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Task force: Schools reopening, affordable child care keys to reviving Florida’s economy

The Center Square – Reopening Florida’s 4,200 public K-12 schools is critical for the state’s 2.8 million students’ educational needs, but also for working parents who may struggle to find affordable child care as the economy attempts to revive after the response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

That was among the potential obstacles pondered Wednesday by the 23-member Re-Opening Florida Task Force Industry Working Group on Administrative, Education, Information & Technology, Manufacturing, Utilities and Wholesale.

The group, spearheaded by state Education Commissioner and former House Speaker Richard Corcoran, will meet through the week and forward ideas to the task force’s 22-member executive committee, which must present Gov. Ron DeSantis with a statewide reopening plan by Friday.

DeSantis on Saturday closed all public and private K-12 schools, colleges and universities until August. Students are expected to finish this school year using distance-learning curriculum online from home.

The quick adaptation to online classes was lauded by many in the group as a harbinger of what education will look like in a future that arrived unexpectedly in March when DeSantis closed school campuses.

Until all students and families have access to needed technology and working parents have access to affordable child care, reopening schools for physical interaction will be the priority, the group confirmed.

A Florida Council of 100 survey said nearly two-thirds of employed parents of minor children across the state said lack of child care has “somewhat” or “greatly” impaired their ability to perform their own jobs, state Pubic School Chancellor Jacob Oliva said.

Another overlooked factor in the school closures is in many counties, the school district is one of the area’s largest employers.

“One of the major tenants that we want to guide this conversation around is, what is education’s role in the recovery, in supporting the economy?” Oliva said. “What the Department of Education (DOE) is going to continue working to do is to make sure that Florida’s entire education family is able to return to schools.”

Open schools “opens up the support that families need so that they can return to work,” Oliva said.

Among suggestions presented by Pinellas County Superintendent of Schools Michael Grego and Orange County teacher Melissa Pappas is ensuring county health officials monitor school reopenings and that teachers have opportunities to work with individual students before formal classes resume to gauge how they have fared since March.

With many furloughed from jobs and many small businesses floundering, education officials also said the reopening strategy must include a plan for public schools to absorb students from private schools that parents no can longer afford to pay tuition for.

DOE’s 2018-19 report said about 380,295 students, roughly 11.8 percent of the state’s K-12 student population, attend more than 2,650 private schools across the state.

Charter schools also face daunting challenges. During the 2018-19 school year, about 313,000 students – more than 10 percent of the state’s 2.84 million preK-12 children – were enrolled in 658 charter schools in Florida, according to DOE.

Charter Schools USA CEO John Hage, which operates 57 schools in Florida, said his organization is looking at limiting the number of students on campus at any given time by “seat time.”

“Honestly,” Corcoran said, “we have a lot of decisions to make, to coming to the end of the school year, to the summer, and to the fall. Our main focus is to get schools open.”

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