Florida’s top teachers union on Tuesday unveiled its proposal for reopening public-school campuses in the fall as districts wait for final direction from the state Department of Education.
After nearly three months of coronavirus-prompted school closures, the education of about 3 million Florida students has been upended, sparking concerns about growing achievement gaps and the types of safety measures that will be needed to keep students and staff members safe in the fall.
“We don’t want to go into a school year with question marks. People want to know how they can be safe, how they are going to stay healthy, how we’re going to tune into academic success,” Florida Education Association President Fedrick Ingram said during a conference call on Tuesday.
Ingram, the chair of the union’s Statewide Committee to Safely Reopen Public Schools, said the recommendations are meant to be a “floor not a ceiling” for what schools ought to do before welcoming back students, faculty and visitors to campuses.
The committee’s recommendations include widespread testing of students, staff and visitors for the virus, adjustments to class sizes and student transportation, changes to the school calendar, promoting hybrid instruction and pushing to hire more school counselors and psychologists to help students’ social and emotional well-being.
Ingram also said the organization is recommending changes to school lunch plans, which could mean bringing food to classrooms to reduce foot traffic in schools. He said it might also be a good idea for districts to consider having teachers — and not kids — change classrooms between class periods.
It will be important for districts to have the flexibility to make their own decisions, which led to broad recommendations from the committee, Ingram said.
“What we didn’t want to do was to bottle one district into one corner and say you must do this because there are going to be many different ways to get it right,” he said.
The Florida Department of Education has not released its final guidelines for districts to reopen for the new school year, which is less than three months away.
While there is no timeline for the state guidelines, the department will issue “more recommendations” in the coming week, Taryn Fenske, a spokeswoman for the agency, told The News Service of Florida on Tuesday.
Fenske said it is “critical to take a step-by-step, phased-in approach to reopening Florida’s schools,” adding that the state “can only hit its economic stride if schools are open.”
“We continue to welcome any and all feedback, and we will certainly fully review the FEA’s recommendations as we have with literally every organization’s recommendations that we receive,” she said.
Three weeks ago, the State Board of Education considered a number of recommendations from the Florida Association of District School Superintendents. The association laid out its “preliminary and broad” recommendations, which mirrored some of the suggestions issued Tuesday by the FEA.
Both organizations recommended adjusting class sizes, recess, lunch time and physical education and changing the number of students on buses. They also coincided about a need for a hybrid instruction approach that could include a combination of in-person and online teaching if face-to-face classes or social distancing are not possible in certain districts or schools.
Superintendents, the union and state education officials also have expressed concerns about growing achievement gaps among students. Such gaps have historically affected many minority and low-income students.
Pinellas County Superintendent Michael Grego said during the Board of Education meeting that superintendents want to quickly identify any students with remaining learning gaps by the time the 2020-2021 school year starts. He suggested testing students during the summer to identify children who may need catching up, referring to the “COVID-19 academic slide.”
Fenske said the Florida Department of Education is looking at ways to close achievement gaps “that have likely been exacerbated by this crisis.”
Ingram said the FEA is calling to “suspend current accountability systems” including standardized tests and school grades to relieve pressure from students who may be struggling after the school closures.
“There is going to be some level of slide. There’s going to be some level of backtracking for academics because we have not seen them for three months and that takes a toll on the academic powers of a student,” Ingram said.
Ingram said the union is also calling on state officials to provide teachers and staff access to personal protective equipment, cleaning supplies and training on how to properly use such items. And as state officials consider staggered schedules for teachers and students, Ingram said they should also assess the workloads of staff and teachers.
“Less than three months before the first Florida students are slated to go back into our public schools, this work is more important than ever,” Ingram said.