Choice bill drawing attention, Broward accused of spying on teachers, the Publix vaccine factor and more

A major school choice issue: The bill that would streamline the state’s K-12 scholarship programs and create education savings accounts for students is drawing attention in the legislative session that begins March 2. On one side are Republicans and education choice advocates who say the bill would simplify the process of obtaining a scholarship for students and is the natural step in the two-decade progression of education choice. On the other are many Democrats and teachers unions who oppose the use of public funds for private and religious schools and question whether the timing is right in a pandemic. “I think our priority needs to be us looking at students who are not succeeding due to the COVID-19 slump that exists right now,” said state Sen. Shevrin Jones, a Democrat from Broward County who is the vice chair of the Senate Education Committee, where the bill will get its first hearing. Miami Herald and Tampa Bay Times.

More from the Legislature: The Senate has scheduled committee time next week to hear presentations about Gov. Ron DeSantis’ 2021-2022 budget — an indication the proposal will be released soon. Meanwhile, tax revenues were up in December. It was the state’s best month since the pandemic began. News Service of Florida. A bill that would give businesses, educational institutions and others protection from coronavirus lawsuits has been approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee. Associated Press. The Senate Education Committee approved a bill that would require universities to make annual assessments to ensure that their faculties have a wide variety of political philosophies and prohibit schools from denying approval for controversial speakers to talk on campus. Florida Politics. Politico Florida. The names of people applying to become a state university or college president would be exempt from public records under a bill approved Tuesday by the Senate Education Committee. WJXT. The Florida Department of Transportation would have to develop a set of standards to determine hazardous walking conditions to schools under House bill filed this month. Pensacola News Journal. Minors would have to wear closed-toed shoes to legally drive under a bill introduced in the Florida House. The proposal was suggested by high school student Ethan Douglas of Wellington high School. Florida Politics.

Coronavirus spread: The spread of the coronavirus in schools appears to be limited when the proper safety precautions such as face masks and social distancing are maintained, suggests a report released Tuesday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The conclusion was drawn after a study of virus transmission in K-12 schools in Wood County, Wis. That district, which has 5,530 students and staff in 17 schools, has a student masking compliance of 92 percent, requires staff to wear masks, keeps classrooms between 11 and 20 students, and kept different groups of students separated as much as possible. Only 7 of 191 coronavirus cases reported between Aug. 31 and Nov. 29 were spread among students in schools, the CDC said. The transmission rate of 3.7 percent was far below that of the surrounding communities. Wall Street Journal. NPR. A December high school wrestling tournament in Florida that had 130 competitors, coaches and referees was a superspreader event, according to a CDC report. One person died, 38 coronavirus cases were confirmed and 1,700 in-person school days were lost across three counties. The counties were not identified. News Service of Florida.

Around the state: Broward’s teachers union said the school district spied on teachers working remotely to help make their case before an arbitrator over a lawsuit, the state’s arrangement with Publix has been an impediment in Palm Beach school employees over 65 from being vaccinated, the former principal at a Citrus County charter school is under investigation for undisclosed reasons, the teacher of the year is named in Indian River County, and Florida’s universities were judged among the best in the country in the recent U.S. News & World Report’s rankings for online education programs. Here are details about those stories and other developments from the state’s districts and private schools, and colleges and universities:

Broward: The teachers union is accusing the district of “spying” on teachers working remotely by reviewing their Facebook pages and social media posts to see if they’ve been traveling, going to parties or failing to wear a mask around people. The district compiled the information and used it during a hearing last week in which an arbitrator was deciding the validity of teachers’ lawsuit against the district for ordering about 1,700 remote teachers to return to classrooms. “If individuals on remote assignment can go to a Biden rally or to Animal Kingdom or to a luncheon, they can safely return to in-person teaching,” argued Stephanie Marchman, a lawyer representing the district. The arbitrator ruled that the district can order the teachers back but had to inform the union how the decisions were made. Sun Sentinel. WPLG.

Palm Beach: About 1,100 teachers and other district employees over the age of 65 are still waiting for appointments to get vaccinated against the coronavirus. In many counties, the school district is partnering with health officials to give the shots. But in Palm Beach County, the vaccine is being administered by Publix through a pilot program arranged by the state, not health officials. In an email to eligible employees, Superintendent Donald Fennoy wrote, “While I continue to advocate for you, you should also be proactive in pursuing an appointment yourself if you would like to receive the vaccine,” and he included a list of Publix locations that are providing shots. Palm Beach Post.

Pinellas: The school district is partnering with the University of South Florida to start a program this fall intended to increase the number of men of color teaching in local elementary schools. “Call Me MISTER,” an acronym for mentors instructing students toward effective role models, will begin at USF St. Petersburg with the goal of expanding it to other USF campuses. “The teaching field has a dire underrepresentation of men of color,” said Brenda Walker, the interim associate dean of the College of Education at USF St. Petersburg. “There’s a 2 percent rate of African American men who are teachers.” WFTS.

Lee: The school board approved the district’s plans to pursue the purchases of three properties for about $5 million. The land could be used for facilities that expand vocational education, improve kindergarten readiness and reduce the number of portable classrooms at schools in the eastern part of the county. If the district wants to follow through on the purchases, the board will have to approve. “It really kind of gets us rolling into the due diligence or feasibility part, so that we can determine what, if any, of both of these properties will serve the purposes that we need for our schools,” said Dominic Gemelli, the district’s director of planning, growth and capacity. Fort Myers News-Press. A former math teacher at Island Coast High School in Cape Coral has been banned from teaching in Florida for 10 years for having a romantic relationship with a student. Denise Ayers resigned in 2018 after the district reported the allegations to the sheriff’s department and the Department of Education. WFTX.

Osceola: A school resource officer is under investigation after a student video posted on social media showed him slamming a Liberty High School student to the ground. The student’s head hit a sidewalk and she appeared to be knocked unconscious. A sheriff’s office spokeswoman said the officer was “in the process of trying to stop the student from fighting another student in the hallway,” and that the department was investigating the use of force. Orlando Sentinel. WKMG. WOFL. WFTV.

Lake: School board members approved a four-year contract for Superintendent Diane Kornegay that will give her 1 percent pay increases in each of the last three years. Her $195,000 salary won’t change this year. Board chair Bill Mathias said the superintendent had not gotten a raise since being hired in 2017, and when he approached her, “right off the bat, she told me, ‘I do not want a raise. I’m concerned about the district. I’m concerned about the finances.’ That made life a lot easier.” Daily Commercial.

St. Johns: Early release days are resuming today in the school district, Superintendent Tim Forson has announced. School days end an hour early every Wednesday. WJAX.

Sarasota: The school district and county commission are partnering to make improvements at three schools so they can be used as hurricane shelters. The county is investing $444,555 to be added to a $1 million grant from the state to upgrade the wind impact protection for all windows, add mesh impact barriers in exterior areas and improve drainage systems at North Port High, Gulf Gate Elementary and Taylor Ranch Elementary. Sarasota Herald-Tribune. The school board has hired the law firm of Shumaker, Loop & Kendrick to represent the district. Dan DeLeo will head the legal team, though Patrick Duggan will handle most of the day-to-day duties. The firm replaces board attorney Art Hardy, who is retiring. Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

Escambia: The school district has confirmed it stopped notifying teachers and parents about every positive coronavirus after the winter break. Superintendent Tim Smith said the policy was changed to notify only close contacts because some parents were being called several times a day. He said anyone interested in school-specific cases can check the weekly state report. WEAR.

Clay: Former district police officer Greg Lott, who retired in September, has died of an undisclosed illness. He was one of the original 46 officers hired when the department was formed in 2019. WJXT.

Alachua: A teacher at a Gainesville elementary school has been arrested and accused of abusing one of his students. Police said Joshua Gaydon, a 3rd-grade teacher at Williams Elementary, slapped a 9-year-old boy in the back of the head, causing the boy to smash his lip on a desk. Gaydon said it was an accident. He was placed on administrative leave pending a district investigation. WCJB.

Bay: A proposal to reopen Oscar Patterson Elementary School was approved Tuesday by the school board. The school was closed two years ago after Hurricane Michael devastated the area. Members of the school community had argued for the reopening, and for adequate funding needed to make it successful. Superintendent Bill Husfelt said Patterson will reopen in the fall of 2022 as a K-2 school, then add a grade in each of the following three years. WMBB. WJHG. The district wants to ask voters in April to approve an additional 1 mill in property taxes to help raise pay for district employees, school safety costs and more. The county commission has to approve the special election. WMBB. WJHG.

Indian River: Caitlin Harris, a world cultures teacher at Storm Grove Middle School in Vero Beach, has been named the Indian River County School District’s teacher of the year. Rebecca O’Donnell, a digital integration specialist at Vero Beach High, was chosen as the district’s employee of the year. TCPalm. The Jimmy Graves Foundation is donating the 16th Street ballfields to the school district, which can use the property only for youth recreation. TCPalm.

Citrus: The former principal of the Academy of Environmental Science charter school in Crystal River is under investigation, according to district officials. They would not disclose the nature of the investigation, which began Jan. 7. Zachary Leonard, who had been the principal nearly four years, resigned Jan. 14. Meanwhile, board members for the school voted 4-3 to post the job. Phil McLeod, an assistant principal at Crystal River High School, is acting as the interim. Citrus County Chronicle.

Suwannee: Teachers union president Eric Rodriguez is questioning the health department’s accounting of coronavirus cases in the school district. He said he’s talked to seven colleagues at Suwannee High School who have had the virus, but the health department has reported no cases at the school among employees. “Somebody has got some explaining to do,” he said. Health director Kerry Waldron told one school board member that the discrepancy was likely due to a lag time in reporting. WCTV.

Colleges and universities: Florida’s universities were judged among the best in the country in the recent U.S. News & World Report’s rankings for online education programs. The University of Florida is ranked tops in the country for online graduate programs in education, and Daytona’s Embry Riddle Aeronautical University is considered the best online bachelor’s degree program. Tampa Bay Times. Orlando Sentinel. Daytona Beach News-Journal. UF has received a $2 million donation from alumni Linda and Ken McGurn to create a program that fights public disinformation. Gainesville Sun.

School nurses and vaccinations: The 1,500 school nurses spread across the state’s 67 public districts are eligible for coronavirus vaccinations because, according to state health officials, “as health care workers with direct patient contact, [school nurses] are eligible to receive the [COVID] vaccine in Florida.” Nurses deal with the usual assortment of health issues but also COVID-19 cases. Florida Phoenix.

Around the nation: Will new U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona issue state testing waivers this spring? Several testing and policy experts assess the possibility. K-12 Dive. New U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Republican from Georgia who has questioned whether school shootings are real, has been selected to sit on the House Education Committee. Education Week.

Opinions on schools: COVID-19 has been an unrelenting feature of our daily lives and will continue to be so for at least several more months as vaccinations roll out. But there is no reason for our children to be kept out of the classroom. Kevin Pham and Lindsey Burke, Sun Sentinel. Three books critical of education choice, as well as a review of one of them, miss the mark by not taking seriously the rich and complex history of American education and school choice. Patrick R. Gibbons, redefinED. Gone are the social media posts from exhausted parents saying that teachers deserve to make a million dollars. In contrast to the beginning of the pandemic, many teachers these days say they’re being made to feel more like villains than heroes because of the fight over school reopenings. Madeline Will, Education Week. There are many people who applaud school choice, and imagine it as a cure for failing traditional public schools. But there’s a measure of public accountability that’s lost once you privatize something. Frank Cerabino, Palm Beach Post.