Pre-K enrollment plummets, spring plans approved, mask policy upheld, school solar panels and more

Pre-K enrollment decline: Pre-kindergarten enrollment in the state is sharply lower this year than last and far below the already pessimistic projections from August because of the coronavirus pandemic, according to new estimates from the state. About 41,000 fewer students than expected are now enrolled, which is more than 2.5 times the projected 15,000 decline. Only 54 percent of eligible pre-K children are enrolled, a drop from the 71 percent who attended last year. But state economists are optimistic that the numbers will rebound for the 2021-2022 school year as more Americans get the vaccination shots. “We’re having to assume that as soon as things get back to normal, the schooling choices by parents would return to normal,” said Amy Baker, coordinator of the state Office of Economic & Demographic Research. Politico Florida.

Spring education plans: The Florida Department of Education has begun approving spring semester education plans for school districts. Getting sign-off from the state so far this week are the plans for the Bay, Clay, Indian River, Lake, Leon and Monroe school districts. Plans from each state district were due Tuesday to be reviewed and approved by the state, or sent back for revisions. Florida Department of Education. WPTV.

Around the state: A Hillsborough circuit judge has upheld the school district’s policy requiring students and employees to wear face masks in schools, a Chinese language teacher is named Pasco County’s teacher of the year, a Clay County middle school student is being recognized for a song he wrote after the death of George Floyd, and the Martin County School Board and the FEA are urging Gov. Ron DeSantis to put teachers on the priority list for early coronavirus vaccinations. Here are details about those stories and other developments from the state’s districts and private schools, and colleges and universities:

Miami-Dade: For the first time, the Miami-Dade County School District will distribute meals to students and children under the age of 18 over the winter holiday break. “Food insecurity continues to be a sad reality in our community,” said Superintendent Alberto Carvalho. “We recognize during this pandemic many families are struggling.” More than 1.2 million meals were distributed Wednesday. Similar food distributions are being held around the state. Miami Herald. WUSF. WMFE.

Hillsborough: A circuit judge has ruled that the school district’s policy requiring students and employees to wear face masks in schools is not unreasonable and not discriminatory. A group of parents filed a lawsuit against the policy, alleging that it forced their children to wear masks, which they claimed are ineffective and could be harmful, or receive an inferior education by being forced into learning remotely. Judge Martha J. Cook said that the “school board had a rational basis for implementing the face covering requirement” and its “face mask requirement bears a reasonable relationship to a valid governmental objective.” Tampa Bay Times. WTSP. WTVT.

Orange: Starting March 1, Florida schools will be required to teach students about the 1920 Ocoee Massacre, in which African-Americans were beaten and killed and their homes burned by white men after a black man tried to vote in the presidential election. But what will be taught and how is still undetermined. Orlando Sentinel.

Pasco: Yan Li Gazda, who teaches the Chinese language at Seven Springs Middle School, has been named the Pasco County School District’s teacher of the year. He is the district’s only Chinese language teacher. “America allows me to do the best of me,” he said. “I could not have done this in another place.” Tampa Bay Times.

Brevard: The school district is partnering with the local chapter of the national veterans group called Rolling Thunder to have black POW/MIA flags flying at all 84 district schools starting next month. The flag-raisings will serve as an “educational tool” to teach students about “military service and sacrifice,” said district spokesman Russell Bruhn. Florida Today.

Volusia: The number of students learning remotely in Volusia schools has dropped from 16,000 when the school year began to about 8,700 by Dec. 1. District officials expect that number to continue to fall as families make their learning choices for the second semester that begins Jan. 26. Daytona Beach News-Journal.

St. Lucie, Martin, Indian River: Martin County School Board members are asking Gov. DeSantis to move their teachers to the front of the line for vaccinations. Doing so would remove one source of stress. Teachers also said they are “exhausted” from teaching in-person and online students simultaneously. “Honestly, I thought it was going to be a couple of months and it’s been half a year and it’s unstainable,” said Karen Resciniti, president of the teachers union. “It is absolutely exhausting.” WPEC. WPTV. The Florida Education Association, a statewide teachers union, is also lobbying for teachers around the state to get early vaccinations. WTXL.

Marion: A science teacher has collected nearly $100,000 in grants toward his goal of equipping an updated science lab at for the district. Ocala Vanguard High School’s Euan Hunter won a three-year lease for a car when he was named the district’s teacher of the year of January. But he asked the dealer to instead donate the value of the lease, $10,000, to help modernize the science lab at the Silver River Museum. Since then Hunter has applied for and received about two-dozen other grants he’s using to buy equipment. Ocala Star-Banner.

Clay: A 13-year-old online student at Oakleaf Junior High in Orange Park is getting attention nationally for the song he wrote about the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minnesota police officer. Keedron Bryant was moved by the event to write I Just Want to Live, which has gone viral and drawn the attention of such celebrities as Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey, LeBron James, Jay-Z, Beyonce and Ellen DeGeneres. It also prompted the Warner record label to sign him to a recording contract. Clay Today.

Okaloosa, Walton: Thirty-five of the Okaloosa County School District’s 51 public and private schools reported coronavirus cases between Dec. 6-12, according to county health officials. In Walton County, nine of 19 schools reported cases. Northwest Florida Daily News. Construction on the K-8 Liza Jackson Preparatory School in Okaloosa County is on schedule. School administrators are moving in June 15, and up to 1,000 students are expected next fall. It’s the first new school built in Fort Walton Beach since 1969. Northwest Florida Daily News.

Citrus: County commissioners turned down a request from the Crystal River United Methodist Church to have flashing lights installed on County Road 495 to alert motorists of children attending its school, but agreed to work on a policy to govern future requests from private schools and day-care centers. The cost of the lights would be about $25,000. Citrus County Chronicle.

Colleges and universities: The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to review a case that removed the caps on education-related compensation and benefits that some Division I athletes can receive. A lower court barred the NCAA from placing restrictions on what compensation Division I football and basketball players can receive from those schools. The NCAA said the lower court decision has blurred “the line between student-athletes and professionals.” Associated Press. Politico. Education Week. Santa Fe College in Gainesville has received its largest donation ever, $40 million from philanthropist MacKenzie Scott. The gift was part of more than $4 billion in donations she’s made in the past four months. In June, Scott received $38 billion in a divorce settlement with Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, and a month later she vowed to give at least half of it to charity. Gainesville Sun.

Around the nation: A projected decline in U.S. high school graduation rates won’t happen until after 2025, according to recent projections, and is likely to be less than anticipated. Researchers said that’s because the graduation rates of minority students will continue to improve. K-12 Dive. About 3 million students who were expected in U.S. schools this year have not enrolled anywhere. Their absence has serious implications for their education and for school districts, which receive money from their states based on the number of students they’re educating. The 74. U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos talks about her tenure, and said her greatest accomplishment was “changing the national conversation around what K-12 education can and should be. The concept of school choice is more popular across racial, ethnic and political lines than ever before.” Education Week.

In the Legislature: A bill that would allow school districts to have solar energy panels on school properties has once again been filed in the Legislature. S.B. 198 would give districts the authority to enter into contracts with solar vendors to set up their own net metering programs, with power generated by the panels being used by schools and any unused power being sent back to utilities for credits. Sen. Lori Berman, D-Lantana, estimates the bill would help replace education funds that could be cut as the Legislature tries to close a projected $2.7 billion state budget deficit. Spectrum News 13.

Education podcasts: Step Up For Students president Doug Tuthill and the executive editor of its website redefinED, Matthew Ladner, talk about education savings accounts and how they can help parents see the benefits of multivendor education, and more. redefinED.

Opinions on schools: The Sarasota County School District has woefully failed to meet that basic responsibility with the 100-plus children it put in a program that clearly did not fit their educational needs. It is now incumbent on district officials to do whatever must be done to prevent such a breathtaking act of irresponsibility from ever happening again. Sarasota Herald-Tribune. Testing students this year is counterproductive because it potentially demoralizes students and teachers without addressing the grave problems exacerbated by the pandemic. Lorrie A. Shepard, Education Week.