By Emily Block, Florida Times-Union
Public education stakeholders organized a drive-in rally Monday afternoon, asking Duval County Public Schools to revise its back-to-school plan and keep all instruction virtual until COVID-19 cases decrease to zero.
Dressed in a blue blazer and matching skirt, strings of pearls and a shaggy wig shaped into a bob haircut, Bradley Fisher stepped out of his car, joining colleagues in the grassy lot across from Maxwell House Monday afternoon.
The Andrew Jackson High School drama teacher had taken on a new character — Secretary of Education Betsy Devos. Or in his words, “Beasty DeVos,” citing her endorsements to reopen schools amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Fisher was one of dozens of teachers, parents and local education stakeholders who gathered for a rally against Duval County Public Schools’ plan to reopen in-person schooling next month.
Horns honked in unison, supporting as speakers ranging from teachers and students to political candidates including Ben Marcus, Joshua Hicks and Angie Nixon — who recently recovered from COVID-19 — took the mic.
“A lot of kids are going to be running around spreading this disease and it’s going to turn schools into a hotspot for this virus,” Lyliekairi Dixon, a local middle school student, said. “I have three people at my house that if they were exposed to this disease, they could die … so I’m going to be online this year and I encourage everyone to do the same.”
Others, like Savannah Ridgley, a science teacher at Raines High, drew blue bubble letters on the back window of her Hyundai Accent.
“MY STUDENTS STILL CAN’T LEARN IF WE DIE,” she wrote.
According to the two grassroots groups that organized the rally — Duval for a Safe Return to Campus and the Duval Schools Pandemic Solutions Team — the “Day of Action Against Inaction” was hosted with the intention of telling school district officials, the state department of education, Gov. Ron DeSantis and state education commissioner Richard Corcoran that teachers and families don’t intend to return to school “until it is safe.”
Still, not everyone wants or supports fully online learning.
According to Duval County Parents for Equitable Choice Task Force — a Facebook group created for local stakeholders who disagree with the Duval for a Safe Return to Campus and the Duval Schools Pandemic Solutions Team viewpoints — in-person schooling is necessary.
“We support multiple options post-COVID for educating our children,” the private Facebook group’s description said. “We do not support forcing masks in the classroom,” the group description added, offering that families who disagree can opt for one of the back-to-school plan’s at-home options.
But teachers say that’s part of the issue.
A point that came up repeatedly at last week’s School Board meeting to approve the district’s plan, was that while masks are required according to the district, they won’t be enforced with disciplinary action.
And for teachers — who are largely unable to work from home under the existing back-to-school plan, that’s a concern.
“You can’t learn if you’re in the hospital, or attending your grandmother’s funeral, or there are no substitutes because there are so many teachers hospitalized,” Michelle Moore, a teacher of 12 years said at last week’s School Board meeting while pleading for a mask mandate.
The pleas extend past teachers. School bus drivers, who attended Monday’s rally and last week’s meeting shared concerns about the lack of mask-wearing enforcement.
A news release publicized ahead of Monday’s rally detailed a list of organizers’ demands for the school district, including fully online instruction for all grade levels for the first nine weeks of school, rigorous COVID-19 testing and tracing and at least 14 days of no new COVID-19 cases locally.
The requests come less than a week after the School Board voted to approve a back-to-school plan that included in-person schooling options for all grade levels and a delayed start to the school year by 10 days.
The rally took place the same day new statistics revealed that hospitalizations relating to COVID-19 were increasing among school-aged children. The state COVID-19 death toll is also rising with children — less than two weeks ago, a 9-year-old girl out of Putnam County became the youngest in the state to die from the coronavirus.
Kaysyn Jones, a rising junior at Douglas Anderson School of the Arts took the mic. She spoke about her friends, some with asthma, some with anemia; and her teachers, some with pre-existing conditions, some older.
“If schools reopen, any and all of them could die and I am not willing to lose any of those people. They’re all precious and they mean something amazing to this world,” Jones said. “I’m a healthy child but I’m not going to let my personal safety come between my empathy for my classmates here and across Florida. They’re all my peers. They’re all my classmates.”