English proficiency exam now optional, vouchers bill getting a hearing, missing students and more

English exam now optional: English-language learners in the state’s K-12 schools won’t be required to take the annual English proficiency exam for now, the Florida Department of Education has announced. Advocates had been pressuring the department to make the test optional or delay it because it’s given only in person, and some parents worry about the safety of their children going into schools during the coronavirus pandemic. The state also extended the window of time for students to take the ACCESS test if they choose to. The state “highly recommends that all ELL students participate in the ACCESS test,” K-12 Chancellor Jacob Oliva said in a letter to school districts, but it will “fully respect the decisions that families make should they choose not to send their children to take this assessment.” News Service of Florida.

Vouchers bill cued up: A bill that would streamline the state’s K-12 scholarship programs and add flexible spending options for parents will get its first hearing Wednesday before the Senate Education Committee. The proposal folds the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship and Hope Scholarship programs into the Family Empowerment Scholarship, and merges the McKay and Gardiner scholarships for students with special needs into a single program that will bear both names. Enrollment caps and eligibility criteria remain largely unchanged. Families could also choose to receive scholarship money in education savings accounts, which would allow them to buy pre-approved services and equipment as well as pay for private school tuition. If the bill passes, the changes would take effect next fall. Republican leaders in the Legislature are backing the bill, and Democratic leaders vow to fight it. News Service of Florida.

Missing students: Nearly 70,000 fewer students than expected are enrolled in Florida’s public schools, and school and state officials are all asking the same question: Where are they? Some students may now be home-schooled, some might have moved to private schools, some pre-K students may have been kept home, and some might not be attending any school. But no one knows for sure, and answers may not come for months. Meanwhile, the state has to put together an education budget that relies on enrollment to determine how much money each district gets. Florida Phoenix.

Around the state: A new timeline is established for Broward’s troubled $800 million bond program, with projects running years behind schedule and $500 million over budget, the Hillsborough district’s ongoing financial problems have led to a downgrade from a credit rating firm, the Bolles School in Jacksonville is abandoning part of a racial literacy program because of “angst” among parents, Escambia, Santa Rosa and Putnam named their teachers of the year, and the University of Central Florida is firing a controversial professor. Here are details about those stories and other developments from the state’s districts and private schools, and colleges and universities:

Miami-Dade: Jesus Gonzalez, who teaches  language arts, reading and social studies at the Miami Youth Academy for students with substance abuse problems, has been named the Department of Juvenile Justice’s teacher of the year. The other finalists were Darin Oden, a business education teacher at the Miami Girls Academy, and Melissa Dunham, a social science and earth science teacher at the Brevard Group Treatment Home in Cocoa. Florida Department of Juvenile Justice. Four finalists have been chosen for the school district’s teacher of the year award. They are: Teresa Ellen Murphy, Spanish Lake Elementary School; Yolette Mezadieu, Miami Edison Senior High; Candice A. Morris, Goulds Elementary; and Denise M. White, Juvenile Justice Center School. The winner will be announced Thursday. Miami-Dade County School District. The Maritime and Science Technology Academy on Virginia Key has quarantined 25 teachers and more than 200 students after more than a dozen coronavirus cases were reported last week. School officials issued a call to students and families to act more responsibly. Miami Herald. WSVN. WPLG.

Broward: The company hired by the district to assume management of the $800 million, voter-approved bond program has issued a revised timeline for projects. Almost every project is being delayed, some by as many as six years after their original projected completion date. The bond program was approved in 2014 but is years behind schedule and more than $500 million over budget. Kathleen Langan, senior program director with AECOM Technical Services. the company hired to take over the direction of the program, said, “We’re experiencing problems with vendors and contractors who simply cannot seem to perform. That has to change.” Sun Sentinel.

Hillsborough, Tampa Bay area: The Hillsborough County School District’s failure to fix its longtime financial problems has led a credit rating firm to downgrade the district’s outlook. Moody’s Investor Services has downgraded bonds issued by the district and given it a negative outlook. Tampa Bay Times. The rate of growth of coronavirus cases in Pinellas County nearly doubled last week, but cases in the Hillsborough and Pasco districts were up only slightly and there was no increase in Hernando. Tampa Bay Times. An 11-year-old Monroe Middle School student has been arrested and accused of having a loaded handgun at the school. Police said another student tipped them about the gun, which was found in the boy’s backpack. Tampa Bay Times.

Palm Beach: The school district is moving forward with construction on three new schools that would open by the fall of 2023. They’re needed to relieve overcrowding at other schools, according to the district. But as construction costs have risen, other smaller projects that are considered less essential are being delayed. Palm Beach Post.

Duval: The Bolles School is discontinuing the use of part of a racial literacy curriculum, citing “angst” among students’ parents. The Pollyanna curriculum stresses “advancing systemic change” and “enhancing racial literacy.” A letter to families read, in part, “After careful consideration, we decided not to move forward with [the curriculum] and will explore other diversity initiatives and resources that we believe will strengthen Bolles and ensure that the school is a welcoming and supportive community for everyone.” Katoia Wilkins, whose three children attend Bolles and who is on the school’s diversity committee that endorsed the program, said, “To say I was disappointed is an understatement.” Florida Times-Union. WJAX.

Lee, Collier: Pre-kindergarten enrollment is down 29 percent this school year in Collier County and 17 percent in Lee, according to district enrollment figures. Both districts are taking steps to increase the number of students so the decline doesn’t continue into kindergarten. Naples Daily News. Many schools in the Lee and Collier districts have taken an even more conservative approach than recommended by the CDC in clearing student-athletes to return to competition, citing the still-unknown risk of the coronavirus to heart inflammation. Symptomatic athletes must sit for 17 days before gradually returning. “I understand it’s a conservative approach,” said Lee athletic director David LaRosa. “We’re going as far as we can go to protect our kids.” Fort Myers News-Press. The district has closed its eighth classroom this school year because of the coronavirus. The case was reported at Edison Park Elementary School in Fort Myers. School officials would not say what grade was affected, or how many students were sent into quarantine. Fort Myers News-Press. Teachers at Mariner Middle School in Cape Coral are proposing to build an outdoor classroom. District officials gave them the okay if they can raise the money to pay for it. WINK.

Manatee: Preparations are underway to ask voters in November to renew a 1-mill property tax increase that would be used for higher salaries and 30 extra minutes of daily class time. The tax was approved at a special election in March 2018 and expires June 30, 2022. School board members want to reconsider  the size of the request. “We’ve got to look at what we’re spending and our budget and determine, how much do we need,” said board member Mary Foreman. “As you all know, the 1 mill was set because you could and because Sarasota could. I think that’s a pretty poor reason.” Bradenton Herald. About 300 school district employees over the age of 65 will be eligible for coronavirus vaccinations today and tomorrow at Southeast High and Manatee Elementary schools. The shots are being made available through an agreement among the school district, health department and MCR Health. Bradenton Herald.

Lake: Construction will begin this year on the Pinecrest Lakes Academy Middle/High School, a charter school on Lake-Sumter State College’s Clermont campus. The school’s opening is tentatively scheduled for August 2022, with the first senior class graduating in 2024. Daily Commercial. In an interview, Lake school Superintendent Diane Kornegay says she’d like to see kindergarten start in June instead of August, believes that students can close learning gaps faster if they’re in school, hopes the state will provide a waiver for testing or hold students harmless if the tests are held, and more. Daily Commercial.

Sarasota: The number of coronavirus cases in the school district since Jan. 4 nearly doubled the number reported between the start of school in August and the winter break. Since Jan. 4, 568 cases have been reported compared to 608 from late August through Dec. 18. Sarasota Herald-Tribune. The Patterson Foundation has donated $250,000 to the Suncoast Campaign for Grade-Level Reading in Sarasota, Manatee, Charlotte and DeSoto counties. The money will buy resources to help K-3 students improve their reading. Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

Marion: Teachers are still waiting for the Florida Department of Education to approve a pay plan that was agreed to by the district and teachers union last month so they can receive their raises. The agreement will boost starting pay to $44,750, and veteran teachers will get a 2.3 percent increase. Ocala Star-Banner.

St. Lucie, Martin, Indian River: More than 200 eligible employees of the St. Lucie and Martin school districts have either been vaccinated against the coronavirus or have appointments to do so. Indian River school officials are still talking with health officials about getting appointments for their eligible employees. TCPalm. A circuit judge heard arguments Friday in the lawsuit by parents who are challenging the right of the Indian River County School District to impose a face mask mandate on students.  Parents claim the requirement was an “irrational decision” that consigned students who don’s want to wear masks to an inferior online-only education. District officials said they have the right to require face masks to protect students. TCPalm.

Escambia: Briana McCreary, a 3rd-grade teacher at Montclair Elementary School in Pensacola who started an after-school math program to get girls interested in STEM subjects, has been named the Escambia County School District’s teacher of the year. Pensacola News Journal.

Leon: School officials are asking parents to vote on one of two options for the 2021-2022 and 2022-2023 school years. One option gives students a full week off for Thanksgiving, and the other has them attending classes Monday and Tuesday of that week. Voting ends Wednesday, and an advisory council will review the parents’ votes and make a recommendation to the school board on Feb. 9. WTXL.

Santa Rosa: Annie Scott, a 5th-grade teacher at Holley-Navarre Intermediate School, has been selected as the Santa Rosa County School District’s teacher of the year. Pensacola News Journal. A county commissioner is pushing for the school district to join the state’s Guardian Program so that teachers can carry weapons in schools. James Calkins said he wants to present a resolution soon to the school board. WEAR.

Putnam: Armand Küykendall, a 7th-grader at Miller Middle School in Crescent City, has won the county spelling championship for the third straight year. He advances to the regional spelling bee March 29. Palatka Daily News.

Sumter: The school district has received a $150,000 grant from the Florida Department of Education’s Pathways to Career Opportunities program. The money will be used to start an apprenticeship program at Wildwood Middle/High School for students interested in careers as electricians or working with heating and cooling systems. Villages-News.com.

Franklin: A district substitute teacher and assistant coach has been arrested and accused of supplying drugs and alcohol to students and trading nude photos with them. Deputies said Troy Larkin, 23, admitted to the accusations. WTXL. Tallahassee Democrat. WCTV.

Safety in fuller schools: Schools in the Tampa Bay area and elsewhere around the state are starting to refill, worrying teachers and others who see numbers of coronavirus cases spiking in some areas and point to the unknown dangers from new strains of the virus. Early in the year, enrollment in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco was at about 60 percent capacity. Now the percentages range from 70 to 77 percent. Tampa Bay Times. Some education advocates and health officials doubt that President Joe Biden’s push to have K-8 students return to schools by April is possible, and warn that the longer schools remain closed, the more underprivileged children will fall behind. Associated Press. Dueling studies are raising questions about whether closing schools saved or cost lives. NPR.

Colleges and universities: Charles Negy, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Central Florida, has been fired for failing to report that a student told him she had been sexually assaulted by a teaching assistant. Negy said he was targeted for his comments on Twitter. Orlando Sentinel. Manatee County restaurant owner John Horne has been appointed to the State College of Florida Manatee-Sarasota Board of Trustees by Gov. Ron DeSantis. Bradenton Herald. Dr. Lawrence Fishman, who taught for more than 40 years at the University of Miami and was chief of endocrinology at the Miami VA Medical Center, has died at the age of 87. Miami Herald.

In the Legislature: Bills have been filed in the Senate and House to change two laws that allow authorities to commit people involuntarily. State Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation, and Rep. Patt Maney, R-Fort Walton Beach, want to modify the Baker Act, used on schoolchildren and others with suspected mental health issues, and the Marchman Act, which covers people with substance abuse issues. Florida Politics. A bill creating a moment of silence every morning in Florida’s K-12 schools has been filed in the Florida House by state Rep. Randy Fine, R-Palm Bay, as a companion to a Senate bill that was introduced in December by state Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala. Space Coast Daily. A new scholarship program has been proposed that would provide 100 percent of tuition and fees for Florida residents seeking an associate’s degree or career certification. S.B. 888 and H.B. 503 would create the Sunshine Scholarship Program, and were proposed by state Sen. Shevrin Jones, D-West Park, and state Rep. Felicia Robinson, D-Miami Gardens, respectively. WCTV.

Charter school surge: The number of students attending K-12 charter schools during the 2019-2020 school year jumped 6 percent in Florida, from 309,730 to 329,216 the year before. And the latest figure does not include pre-K students, while the 2018-2019 figures do. Some education experts attribute the rise to the nature of charter schools, which combine the best of public and private schools and can often act quickly to change in a crisis such as the pandemic.  redefinED.

Around the nation: As many as 12 million American K-12 students still have no broadband Internet service, nearly a year after the coronavirus pandemic pushed most schools to switch to remote learning, according to a report by Common Sense, Boston Consulting Group and the Southern Education Foundation. K-12 Dive.

Opinions on schools: In the wake of the pandemic, parents across America pulled their kids out of school to start home schools and micro-schools called “pandemic pods.” I love their can-do spirit, and their willingness to do whatever it takes for their kids. But those kinds of opportunities shouldn’t be limited to wealthier parents. Parents without as much money are just as capable of creating quality learning environments for their kids. And if more of them had control over their kid’s education funds, that’s exactly what they’d do. Olivia Huron-Schaeffer, Florida Today. Gov. Ron DeSantis laid out his maybe-things-aren’t-all-that-bad budget last week. You’ve got to admire that kind of optimism. Kinda. Mark Lane, Daytona Beach News-Journal. If University of Florida officials want to plan for the “future of learning,” they should consider maximizing the use of buildings they already have rather than constructing new ones in a natural area with so many benefits. Gainesville Sun. The Florida Legislature has taken note of the indisputable impact of the Community Partnership Schools model and has invested in its success for several years. Yet we cannot meet this demand to expand without continued support and commitment from our leaders at the state and federal levels, including additional sustainable funding, as well as committed partnerships. Andry Sweet and Pamela Sissi Carroll, Tallahassee Democrat. Superintendent Walt Griffin is retiring on top — Seminole County is again No. 1 in the state for college STEM preparation, and it’s not even close. Paul Cottle, Bridge to Tomorrow. If a school doesn’t require masks, but offers distance learning, pro-mask parents can keep their kids home. But if a school makes masks optional and doesn’t offer distance learning, it’s basically saying to parents: Deal with it. Gil Smart, TCPalm.