Governor DeSantis puts handcuffs on educators, puts lives at risk
John W. White
Florida is in a state of emergency. The most recent data shows COVID infection rates in Florida to exceed what they were at the height of the pandemic last year. Our hospitals are at or above capacity and emergency room doctors are warning that the problem will get dramatically worse. And this time around, our fellow citizens are suffering from an even more virulent strain of the virus. To be clear, there is a plethora of data showing that the Delta variant is much more contagious than the previous variant and that it can be transmitted by both the vaccinated and the unvaccinated. In addition, it is also clear from the scientific data that COVID infections have serious long-term effects for a significant number of people and in particular for children who contract the virus. Yet, as real people get very sick, suffer the lingering effects of the disease, and die, our state government has ruthlessly chosen to pretend that this crisis is fabricated and exaggerated. They have mandated – and in some cases codified into law – regressive policies that allow the virus to thrive and put our citizens at risk. Nowhere is this more true than in the field of public education.
A good half of the estimated three million students in K-12 schools in our state are not yet eligible for the COVID vaccine. And many students between the ages of 12 and 18 are still not vaccinated because, in part, some politicians and some media have told their parents to be wary of science. Despite this data, Governor DeSantis has banned school districts from imposing masks, a simple, inexpensive and effective prevention. In addition, he promised severe financial penalties for district leaders brave enough to stand up to protect the children in their care and he threatened to withhold a percentage of future state funds from any non-compliant district. He, in other words, promised to punish the students because their teachers, principals and superintendents took simple steps to protect the children.
Here at the state university level, the governor and the board of governors have taken a similar position. Our faculty and students have been told we need to get back to normal this fall, which means most of our classes need to be taught face-to-face. At the same time, however, our university and our eleven sister institutions across the SUS have been banned from requiring COVID vaccinations as well as the myriad of other vaccinations we need. We have been prohibited from requiring COVID testing for students coming to live in our dorms. We were prohibited from requiring masks to be worn in our classrooms and offices. And we have also been prohibited from changing the way lessons are delivered to teachers who may have young children, immunocompromised partners, or elderly parents at home. Through their terms of office, the Board of Governors has expressed to our faculty and students that a “return to normalcy” is more important than our health or the health of our families. And just as we’ve seen in the K-12 realm, our universities have been told to expect serious financial ramifications – retaliation if you will – if we attempt to do the ethical and safe thing to ignore. all or part of these mandates. Frankly speaking, educators in the state of Florida are subject to some sort of extortion: we can choose to do what’s right for our community (and what the science advocates) or we can risk a major loss of funding. , which in turn means the loss of student opportunities, teaching jobs and faculty jobs. All in all, this is an example of the worst kind of partisan politics; it places a decidedly data-less political agenda above the well-being of our educators and students.
As a faculty member who loves his students, colleagues, and college – and as a parent of an elementary-age child in our schools, I implore the Governor and the Florida Department of Education to put aside play this political game and do the right thing for our students and their teachers. By the right thing, I mean it’s time to follow the science. In our current contexts, that means making vaccinations mandatory, it means demanding masks until the pandemic is under control, and it means promoting scientific evidence rather than misleading hyperbole.
Our teachers, whether they are in K-12 schools, state colleges, or state universities, deserve better. Most importantly, our students – the future of our state and the future of our nation – deserve better. It is time for our leaders to do the right thing.
John W. White is Professor of Education and President of the University of North Florida Faculty Association