Florida educators say pandemic “is not over and it’s not going anywhere in the near future”

CBS News is chronicling what has changed in the lives of residents of some of the biggest battleground states in 2020 amid the coronavirus pandemic.

It’s been six weeks since Rocky Hannah, Leon County Schools superintendent in North Florida, reopened schools after abruptly closing in the spring due to the coronavirus pandemic. 

The county allowed children to return to schools on August 31 in order to avoid potential financial penalties from Florida for not offering in-person options. Forty-four percent came back to in-person classrooms while 55% opted to start the school year remotely.  

“There were a lot of our parents that needed to get back to work, that needed their children in school, and by us giving families those options, I think we absolutely did the right thing,” said Hannah.  

When CBS News spoke with Hannah in July, the county had made an $11 million investment to purchase 32,500 laptops that his team intended to distribute to each of the district’s 33,000 students before the school year started, in an effort to tackle the digital divide amid the pandemic. 

Back orders delayed the arrival of the laptops, so the county ended up distributing 9,000 desktop computers to students who opted to work remotely. Students attending in person were given mobile devices for the classroom.  

This week the shipment of 32,500 laptops has finally begun to arrive and Hannah plans to run a pilot program with three schools, where they will distribute laptops to the students at an elementary, middle and K-8 school before handing them out to other students in the district. 

“Let’s be clear: this pandemic is not over and it’s not going anywhere in the near future,” said Hannah. “We’re going to continue to monitor and work with our families daily and meet them again where they’re comfortable.” 

The technology demands placed on teachers in the county have been a setback for veteran teachers who Hannah said are feeling “like a beginning teacher all over again.” But their efforts aren’t going unrecognized; the school board is announcing a $9 million pay package for teachers Tuesday evening. 

“Our teachers, I think every day they get better and better and more used to the technology and to our learning management system.” 

CBS News also spoke with South City Foundation this summer. At the time, the group was working with Leon County to aid students in vulnerable communities who were most at risk of negative coronavirus impacts and lack of access to technology.  

The foundation’s executive director, Courtney Atkins, said that when COVID-19 hit, some students didn’t have devices, technical assistance, or even transportation to pick up packets of information. 

Local grants helped provide devices to students during the summer, and the foundation is partnering with community centers to provide technical assistance to students working remotely. Two labs are outfitted with 20 computers each but to help reduce the spread of COVID-19, only 12 students can access the lab at once. 

“For many of these students they’re getting devices for the first time — especially the young students —and their families, their parents may not be computer savvy,” Atkins said, adding, “Some are living with grandparents and older folks that computers were not part of their upbringing, so it’s really important that we can support them.” 

Leon County is one of two primarily Democratic counties in a sea of traditionally Republican counties in the northern part of the state. Hannah said that school reopenings and mask requirements have highlighted political differences. 

“Sometimes it is tough for people to understand why we are adhering to strict mask mandates here in Leon County, and in surrounding counties they’re not…we know that the health experts in the medical community are saying that wearing a mask helps prevent spread,” said Hannah. “Over the course of the first several weeks, I went to visit every single school in our county — over 150 classrooms — and I did not see one student at any level in violation of our mask requirements.” 

In September, Republican Governor Ron DeSantis issued an executive order for the state to enter Phase 3 of re-opening, which allows restaurants and businesses to open at full capacity and prohibits any local COVID-19 emergency ordinances from limiting the operation of restaurants to less than 50%. The order also suspended the collection of fines related to enforcing COVID-19 restrictions. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, flu activity typically begins to increase in October. And this week, there are more than 700,000 positive coronavirus cases that have been reported in the state. More than 15,000 Florida residents have died according to data from the state’s Division of Emergency Management.  

Atkins is concerned that the 800 students served by the South City Foundation could be put at risk of greater exposure to COVID-19 by a full school reopening. 

“The pandemic has certainly highlighted the health disparities of minority families in a bigger way, not just health, but also the digital divide in housing and other things that many people aren’t aware of the extent of these disparities,” said Atkins. “So I think that it’s really important that families, when people are thinking about voting, that they are thinking about those political leaders [and] how they’re going to handle the COVID crisis — which impacts the schools.” 

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