'We're keeping schools open': DeSantis, state on track with reopening, Trump advisor says

Jeffrey Schweers Tallahassee DemocratPublished 3:38 PM EDT Aug 31, 2020On the first day Florida’s K-12 public

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On the first day Florida’s K-12 public education system was fully open, Gov. Ron DeSantis enlisted the aid of President Trump’s new and favorite medical advisor to drive home the message that the state is on the right track and in sync with President Trump.

“The president’s policy is articulated and in direct concert with yours,” Dr. Scott Atlas said during a roundtable discussion at the Cabinet meeting room at the state Capitol that included Surgeon General Scott Rivkees and Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran. “We feel very comfortable with the policy of Governor Desantis because it's right on target.”

Atlas, a radiologist and former fellow of the conservative Hoover Institute who has no background in epidemiology or infectious diseases, recently joined the White House task force on the coronavirus. He’s expressed controversial views favoring "herd immunity" and helped reshape the latest Centers for Disease Control guidelines on testing.

“Florida’s families don’t need dubious advice from a coronavirus ‘expert’ who lacks a background in infectious diseases or epidemiology,” Florida Education Association Vice President Andrew Spar said in an email. “What parents and educators need is clear, transparent information regarding COVID-19 in our schools.”

Those guidelines include a shift away from testing asymptomatic individuals and refocus on people who present symptoms of COVID-19 and are more vulnerable to infection so that schools and businesses can open safely.

“Opening schools is an important part of economic recovery,” DeSantis said.

Part of that is giving parents the option of letting their children stay home and learn via computer. Corcoran said that of the 1.6 million students enrolled in K-12 statewide, about 60% chose brick and mortar schools and 40% chose digital learning.

Those numbers will be updated at the end of this week with the reopening of the 18 remaining school districts.

“The governor talks about choice, but real choice requires complete information,” said Spar. “Rather than focusing on unproven and unsound approaches, educators and parents want real solutions for dealing with the coronavirus outbreaks that already are occurring.”

Monday also saw the lowest number of new daily cases reported since June 15, DeSantis said. The state reported 1,916 new cases since Sunday, bringing the total to 623,471. That’s the 19th day in a row the positivity rate of new cases has been below 10%. The number of deaths increased by 68 for a total of 11,187.

During the nearly 90-minute roundtable discussion, Atlas and DeSantis said the purpose of testing should be to protect the most vulnerable populations and not “document or minimize the spread among asymptomatic low-risk individuals.”

The FEA has sued DeSantis and Corcoran over their policy mandating local school districts reopen classrooms if they wanted to get state funding. Leon County Circuit Judge Charles Dodson ruled the policy unconstitutional and lifted an automatic stay of an emergency order forcing the schools to reopen. The stay was immediately reinstated when the state filed an appeal of the ruling.

In an opinion released Monday, a First District Court of Appeals judge said there were no compelling reasons to vacate the stay in the first place, and the FEA hadn’t shown that reinstatement of the automatic stay would cause irreparable harm. 

The judge also said the state had a substantial likelihood of succeeding on the merits, something Corcoran mentioned at the roundtable discussion.

“That is a large rebuke of the trial court trying to take rights away from parents and students,” Corcoran said.

Some school districts that opened earlier have already reported students and teachers with COVID-19 and have quarantined classrooms.

“There’s going to be cases... and we’re dealing with those,” Corcoran said. “It’s a de minimis amount, one percent of one percent. We’re keeping schools open. We‘re keeping instruction going.”

While several health experts have predicted the reopening of schools and colleges, and letting sports stadiums fill again with spectators will lead to a new surge, DeSantis and Atlas signaled a de-emphasis on broad-scale testing.

Back story: DeSantis pushes Florida into uncertain stage with the coronavirus

Atlas defended the new CDC testing guidelines, and warned against the consequences of widespread testing of non-symptomatic K-12 and college students.

“When you start a program of testing simply to detect positive cases among asymptomatic low risk groups, the outcome of that is to close the schools,” Atlas said. “The goal of testing not to close things.”

He also made the claim that it was "well-documented, incontrovertible, that there is extremely low risk from this illness among children. We can’t deny that. We can’t panic. There is no place for fear in public policy.”

A recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed that children carry as much or more of the COVID-19 virus as adults.

The role of schools should be to mitigate the spread of infection to the more vulnerable, the teachers and staff, by opening windows and having more activities outside, Atlas said.

“We want to protect the high risk people in the schools, protect the high risk teachers, the high risk students if there are some, the high risk staff."

Atlas also opposed the decision of some public universities to conduct widespread testing of college students, who also are at low risk. He noted that 99.8% of deaths are among people over 24, and that only 13% of college staff are over 65.

“If you close colleges you send low risk asymptomatic people into high risk environment by sending them home where their older parents are or into the community,” Atlas said. “It’s antithetical to the logic of the whole process here. College students need to stay in their low risk environment and when they are sick, self isolate.” 

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story included the incorrect first name for Dr. Scott Atlas.

Contact Schweers at jschweers@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter @jeffschweers.

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