Florida Teachers Union Leader: 'We Do Not Want To Be The Petri Dish For America' : Coronavirus Updates NPR's Rachel Martin speaks with Fedrick Ingram, head of the Florida Education Association, about the state's decision to require schools to reopen this fall with in-person classes.

Florida Teachers Union Leader: 'We Do Not Want To Be The Petri Dish For America'

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There are about 60,000 new coronavirus cases every single day in this country. Even so, President Trump is pushing all schools to open to full-time, in-person learning. Florida was one of the first states to say it will comply. That state's Department of Education this week announced that schools will be required to open at least five days per week for all students starting in August. Here's how Governor Ron DeSantis defended the decision.


RON DESANTIS: If fast food and Walmart and Home Depot - and I do all that, so I'm not, like, looking down on it. But if all that is essential, then educating our kids is absolutely essential. And they have been put to the back of the line in some respects.

MARTIN: So what do Florida teachers make of this decision? We've got Fedrick Ingram with us this morning. He's a longtime teacher in the Miami-Dade County school system, and he is the president of the Florida Education Association, which is the largest teachers union in Florida. Thank you so much for being with us this morning.

FEDRICK INGRAM: Hi. Good morning, and thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Your union represents tens of thousands of teachers. What are you hearing from some of them about the governor's decision to open school full time, in-person classes?

INGRAM: Sure. Well, listen, our teachers here in Florida have high angst. They are scared and, frankly, they're angry because they see a very irresponsible thought process in which to open our schools. We're at the epicenter here in Florida, meaning we have 8,900 new cases basically a day over the last 20 days. It took us 14 days to get from 100,000 to 200,000 cases here in the state of Florida. And our governor seems to have blinders on and this hell or high water opening for our schools. And he has just produced a plan that is not comprehensive at all.

MARTIN: We heard from the superintendent of schools in Fulton County, Ga., earlier this week who said that some of his teachers are choosing early retirement or just choosing to leave teaching altogether, to find something else to do for a living because of this. Are you hearing any of that?

INGRAM: Well, sure, we're hearing some of that. But it gets worse here in Florida because last school year, we started our school year with 3,000 of our classrooms that did not have a certified teacher. We already have a teacher shortage here. And so if our governor continues to, you know, push this go-it-alone attitude, I'm sure that people are going to exit the field of education, which is going to hurt children here in Florida.

MARTIN: What about you personally? I mean, what goes through your mind when you think about the idea of getting back into the classroom? Are you worried about the health risks?

INGRAM: Well, it's tough. It's tough for everybody involved in a state where you have places where we can't go to the beach, places where gyms are closed, places where you can't congregate in restaurants more than 25%. We think that it's OK to pack in 100 students or in some cases thousands of students in a confined area and not have this super spread event or community spread or hurt family members at home. This is going to be a problem for us. And so we're all thinking, contemplating, but we're pushing really hard in trying to get this governor to think rationally.

MARTIN: But it's not like all schools are just going to open as is, right? Like, aren't individual districts coming up with some kind of plan, either smaller classroom sizes, keeping kids in the same homeroom so they're not changing and going to different teachers? Aren't there ways that schools are trying to mitigate the risk that could help?

INGRAM: Sure. We have 67 school districts here in the state of Florida. And we're going to have 67 different plans. And that's unfortunate because we're not getting any guidance, any regulations that say we have to do this, things that are guided by science. Listen, we have to attend to social distancing, handwashing stations, smaller class sizes. And we know that that's going to cost money. There has been no words from our governor or our federal government to say, listen, we know that it's going to cost more in this new normal to educate our kids than less money. And so in the void of a plan, yes, we have some courageous superintendents, some courageous school boards and courageous union leaders who are really trying to get together. But here again, we open school in four weeks here in the state of Florida, and we do not want to be the petri dish for America.

MARTIN: I don't have to tell you that online learning that happened the last couple of months in most places at the end of the last school year was pretty much a disaster in most of the country. I mean, if that happens, if schools aren't allowed to open until there's a vaccine, a whole generation of kids could be set back in their education for a long time. I mean, what's the alternative?

INGRAM: So we believe that schools can open. Schools can open if they are safe. Schools can open if they have the funding behind them. And we're not saying that schools should be closed until we have a vaccine. Listen, it's going to take a comprehensive plan. And there are things that we can do. Teachers know better than anybody else that the magic happens when you have a teacher and a student that has a symbiotic relationship, that's cultivating relationships. And we want to be back in school. Listen, the first-grade teacher, they can't wait. We get giddy at this time of year because we start to make plans all summer; the band director, the football coach who can't wait to inspire his kids. And all these things are on hold right now. But we need to sit down together. The teachers' voices haven't been heard. We seem to have a governor who is not guided by science at all who is go it alone, being politically incorrect and being driven by the economy. And we should be driven by grace and compassion.

MARTIN: May I ask - if you can, are you able to articulate exactly what measures should be put in place that would make teachers more comfortable?

INGRAM: Yes. So I would tell the president of the United States to pass the Heroes Act. We need money and funding all across this country to help our classrooms. Two, we need to have health care officials leading the way. And three, we need to partner with our governors, with our teacher leaders and unions to make a comprehensive plan and bring the parents' voices to bear.

MARTIN: Fedrick Ingram is the president of the Florida Education Association. Thank you so much for your time.

INGRAM: Thank you.

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