Virtual learning will remain an option for second semester, DeSantis confirms

In his first public appearance in almost a month, Gov. Ron DeSantis confirmed Monday that Florida's schools will offer e-learning for the second half of the school year, but they must also remain open with an in-person option.

"It continues the requirement that districts offer in-person learning," he said, noting that funding will be provided to all school districts to offer the e-learning option. "Parents must be notified if a student is struggling with the virtual learning."

If so, students must return to in-person learning unless the parent opts out, he added.

"The data and evidence is overwhelmingly clear," he said. "The virtual learning is just not the same. The medium is just not the same as being in the classroom."

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Citing European studies, DeSantis said closing schools during the pandemic was "probably the biggest public health blunder in modern American history." He referred to those who advocate for closing schools to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus as "flat-Earthers."

Almost two weeks ago, Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran announced Florida students will be able to continue learning remotely through the end of the school year.

The Florida Education Association teachers union and other plaintiffs filed a lawsuit this summer challenging a July order by Corcoran that was aimed at reopening schools. The plaintiffs argued that Corcoran’s order would force teachers to “needlessly expose themselves to a deadly and contagious virus based solely on a blanket and arbitrary decision that schools must reopen for in-person instruction or lose their funding.”

A Leon County circuit judge in August sided with the plaintiffs, but his ruling was overturned by a panel of the 1st District Court of Appeal. The appeals court Monday refused requests by the plaintiffs for a rehearing.

After DeSantis and Corcoran announced the new order Monday about the second half of the school year, the union expressed cautious optimism that it “offers our public schools a much-needed measure of reassurance for the new year.”

“Florida’s schools remain underfunded, and COVID-19 continues to create terrible disruption, but the state’s support for students on-campus and off should remain stable this spring,” a news release from the union said.

FEA President Andrew Spar suggested the state could also suspend “high-stakes standardized testing” or that tests be made less “make or break,” so students and teachers can catch up from the coronavirus disruption.

A key issue in the union lawsuit involved part of the July order that dealt with the way public schools are funded. The order effectively conditioned a portion of money on school districts submitting reopening plans that included the use of brick-and-mortar classrooms, in addition to offering online alternatives.

In Monday’s order, school districts must submit a plan by Dec. 15 that meets Corcoran’s requirements for the spring, which continues a requirement of schools being open five days a week for in-person instruction.

Corcoran’s latest order also outlines learning and supplemental intervention services, with an emphasis placed on reading and mathematics.

Almost 40 percent of the state’s public-school students have been studying remotely in the current semester.

Information from the News Service of Florida was used in this report.