Twenty-eight percent of parents surveyed by the Flagler County School district last month said they will enrolling their children through online instruction only, with 72 percent of parents favoring in-person instruction. It is the sharpest indication yet of the effect of the coronavirus pandemic on schools and how it’s affecting decisions at home, as more than a quarter of parents are nervous about sending their children back to campus this August.
The Flagler survey parallels Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran’s order on Monday that public schools must reopen in August and offer “the full panoply of services” to students and families. As coronavirus outbreaks spike in Florida, Corcoran’s mandate said that extending school closures can impede students’ educational success and prevent parents and guardians from returning to work.
“There is a need to open schools fully to ensure the quality and continuity of the educational process, the comprehensive well-being of students and families and a return to Florida hitting its full economic stride,” the order states.
In Flagler County, the survey was based on 3,565 responses in a district with 13,000 students. The survey drew hundreds of responses from parents representing each of the district’s nine schools. The survey did not include Imagine School at Town Center, the charter school.
A key caveat: the survey was conducted between June 16 and June 21, before the surge in Covid cases began.
“Too much of a rush for all to get back out there but yet our numbers are higher now than during the lockdown,” a Bunnell Elementary parent said in a written response to the survey. “I have no interest in returning my kids to campus anytime soon and would like to continue with distance/virtual learning.”
The many who clicked the in-person attendance box were responding to the statement pre-written in the survey: “I am planning for my child to attend classes on campus. I understand that Flagler Schools will follow the local and state guidelines for reopening and operating schools.”
The breakdown differs according to schools, with 39 percent of parents at Buddy Taylor Middle School saying they’ll opt for online instruction, and just 20 percent of parents at Old Kings Elementary saying they’ll do so. The other schools were in the 25 to 29 percent range.
If those numbers hold, that would represent a significant shift for the district, affecting the redistribution of faculty members and staffers from physical schools to online instruction.
The district has issued a general plan for instruction when school resumes on Aug. 10, but no firm details yet. “We have two paths outlined, which is in-person school starting on the 10th [of August] following our bell schedule and the calendar,” Jason Wheeler, the district’s spokesman, said today, “and we have the option of parents enrolling their children in the iFlagler program,” the online instruction program the district has offered for many years.
iFlagler would be available for the majority of course offerings, but certain programs such as the International Baccalaureate would not be available online, requiring those students to attend school in person regardless.
Individual school faculty and principals have been calling students’ homes this week to get a sense of who will attend and how. Wheeler said those proportions are not yet clear. Nor has the district issued more detailed plans about how instruction would be handled in schools and what strictures students would have to follow on buses, in hallways, during lunch periods and so on. It’s also not clear whether the district will have any testing protocols, either for students or for staff.
“We’ve not gone into extreme details just yet,” Wheeler said.
The district survey pointed to many such questions on parents’ minds. The district has to have its own answers in order to figure out how to distribute its own staffing–between in-person instruction as opposed to iFlagler instruction.
“I am very nervous about sending my kids to school on campus,” a Belle Terre Elementary parent wrote in the survey. “I know they switch classes sometimes and I feel it will be very hard to keep my children healthy and safe. I am not able to stay home to allow them to do the virtual schooling.” Another parent from Belle Terre wrote: “My son is at high risk for COVID and my daughter would be the one having to attend school in person which puts him at a constant risk. I think it’s still too early to reopen schools and with COVID cases continually rising in our state each day, it would be more of a distraction and disruption not to continue with virtual school!”
A Bunnell parent wrote: “My son is starting Kindergarden, and i think it is very good for him to be in school with the teachers for this learning experience. I also think that some kinds do better with the virtual school online, so it should be an option for the parents and students to decide if they want to continue online or physically go to school.”
Under the state’s emergency order, all public schools will be required to reopen in August for at least five days a week and to provide the full array of services required by law, including in-person instruction and services for students with special needs. But the order is also short on details.
“Required services must be provided to students from low-income families, students of migrant workers, students who are homeless, students with disabilities, students in foster care, students who are English-language learners, and other vulnerable populations,” the order says.
Corcoran’s order also instructs school districts to follow the advice of state and local health officials as well as executive orders issued by Gov. Ron DeSantis.
The order was issued as Florida is suffering a massive surge in coronavirus cases, with total cases exceeding 213,000 today and about 70 percent of those occurring since DeSantis ordered the state to go to Phase 2 reopening on June 5.
The Republican governor and Corcoran, a former Florida House speaker, have been determined to reopen public schools at full capacity next month, even as state health officials have reported a minimum of 5,000 new Covid-19 cases in each of the last 13 days, and several days seeing the numbers in the 9,000 and 10,000 range. Deaths have also been increasing, with the state’s 14-day average getting closer to where it was in late April, the previous high of the pandemic in the state.
Teachers, however, are concerned about their safety, according to Florida Education Association President Fedrick Ingram.
“It’s clear in communications with our members that educators are scared. They don’t trust politicians to make sure things are safe — rightly so, with the record-breaking number of cases being reported,” Ingram told the News Service of Florida in an email Monday. “The governor is trying to brush that off.”
Ingram, who heads the state’s top teachers’ union, said students and school employees “need to be at the center of our conversations about reopening schools.”
Department of Education spokeswoman Taryn Fenske said in an email last week that the state has a “moral imperative to do our absolute best to return our schools to full operation by August.”
“Our children’s education, the comprehensive health of our families — mental health and stability in homes — and our economy are all depending on us to make every effort to reopen our school campuses,” she wrote.
Fenske, however, would not say if specific metrics about COVID-19 cases would prompt the education department to backtrack on the school reopening plans.
Under the order issued Monday, school districts and charter-school governing boards are required to submit reopening plans to the Department of Education showing how all schools plan to fully reopen and offer all services to students.
The plans need to include the percentage of students in the district who are projected to continue with distance learning, which schools began using following a statewide shutdown in March.
The order also requires districts to disclose efforts to address achievement gaps and monitor students’ progress.
Corcoran’s order acknowledged that some students may continue to learn from home.
“Although it is anticipated that most students will return to full-time brick and mortar schools, some parents will continue their child’s education through innovative learning environments, often due to the medical vulnerability of the child or another family member who resides in the same household,” the order says.
Because enrollment numbers could impact per-student funding for public schools, the order says that school districts and charter school governing boards with approved reopening plans will be offered “reporting flexibility” to ensure their funds are not interrupted during the 2020 fall semester.
For example, students who learn in an “innovative learning environment” during the fall semester would be able to receive a full-time enrollment credit.
Monday’s mandate also waives “strict compliance” with a Florida law requiring schools to operate for at least 180 days, “to the extent necessary to give effect to this order.” And the order waives a state law requiring “school districts to have a uniform and fixed date for the opening and closing of schools.”