Saving minds while risking lives: education heroes

By Linda Porterfield, Charlotte County Dems Writer

On August 31st, the 19 Charlotte County public schools were originally scheduled to officially open for a full school week as mandated by an executive order declared by our governor. Now on hold, an unknown number of the county’s 12,000 students and 1000 teachers protected by no clear safety plan, would walk into schools and try to resume normalcy during a pandemic already resulting in 2519 cases and 107 deaths in Charlotte County alone.

Fedrick Ingram, president of the Florida Education Association (FEA) states “The only thing the DeSantis executive order stipulates is that there will be a brick-and-mortar option five days a week. No guidelines and money for social distancing policies, testing, tracing regimes, job security for infected teachers, PPE or air conditions modifications were included.”

We are already beginning to see cases associated with schools not yet officially opened. The principal at Punta Gorda Middle School and two football players at Port Charlotte High School have tested positive for COVID-19. During an interview with a retired Charlotte County school administrator and teacher requesting anonymity, this writer learned a few surprising facts. Additional teachers and district staff have also been exposed and are now quarantining at home. Teachers were never consulted regarding safe and effective ways to reopen without compromising innovative and effective learning methods. And there is no accessible hot water for handwashing in schools!

Reopening schools requires a delicate balance between caution and need. Children are our most treasured resource.  Teachers are our most trusted, a vital asset to help children develop their full potential.  Custodians, administrative staff, cafeteria workers, school nurses, crossing guards, and bus drivers serve as necessary supportive pillars of the educational process in every school. All deserve respect and protection during this unprecedented challenge of COVID-19.  

Returning to school will challenge comfortable habits and require new behaviors from everyone. Teacher management of new types of misbehavior is especially crucial now. Persistent attempts of younger children wanting to trade masks like baseball cards, adolescents convening secret, possibly unmasked meetings with friends not seen in many months, and everyone practicing new sanitation habits in the cafeteria will require higher levels of diligence.  Normal playfulness and innocent, age-related antics may no longer be safely tolerated.

That is a shame.

The Florida Education Association sued Governor DeSantis, Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran, the Florida Department of Education, Florida State Board of Education and Miami-Dade County “to safeguard the health and welfare of students, educators and the community at large.” Florida educators are supported by the state Constitution which explicitly states that “adequate provisions shall be made by law for a uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high-quality system of free public schools. The words safe and secure are paramount here, “requiring the Governor and the Commissioner of Education to institute policies to meet that standard,” the lawsuit explains.

They have not complied.

Such policies would include plans for adequate personal protective equipment and other necessary supplies for all employees and students; a reduction in class sizes to comply with physical distancing requirements; sufficient hand-sanitizing stations; plexiglass shields where necessary; increased staffing and school clinic capabilities; and, funding.

On August 24th, Judge Charles Dodson, citing safety concerns, blocked the executive order and declared funding could not be pulled from any school.  DeSantis and Corcoran rapidly appealed…so, we are back to square one for now.

The lack of preparation is massive and the absence of a standard reopening plan is inexcusable.

The eventual status of school openings in Florida will soon be in the hands of yet another judge presiding over the appeals process.  It remains to be seen whether school reopening, when and if it occurs, will safely contain COVID-19 or emerge as Florida’s latest signature super-spreader event.

You can help keep our children and educational professionals safe.  With the suit stalled again by an appeal, NOW is the time to express your support for our educational first responders. Contact State Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran and Governor Ron DeSantis. When schools do reopen, demand that safety precautions be enacted before a single child, teacher or support staff walks into any school building and bravely resumes their role before an unseen enemy.

Image Credits: Miyuki