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Florida Education Chief On His State's Aggressive Approach To Reopen Schools

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Florida continues to be hit hard by the coronavirus with significant numbers of deaths every day and a high rate of community transmission. But the state is taking one of the most aggressive approaches to getting students back into buildings. Richard Corcoran is the Florida education commissioner, and he joins us now to talk about how they're handling it. Welcome.

RICHARD CORCORAN: Hey, thank you for having me, Ailsa, appreciate it.

CHANG: So as we mentioned, Florida is still seeing high rates of transmission, so why do you and Gov. DeSantis think it is safe for kids to go back to school now?

CORCORAN: Actually, you know, we've turned the corner, and our transmission rate today, it's been on a two-week decline. Our transmission rate today's down in the sixes. And if you look at our - that's our percentage of cases. And if you look at our transmission rate, we have - they were in the top 15 in the country for transmission rate, and we're ahead of every large state - I don't care if it's New York, California, Texas, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois. We're better than all those states. I think Gov. DeSantis has done a fantastic job. It's been very, very strategic, following the facts, following the guidance, following the medical expertise. And what we know is that the consequences of not letting these kids come back into school is so much more drastic, sure and profound than the very low risk - less than seasonal flu - that these kids face by coming in with the risk of COVID. And so, you know...

CHANG: Well, let's talk about that risk. I mean, the state testing labs in Florida are turning around COVID tests in 48 to 72 hours, which is not enough time to respond to a potential case without many more people potentially getting exposed. So what tools will schools have in place for rapid testing?

CORCORAN: Yeah. So we have the district right here in Tampa that - they're partnering with the department of health. They're having a testing apparatus right there on the campus for a teacher. But the bigger thing is if they have symptoms. We've looked at it from the world. We've looked at from the nation. If you have somebody with symptoms, they need to stay home and not come to the campus. The problems in our schools are people - adults mostly - coming into the schools infecting the environment, not the other way around. And so if we can clear out anybody who's sick, anybody who's symptomatic, then that is literally how...

CHANG: Well, let's talk about that. Let's talk about it. Let's say a student or a teacher is symptomatic. Should an entire class be quarantined if that student or teacher tests positive, you think?

CORCORAN: No. You partner with the department of health, and there's clear guidance from the CDC and it's guidance that's been improved and improved and improved. And what you do is you contact trace who - what person or persons or children had exposure to that individual who is COVID positive within 6 feet for more than 15 minutes, and then those people would have to go home and...

CHANG: Well, wouldn't an entire class of students be potentially exposed? I mean...

CORCORAN: No, no, because all these schools are doing different protocols where they have - instead of the teacher walking like we would have done when we were in school up and down the aisles, now they're standing in front of the classroom, 6 feet distance from their students, and they're maintaining that 6 feet balance. And so you're going to have less and less people that are exposed to it if they're symptomatic. And the proof's in the pudding. We have - 65% of our kids are in face-to-face instruction, and almost 95% of our teachers.

CHANG: Richard Corcoran is the Florida education commissioner. Thank you very much.

CORCORAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.