning would be limited.”
It may already be too late. Like many other parents, Floyd is concerned her kids have fallen behind during the pandemic. She said “there’s a lot of pressure” right now to ensure her daughter is prepared for first grade and that her daughter is in a structured setting to “ensure she is grasping” the curriculum.
“They took children out of school like mid semester … and that slowed things down tremendously. Me, having a kindergartner, we were still in a really tight learning spot because [of] having to make sure she knows her sight words,” Floyd said. “There’s a lot of pressure before going into the first grade because you have to know these words to be able to read in the first grade.”
Floyd said her children’s education is “super important” to her because it’ll equip them to be self-sustaining, confident adults. Having spent several months making sure their school work gets done after day care and working full-time, she said she has a “newfound respect” for educators.
“I love them,” she said. “I wish them the best and I hope things are really, really normal again.”
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