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OPINION

HIAASEN: Despite COVID, Florida’s Republican leaders think kids, teachers are expendable

The News Herald

In his Trump-ordered push to reopen public schools during the COVID-19 pandemic, Gov. DeSantis has muzzled local health departments to ensure that Tallahassee is calling the shots.

At a time when parents, students and teachers need expert guidance and solid information, the governor has sidelined medical specialists so he can hog the microphone.

While everyone desperately wants schools to reopen, the risk varies critically in different parts of the state. Last month, Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran, a DeSantis appointee, ordered that all schools must open “brick-and-mortar” facilities unless their local health departments approved keeping them closed.

Second grade teacher Pam Quimuyog holds the door open for Madison Grady, her parents Michael and Brittney and her little brother named Michael on Aug. 14, 2020 at Northside Elementary.

Then state officials quietly ordered those health departments, basically, to shut up.

A report published by the Palm Beach Post exposed the DeSantis subterfuge. Frustrated local health officials said the state won’t let them discuss the health risks of reopening with school district leaders.

Many school administrators said they had no choice but to move ahead, despite alarming regional spikes in COVID-19 cases.

Corcoran, the state education commissioner, is neither a professional educator nor a physician. He’s a former speaker of the House.

There is an actual medical doctor in DeSantis’ crew, though he doesn’t have much to say in public. His name is Scott Rivkees, the state surgeon general.

His specialty is pediatric endocrinology, so you’d think he has some helpful thoughts on how to protect children during a pandemic. Since Rivkees trained for a time at Harvard, he’s surely aware that Harvard’s Global Health Institute recommends online schooling for kids who live in COVID-19 “red zones,” which include several areas of Florida.

Carl Hiaasen

Here’s what happens when local officials don’t think the situation is safe yet, and try to do what they believe is best for their community:

Worried about a fresh surge in coronavirus cases in the Tampa area, the Hillsborough County School Board voted 5-2 to amend its reopening plan and do the first four weeks of the school year completely online.

Last week Corcoran said no way — school districts must give parents the option of sending their kids back to the classroom, or face funding cuts.

That Hillsborough officials acted only after consulting health experts didn’t matter to the DeSantis administration. This is a political combat mission, and the teachers and students who get sick will be collateral damage.

Because asymptomatic carriers can still be contagious, it’s understandable why many teachers — especially those with asthma or other high-risk medical conditions — are reluctant to return to class right now.

While this column was being written, Florida reported 212 COVID-related deaths in the preceding 24 hours. If a cruise ship sank and that many people drowned, it would make headlines around the world. Now we just shrug, sigh and hope that the numbers drop tomorrow.

So far, more than half a million Floridians have been diagnosed with coronavirus, and more than 9,000 have died. The total of younger patients — and fatalities — is rising.

The DeSantis crew is depending on us to grow numb to the daily count of so many preventable, unnecessary deaths. The unarticulated premise is that the public will tolerate a certain level of casualties in order to restart the economy. Those old folks in the nursing homes are short timers, anyway, right?

Some people actually think that way until a member of their own family ends up in ICU. Then suddenly it’s not just collateral damage.

School leaders in Florida’s hot zones are being as flexible about online learning as Big Government in Tallahassee is allowing them to be. Meanwhile you can’t have anything but empathy for parents who need classrooms open so they can drop off their kids and get back to work.

In some places it’s safe to do that, but in others it’s still too dangerous. There the virus will spread even more, and we’ll have new numbers to count.

And they’ll be coming home with their book bags.

Carl Hiaasen is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may write to him at: The Miami Herald, 3511 NW 91st Ave., Miami, Fla., 33172.