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How detailed are Florida's school reopen plans for in-person learning?

Posted at 6:40 PM, Aug 07, 2020
and last updated 2020-08-07 18:40:32-04

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WTXL) — Florida’s first few public schools are set to restart in-person learning next week, a trial by fire of their reopen plans, required by the state.

But how detailed are those strategies and how heavily were they scrutinized by the Department of Education?

The first day of class is weeks aways for high school teacher Jessica Barthle.

“More than anything I miss my kids," Barthle said.

The North Florida woman wants to return to in-person learning, though she has little confidence her district is ready

“It’s a very palpable sense of grief for me," said Barthle. "But, it’s not anywhere near the same kind of grief if I start seeing deaths.”

Barthle worries her school’s plan to return isn’t enough and that the state is complicit, rubber stamping reopen strategies to comply with what the federal government is pushing.

“They’re not really considering the best needs of our constituents in our state as the epicenter,” Barthle said.

The Florida Department of Education required approval of the plans through the commissioner’s controversial reopen order last month.

Most have done so, risking loss of funding for non-compliance.

We wanted to take a closer look at them and after a review found plans are inconsistent. They range from very detailed to pretty reserved.

Pinellas' 37-page reopen plan has lots of details and contingencies, and though it's bigger Orange COunty's plan is less than half the size and detail. Dixie County’s is just six pages.

Most plans aren’t much more than a checklist the Department sent out to districts.

Templates ask schools to agree to seven assurances, like providing in-person lessons. What they don’t require are details on virus protection.

The approval process looks pretty straight forward as well. According to this DOE email to Calhoun County, approval is, “focused on verifying each of the seven assurances…”

“We’re going to provide tremendous flexibility for districts to do what fits their community,” said Sen. Manny Diaz, (R) Hialeah Gardens.

Diaz stands by the department’s system, saying it provides districts needed freedom in a diverse state.

“Look, you may just check off the boxes and be very simple for them to return," Diaz said. "For other districts, it’s going to require a more elaborate plan or scheme, depending on the size of the district, depending on the infection rates and what the obstacles are.”

How will these varied plans actually hold up once reopening is underway?

For that answer, we’ll have to wait and see what happens. Barthle is hoping her school hits the brakes before it can.

“How much are our lives worth,” said Barthle.

When it comes to state-required school reopening plans, here’s what our investigation found:

  • Details vary by district.
  • Most are simply a checklist agreeing to seven state requirements, like in-person learning.
  • None of the requirements deal with virus protection.
  • And state plan approval is contingent on verifying districts will comply.