Florida Schools Should Be Mostly Online
Monday, November 30, 2020
Many of you may not be aware that Florida has long been a leader and pioneer in online learning with the founding of Florida Virtual School (FLVS) in 1997 and our continued focus on providing online learning opportunities to students of all ages. We are global leaders in e-learning, simulation, and remote technologies, home to the Interservice/Industry Training, Simulation and Education Conference (I/ITSEC) in Orlando as well as the Institute for Simulation and Training, the Center for Research in Education Simulation Technology (CREST), TeachLivE™, and more at the University of Central Florida, and the Florida High Tech Corridor cooperative with University of Florida and University of South Florida. We have even gone so far as to pass a state law requiring most high school students to take at least one virtual course!
Why, now, do we find ourselves hamstrung during an unprecedented pandemic that should be Florida’s time to shine—a unique opportunity to demonstrate our expertise in remote instruction and e-learning from our homes, while preventing community spread of a deadly virus which repeatedly and indubitably spreads in our schools? We have an estimated 21,596,068 residents as of this year, and already 18,441 have died of COVID-19—over six times the deaths that occurred in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. That’s one of every 1,171 Floridians who have perished.
These are not just meaningless numbers. Even a small city like New Smyrna Beach has lost 24 souls at this rate, and the worst may in fact lie ahead of us. Sources tell me that nine out of 10 schools in Volusia County have had a COVID-19 infection, and in my four weeks as a Social Studies Core Teacher at New Smyrna Beach High School, I have seen numerous students and administrators quarantined for potential exposure, as well as accounts from students who have recovered from COVID-19 that it was the sickest they have ever felt. There are reports that two paraprofessional educators in Volusia County have died of COVID-19, although these are discussed anonymously and in hushed voices for fear of reprisal—an unfortunate sentiment given that transparency is essential toward combating this crisis.
I have heard my fellow citizens explain that their children must be in school in order for them to work at their jobs and make ends meet. This is a legitimate concern, and is a reason I have advocated for comprehensive federal relief directed chiefly to the American people at large. This pandemic is on track to exceed the 420,000 total deaths our nation endured in World War II, in less than one-fourth of the time. We must not give up, nor consign ourselves to accepting the ongoing conflagration while waving the white flag of surrender on the basis of inevitability and small-minded group think. The importance of learning in a face-to-face, in-person setting is overwhelmingly superseded by the importance of not dying and not causing others to die—deaths which are senseless, preventable, and presently occurring, and should not be permitted to continue to occur.
While waiting for federal relief, we must take decisive action at the state, district, and school levels. My friend on the Volusia County School Board tells me that Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran is calling the shots. Well, Mr. Corcoran, where are you? You pride yourself as a public servant, a husband and father to six, and the son of World War II veterans. You say you are a “passionate advocate for improving the education system in Florida” who “fully believes every child can learn and that all children deserve the opportunity to receive a world-class education.” There is a mountain of evidence emerging of the benefits of masking and of avoiding prolonged exposure in indoor spaces to people from outside one’s household. We haven’t even begun to educate our teachers on the science of COVID-19 epidemiology—some of my colleagues believe it is safe to put students in a “mask-free zone” of the classroom with desks precisely six feet apart, and our students and staff regularly flout masking and social distancing guidelines. It is quite difficult to provide a world-class education to a dead child, and furthermore it is best that their siblings, parents, grandparents, extended family, and teachers remain among the living.
As a co-editor of the 2019 academic anthology, Handbook of Research on Emerging Practices and Methods for K–12 Online and Blended Learning, I saw that many states, universities, and school districts across the United States are implementing blended and fully online learning with positive results. Consistency, training, administrative support, instructional design and planning, and ample technology and funding are key to successful e-learning initiatives. Unfortunately, we haven’t done well with these in Florida in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. This needs to change. Although it is impossible to deliver a perfect solution on short notice, we just need something workable. Teachers should not be having to simultaneously broadcast to students at home—in fact teaching fully online would be more sensible. We should also be drawing on the expertise and technological resources of our public institutions including Florida Virtual School and the Center for Distributed Learning at University of Central Florida.
Presently, Volusia County schools are going back in-session for 3 weeks, which will undoubtedly be deadly for some and hazardous for many. Then, we have a winter break in excess of two weeks. Most districts follow a similar schedule. The rest of the school year should be fully or mostly online. Florida is about to surpass one million COVID-19 infections. Fortunately, there is a light at the end of the tunnel with three promising vaccines on the horizon, but in the interim the suffering and deaths of my fellow Floridians is only intensifying. Recent, large-scale research shows that children are super spreaders of coronavirus. There is value in even occasional in-person instruction, but do it outdoors on a cool day, or at 20% capacity for the teachers, students, and parents who want it. Right now, we are sending previously online students back to school. I have 111 students and 105 of them are face-to-face. We already have blood on our hands. We should not seek to fully drench ourselves in blood.
During my Education PhD coursework at the University of Central Florida, I specialized in instructional design, teaching over 300 future teachers about educational technology in blended and fully online settings, working on e-learning projects at national, interdisciplinary, local, and collaborative levels, and working alongside in-service educators and administrators in doctoral courses. Some were assistant principals for schools who funded satellite Internet connections via USB dongles for students to work from home, on their school-provided laptops, in households that did not have reliable Internet connections (Spectrum cable Internet has now gone up to $69.99 per month here). We can provide remote instruction even for disadvantaged and marginalized students with the proper technology and funding. When there’s a hurricane, why is it that we are able to mobilize massive evacuations, cancel school, cancel football games, and suspend tolls on toll roads, for a disaster that kills so few people in comparison? Let’s give coronavirus the hurricane treatment.
Veteran teachers are retiring specifically because of the COVID-19 pandemic. They are being forced to make a choice: Your money or your life? I started as a Social Studies Core Teacher at New Smyrna Beach High School on October 26, 2020 because the prior teacher resigned mid-year after more than two decades of service. My dissertation was on the Florida Retirement System. She and other teachers are giving up well over $100,000 each, because to receive a full pension you must work 30 years or wait until age 62. Although making way for new teachers is nice, and new teachers are much cheaper thanks to a decimation of retirement benefits orchestrated by the Florida legislature in 2011, the circumstances under which we are doing so are abhorrent. Our schools are in widespread upheaval, and it is clear that the teaching and learning that is occurring is severely diminished. Our classes are being disrupted with standardized testing make-ups and levels of truancy that are unprecedented in recent memory. We are losing veteran educators and bleeding institutional knowledge. Various people are haphazardly being confined to quarantine, and our teaching schedules continue to morph like Jell-O. At this point, it is clear to all who judiciously weigh the totality of the situation that Florida schools should turn to remote learning for the remainder of the 2020–2021 school year.
Dr. Richard Thripp
Social Studies Core Teacher
New Smyrna Beach High School