TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Monday was the final day for public schools to comply with the state's reopen order. All districts, except four with waivers, needed to offer in-person learning five days a week or risk a funding cut.
During an education roundtable, state officials estimated around 60 percent of Florida' students had returned to face-to-face lessons.
Gov. Ron DeSantis hosted the event to boost support for the emergency order, which has proven to be highly controversial since its announcement by Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran, a DeSantis appointee, in early July.
Both Corcoran and the governor have touted the mandate as a necessity to ensure every student has access to an alternative to online classes.
"To put society on its knees is kind of cutting off your nose to spite your face," DeSantis said. "So, schools are an important part of that and our view on the schools was every parent in Florida should have an option."
The governor brought in a White House adviser to back him up. Dr. Scott Atlas is a new member of the White House COVID-19 Task Force.
He said "incontrovertible" CDC research showed children are at low risk for the virus and have a higher chance of hospitalization or death with seasonal influenza.
"We can't panic," Atlas said. "There's no place for fear in public policy. The children are not at any significant risk -- although there are exceptions, but the exceptions exist in every medical illness."
Florida's largest teacher union has challenged the order in court, believing it's unconstitutional because it can't guarantee safety. A district judge agreed with the Florida Education Association last week. However, that ruling is now on hold while the state appeals.
In a statement, FEA said it vowed to continue the fight in the appellate court:
"Florida's families don't need dubious advice from a coronavirus 'expert' who lacks a background in infectious diseases or epidemiology," said FEA Vice President Andrew Spar. "What parents and educators need is clear, transparent information regarding Covid-19 in our schools. The governor talks about choice, but real choice requires complete information. Rather than focusing on unproven and unsound approaches, educators and parents want real solutions for dealing with the coronavirus outbreaks that already are occurring."
Florida Surgeon General Scott Rivkees committed to sharing school outbreak data in daily reports, during the roundtable. The Florida Health official didn't say when those reports would be available or what they would look like when published.
Last weekend, several draft versions were inadvertently published on the health department's website. They listed cases for day cares, K-12 "The COVID Monitor" and colleges by county, with age and race breakdowns.
Epidemiologists said the information looked promising but lacked some clarification.
"Really excited to see it come out," said Jason Salemi, a professor of epidemiology at USF. "Certainly not surprised that it was removed from the repository more recently, but hopeful that it comes back with more granularity."
In the meantime, ousted Florida Health employee Rebekah Jones has created a website to track school outbreak data in the state and nationally. In partnership with Google and nonprofit FinMango, Ousted Florida Health data official creates coronavirus tracking site, The COVID Monitor, for schools sweeps up its data from across the web via press releases, news stories, info from county health departments, and more.
"We want people to know this is a place that they can go to," Jones said during a recent interview." Letting them say, 'Hey, there is a resource out there for this.'"