FLORIDA—The state is bracing for a massive influx of new students to enroll in its schools in the wake of a Zika virus outbreak that has already seen the number of students enrolled in public schools fall to its lowest level in over a decade.
In the wake in January of a statewide lockdown, state officials announced a $7.9 billion plan to improve and expand public education in the state, a move that has left the nation’s fifth-largest school system reeling and many parents questioning whether the state will be able to keep its schools open.
In a report to be released Monday, Florida Education Commissioner Michael Fuchs said the state expects to enroll roughly 1.7 million new students over the next three years, and that by 2019, he said, “we’ll be able and willing to open up about 1,400 new public schools and have more students enrolled than we have now.”
Fuchs noted that Florida has seen an increase in the number and number of parents who have sent their children to public schools since the outbreak, and said he expected that trend to continue in the next year or so.
Fuchs also said the plan will not cost the state an estimated $10 million in operating costs.
In addition to more classes being offered online, Fuchs called for the creation of a “virtual learning experience” to allow parents to access the state’s online learning tools, such as the online learning service for grades 6 through 12.
In other words, if you don’t have access to a laptop or tablet, you’ll be getting the same information that you would if you were on campus, Fuss said.
The plan will also see the creation or expansion of more classroom facilities, including additional student parking lots, classrooms, libraries, computer labs and office space, FUSS said.
In some cases, he added, “they’re going to be able access the internet to learn about things they may not be able before.”
Schools will also be required to hire additional staff members to assist with student enrollment and help them “get their classes back online,” he said.
Some schools have already seen students drop out of classes, though not all, because of the spread of the virus, and Fuchs urged the state to find other ways to increase enrollment.
“What I don’t want to do is leave students with no way to learn and not have a way to enroll,” Fuss told reporters after announcing the plan.
“We’re going do that by creating additional classrooms, but we’re going also making sure there’s a way for them to be re-accommodated so that they can be reintegrated back into their regular classes.”
In addition, Fushes office is also working on an expansion of a local district to allow more students to receive free meals and to allow them to attend the state school system’s summer programs.
FUSSES HEARD FROM PARENTS and other educators that the state was underperforming on the state standardized test, which has seen its scores drop since the beginning of the outbreak.
He also said it was important to emphasize that the schools were not closed, and instead, that the federal government is providing grants and scholarships to help schools reopen.
The schools have had to shut down in the past due to other state and federal restrictions, including an expansion that was announced in December.
In April, Gov.
Rick Scott signed a law that requires the state schools to offer online learning, and also said he would be looking at ways to expand the statewide emergency preparedness program.
“The state has to work with all stakeholders to get this done,” Fuchs told reporters.
Fuss also said that Florida had been able to reopen about 30 schools during the first three weeks of March, but “we’re not ready to reopen that many schools right now.”
He said the closures were needed to allow teachers to “make sure the system is prepared for what we’re about to face.”
He also stressed that many of the state government offices will remain open, as they did in January.
“But we’re also going to do everything we can to close as many of those schools as we can,” FUSCH said.
“So this is not an emergency, this is a very important day in the history of Florida.
We’re going in to a time of unprecedented national uncertainty and we have to make sure we’re doing everything we possibly can to stay ahead of it.”
As of March 16, about 4,000 students remained enrolled at the state system, according to FUSS’ office.
It was unclear how many students would be able, or whether any students would return.
FUSHS spokesperson Rebecca Miller said she could not comment on the specifics of the plan because of privacy laws.
A spokeswoman for Florida Gov.
Scott said the governor is not aware of any new enrollment plans and is confident in the current system.
The Florida Department of Health said it had no information about the planned closures.
As of last week, about 3,000 public schools were still open, with about 1