In the early stage of the then-novel COVID-pandemic, Gov. Ron DeSantis and his administration made an urgent decision at a fearful time: He ordered public schools across the state to shut down — first for an extended spring break in March 2020 and then for the rest of the school year.
But viewers watching DeSantis’ new statewide TV-and-digital campaign ad may not know that schools were initially locked down. The political ad simply showed a young school-aged kid looking into the camera to thank DeSantis.
“You let me go to school,” the child said, with no other context. The ad also shows other student-aged characters and someone who appears to be a teacher, along with some other DeSantis supporters.
The current political dialogue for the governor is to highlight how much he has pushed to open schools, but that didn’t happen until at least the summer of 2020, and some districts were still allowing remote learning even after schools were required to open.
So while the ad is not necessarily a lie, it does not tell the whole story of DeSantis’ education policy over the course of the pandemic — leading to questions as to when campaign ads cross over from highlighting attributes of a political candidate into potentially misleading constituents.
“Ads are designed by political candidates to serve their political agenda; they are not always based on facts or complete pictures,” Andrew Spar, president of the Florida Education Association, told the Phoenix.
For Robin Taub Williams, a former educator and president of the Democratic Public Education Caucus of Manasota, the ad is “misleading,” and that DeSantis did initially close schools.
“But then I guess he decided, politically, it was best for him to open everything up and throw science out the window — throw caution out the window,” she told the Phoenix.
On March 1, 2020, DeSantis announced that two COVID cases had been identified in Florida, and moved to call a state of emergency for Florida.
On March 23, 2020, then-Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran issued an emergency order under the Department of Education that recommended school districts should “keep their facilities closed except to staff and teachers” through April 14, 2020, and instructed schools to continue educating students while at home “through non-classroom-based methods.” Many Florida public schools shifted to virtual instruction during this time.
On April 18, 2020, DeSantis announced in a press conference that schools would “continue with distance learning for the duration of the school year,” with public school students out for the tail end of the 2019-20 school year.
But the recent ad does not reflect that reality.
Suzanne Robbins, an assistant instructional professor at University of Florida’s Department of Political Science, told the Phoenix that leaving out certain details in a campaign ad will occur.
“While the ads will be fact checked by various organizations… leaving information out is not uncommon; it’s an old tactic,” she said in an email to the Phoenix.
“It doesn’t matter if it is a half-truth, because the audience for the ad will likely empathize with the message,” she added.
On July 6, 2020, then-Commissioner Corcoran issued a new executive order that called for the reopening of brick-and-mortar schools. The order required all school districts to reopen, but permitted flexibility so that school districts could continue to offer remote learning options as the early days of the COVID pandemic raged on, the Phoenix previously reported.
The new order, supported by DeSantis, led to the FEA suing the governor and state education officials, alleging that the move overstepped the authority of local school boards granted by the Florida Constitution to operate schools.
And at the time, some districts like Miami-Dade County were interested in keeping schools closed for longer to protect their students, the Phoenix reported at the time.
Ultimately, all school districts did open by October, 2020, and the lawsuit fizzled out. A November 2020 order from Commissioner Corcoran ensured that schools would stay open through the remainder of the 2020-21 school year, though parents could still choose remote learning at the time.
Since then, DeSantis has done little to remind the public that he had shut down schools during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.
However, the governor has expressed regret at some press conferences and media appearances over the shutdown of schools early on. And he’s vowed to keep schools open now and in the future.
The ad also raises questions about who gets featured in political campaigns and how are they chosen.
For example, the young boy says that DeSantis let him go to school, and the boy stands with a women who says “You (DeSantis) gave me a voice.”
The assumption is that the woman represents the mother of that child, but it is not clear if they are actually related or have connection to Florida schools at all.
Later in the ad, someone representing a Florida teacher saying, “you raised our pay.”
“Is the person a teacher? I don’t know,” Spar said, noting that there are teachers in Florida who do support DeSantis.
“I would imagine he’s not going to put someone out there who’s not a teacher — I’d be surprised. But the question I would also put out is ‘are they a public school teacher?’” he asked.
That’s not clear in the ad either. The Florida Phoenix reached out to the DeSantis campaign and the Republican Party of Florida for clarity on who is featured in the ad and has not yet received a response.
“They’re definitely made to depict certain kinds of people, but we have no way of knowing,” said Kobie Christian, spokesman with the Florida Democratic Party.
“I don’t think that DeSantis or the Republican Party of Florida have very high standards when it comes to honesty in their ads,” he said.
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