Florida at centre of coronavirus outbreak and battle over school reopening

MIAMI (AFP) – Florida is the new epicentre of the coronavirus epidemic in the United States and is shaping up as a key battleground in a partisan-tinged fight playing out nationally over reopening schools in the fall.

While cities such as Houston, Los Angeles and New York plan to begin the school year virtually or on a restricted basis, Florida governor Ron DeSantis is insisting schools reopen fully in August.

Teachers protest in front of the Hillsborough County Schools District Office on July 16, 2020, in Tampa, Florida.
Teachers protest in front of the Hillsborough County Schools District Office on July 16, 2020, in Tampa, Florida.PHOTO: AFP

The Republican governor’s demand mirrors that of President Donald Trump, who is facing a tough reelection battle in November and is pushing for schools to reopen as a sign of a return to normalcy.

Mr Trump, who is trailing Democrat Joe Biden in the polls, has even threatened to cut federal funding for those schools that refuse to open their doors.

A Yahoo News/YouGov poll published Thursday (July 16) found that 63 per cent of Americans said Mr Trump should not be pressuring schools to reopen, while 25 per cent agreed with his push.

Ninety-five per cent of the Democrats and 58 per cent of the Republicans surveyed agreed that reopening schools should take a back seat to public health.

Mr Trump and MR DeSantis have only so much leverage, however, in a fight that has them butting heads with teachers’ unions, medical experts and many parents wary of sending their children back to school in safety.

State and local officials have the final say when it comes to their school districts.

The Houston school district, which has more than 200,000 students, plans to begin the school year virtually on Sept 8 and start in-person classes on Oct 19 “subject to change based on Covid-19 conditions.”

Once in-person classes resume, “parents will have the option to opt out of face-to-face instruction entirely for the fall semester and school year,” it said.

The Los Angeles school district, with 700,000 students, said classes will be online-only until further notice.

In New York City, which has the nation’s largest public school system with 1.1 million students, Mayor Bill de Blasio said classroom attendance would be limited to one to three days a week.

Other major cities, including Chicago and Washington, have kept parents on tenterhooks and not yet announced plans for the fall semester.

‘LESS RISK’

Mr DeSantis, making his argument for reopening schools, has pointed to the lower risk for children of contracting Covid-19.

“I am really amazed at the extent to which people under 18 are low-risk for this,” he said. “Fortunately, our schoolchildren are at less risk.”

Only around five per cent of identified Covid-19 cases are children, and 90 per cent of them develop no symptoms or only mild symptoms.

Mr DeSantis’s push to reopen schools comes as Florida emerges as the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak in the United States.

The southern state reported a record 156 Covid-19 deaths on Thursday and nearly 14,000 new infections.

The total number of virus cases in the “Sunshine State” has now surpassed 315,000, and there have been 4,782 deaths, according to Florida Department of Health figures.

Florida is now reporting more Covid-19 cases daily than any other state in the country. California and Texas are next with about 10,000 new cases a day each.

But Mr DeSantis has not followed the lead of California and Texas by, for example, imposing new lockdown orders or making the wearing of masks mandatory in indoor spaces.

Covid-19 cases have been surging in the United States, particularly in states that were among the first to reopen and lift restrictions designed to halt the spread of the highly contagious virus.

The number of virus cases in the United States has topped 3.5 million, according to Johns Hopkins University, and there have been 138,072 deaths, both figures the highest in the world.

In a report on Wednesday, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine said that school districts “should weigh the relative health risks of reopening against the educational risks of providing no in-person instruction in Fall 2020.”

“Given the importance of in-person interaction for learning and development, districts should prioritise reopening with an emphasis on providing full-time, in-person instruction in grades K-5 and for students with special needs who would be best served by in-person instruction,” it said.

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