Florida Gov. DeSantis Backs Off Hard Stance on Schools, Lets Parents Decide

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis appears to be easing off demands that schools reopen despite COVID-19 continuing to surge in the state, stressing that reopening decisions are the "choice" of individual schools.

DeSantis had previously insisted that schools open "at full capacity" despite the raging virus but adopted a somewhat more moderate stance during a news briefing on Wednesday. He said he was in favor of allowing schools to delay reopening but emphasized that the choice should ultimately be left to parents.

"I believe we owe every parent a choice to send your children back to school for in-person instruction, or to opt to maintain distance learning," DeSantis said. "The evidence that schools can open in a safe way is overwhelming, yet I also understand the apprehension that some parents may feel, and I believe in empowering them with a choice."

"No parent should be required to send their children to in-person instruction if they don't want to," he added.

DeSantis also said that "many teachers and faculty are chomping at the bit to get back in the classroom" amid the pandemic. A lawsuit filed Monday by the state's largest teachers' union, the Florida Education Association (FEA), suggests otherwise. The group blasted DeSantis and other state officials for "arbitrary and capricious demands" that schools reopen.

"@GovRonDeSantis didn't say anything new today," tweeted FEA President Fedrick Ingram after the governor's briefing. "The five minutes he spent offering flawed reassurances would've been better spent working on coming up with a plan to protect Florida students and educators."

DeSantis said that teachers at higher risk from the virus or "those who just don't feel comfortable with in-person instruction" should have the option of teaching remotely instead. He also opened the door for school districts to delay school reopening over the concerns about the virus.

"Let's just find a way to make do," said DeSantis. "And if a school district needs to delay the school year for a few weeks so that everything will be in good shape, have at it. The important thing is that our parents have a meaningful choice when it comes to in-person education."

Gov. Ron DeSantis
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speaks during a press conference in Miami, Florida on July 13, 2020. Joe Raedle/Getty

Although his remarks indicated he does not support forcing children back to reopened schools unless their parents decide to do so, DeSantis did make it clear that he is still in favor of schools widely opening amid the pandemic.

He touted the health benefits of children being physically present in classrooms while largely discounting public health concerns that reopening during a spike could further exacerbate Florida's COVID-19 situation.

"Our fight against COVID shouldn't lead us to deprive our kids of the tools they need to succeed," DeSantis said. "It's often asked whether it's safe to return kids to school, it should also be asked whether it's safe to keep schools closed."

DeSantis added that the cost of keeping schools closed is "enormous," while denouncing suggestions to once again widely adopt distancing learning, calling it a "stop-gap measure adopted at a time when there was still uncertainty about the role of children in spreading the virus." Late last month, DeSantis vetoed the entire $29.4 million budget of the Complete Florida Plus program, which helps facilitate online learning.

The governor claimed that children "play the smallest role" in spreading the virus, but research on the matter has been inconclusive. Results from a large South Korean study last week found that although young children are less likely to spread the virus, many school-aged children, from the ages of 10 to 19, are at least as likely and could even be more likely to spread it when compared to adults.

Newsweek reached out to the office of DeSantis for comment.