DeSantis defends decision on school openings, bills on test consequences and parental rights, and more

Opening the session: Florida has taken the right approach to the coronavirus pandemic in keeping schools and businesses open and requiring schools to offer in-person instruction, Gov. Ron DeSantis said Tuesday in his state of the state message on the opening day of the legislative session. He insisted other states that kept students out of schools will suffer “catastrophic and long-lasting” consequences. “The failure of so many places outside of Florida to open schools at the beginning of the school year will go down as one of the biggest policy blunders of our time,” he said. “While so many other states kept locking people down, Florida lifted people up.” He also touted his $96.6 billion budget, said education spending should not be reduced, and asked lawmakers to continue investing in teacher pay. The opening remarks of Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, stressed the importance of school choice programs and the right of every family to make appropriate educational decisions for their children, regardless of their income level. House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, talked about how education, health care and unemployment were shaped by the coronavirus pandemic and urged lawmakers to reach “higher common ground.” Democrats called the messages of the Republican leaders “tone-deaf” to average Floridians. redefinED. Miami Herald and Tampa Bay Times. News Service of Florida. Associated Press. Orlando Sentinel. Sarasota Herald-Tribune. Florida Politics. Politico Florida. Florida Phoenix. Fresh Take Florida. Capitol News Service.

More from the Legislature: In a bipartisan vote, the Senate Education Committee approved a bill that would eliminate the consequences of state assessments test results this year for students, schools and teachers. Some members of the committee said while they agree with the goal of the bill, the details could trigger unintended and unwanted consequences. They said they will work on amendments to address those concerns. Tampa Bay Times. The House Health and Human Services Committee and Senate Judiciary Committee both approved bills (S.B. 582 and H.B. 241) that would bar government bodies from limiting a parent’s right to decide on the education, health-care, mental well-being, and moral and religious upbringing of their children. News Service of Florida. Florida Politics. The House PreK-12 Appropriations Subcommittee passed a bill that would start a statewide program to deliver free books to struggling young readers. Florida Politics. Legislators from both parties are signaling support for bills (S.B. 1494 and H.B. 1217) that would allow government agencies, such as school boards, to meet remotely during emergencies. Florida Politics.

Around the state: A 4-year-old Hardee County girl has become the state’s youngest victim of COVID-19, Gulf County voters overwhelmingly approve a renewal of a 1-mill tax referendum for schools, a Hillsborough administrator and a school board member are taking shots at each other after three board members held a meeting last week, senior proms will be held in Duval County high schools but students who attend will have to quarantine afterward, Manatee officials have a proposed schedule for in-person high school graduations, and Pasco officials are considering starting STEAM magnet programs at two elementary schools. Here are details about those stories and other developments from the state’s districts, private schools, and colleges and universities:

Broward: A 5th-grade science teacher has been fired after allegations that he inappropriately touched at least seven 5th-grade girls at Riverland Elementary School in Fort Lauderdale. But prosecutors announced in October that criminal charges would not be filed against Krishna Boodhoo, 63, because of inconsistencies in the girls’ stories. Boodhoo has denied the charges and is appealing his firing. Sun Sentinel.

Hillsborough: An assistant superintendent and a school board member exchanged harsh emails over the weekend after three board members held their own board meeting. Assistant superintendent Michael Kemp’s email “fact-checked” statements that came out of that meeting, writing that “no matter how much we attempt to communicate facts, there are always some in the community that either present an element of the truth or misrepresent it altogether.” Board member Jessica Vaughn, who attended the meeting, called Kemp’s email “out of context, accusatory, divisive, filled with misinformation and not an appropriate response to the concerns of certain board members.” She also said Kemp’s email was “chastising, accusatory, inflammatory and honestly, sexist in nature.” Tampa Bay Times. Tampa police have fired a school resource officer at Middleton High School after his body camera caught him using the “n” word and calling a group of people “ghetto” on a phone call in November. Delvin White was fired for “violations of policy that prohibit discriminatory conduct.” He had been an officer for eight years. WFLA. WTSP. WFTS.

Orange: Wayne Rickman, a longtime teacher and boys basketball coach at Boone High School in Orlando who is in the Florida High School Athletic Hall of Fame and had the school gym named in his honor, has died at the age of 83. Orlando Sentinel.

Duval: Senior proms will be held at high schools this spring, but students who want to attend will be required to quarantine and may not participate in extracurricular events for 10 days after the dance. Proms must be held at outdoor venues, with face masks and temperature checks required and no guests permitted who aren’t students at the school. Florida Times-Union. WJAX. WJXT. Parents of students at Douglas Anderson School of the Arts have received emails from the school saying that meetings to discuss “cultural issues that have arisen” will be held at the school Thursday — one for students of color and one for white students. WJXT. The Bolles School announced it would ditch a diversity curriculum less than a week after receiving a letter from former chairmen of its board of trustees that warned of a loss of financial support if the curriculum was put into place. WJXT.

Pinellas: A St. Petersburg preschool teacher has been arrested and accused of abusing a 3-year-old child at the St. Petersburg Christian Preschool. Deputies said Cynthia Foster, 57, squeezed a boy’s arm so tightly that it left bruises, and also shook him violently. She was fired. WFLA.

Lee: An Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent has been arrested and accused of exposing himself in December to a group of girls in the parking lot at Riverdale High School. Deputies said Ruben Ricardo Rosado-Milan has been charged with exposure of sexual organs, lewd and lascivious exhibition, and school trespassing. WBBH. WINK.

Pasco: School board members are considering converting two schools into magnet programs for a science, technology, engineering, arts and math curriculum. Under the proposal, STEAM magnet programs would be placed in Marlowe Elementary in New Port Richey and Centennial Elementary in Dade City next fall. No boundaries would be drawn for the schools; enrollment would be through application only. Job descriptions would be changed for teachers interested in working in the programs. That drew the objection of union officials, who said the district is trying to drive a wedge between “basic” teachers and those working in specialty schools. Tampa Bay Times.

Seminole: School board members are being heavily criticized for their decision Monday to reverse the hiring of Chad Farnsworth of superintendent in favor of board attorney Serita Beamon. “This has become a mockery,” one person wrote on social media. Another wondered if “the ‘do-over’ process (will) be allowed for the students who don’t like their test results or disciplinary actions?” Teachers union president Dan Smith said “the school board has work to do to heal and unite the community.” WKMG.

Manatee: The district is planning to hold in-person high school graduations from June 1-5, mostly at LECOM Park. Manatee High School’s ceremony will be at its football stadium. Each student will receive two tickets for guests, and masks will be required and social distancing will be enforced. The school board is expected to make a final decision at its March 9 meeting. Bradenton Herald.

Collier: An 11-year-old 4th-grader at Osceola Elementary School in Naples has been arrested after deputies said he brought an unloaded gun to school Tuesday. He also threatened to shoot two classmates, and was admitted to a hospital for mental evaluation under the Baker Act. Naples Daily News. WINK.

Sarasota: Venice High School’s athletic director was arrested Saturday and charged with driving under the influence. Deputies said Peter Dombrowski, 63, had a blood alcohol content level over 0.15. Dombrowski apologized for his mistake. The district is investigating. Venice Gondolier.

Escambia, Santa Rosa: Preschool students in both the Escambia and Santa Rosa school districts showed improvements in kindergarten readiness over last year, but officials said the results may not tell the full story because many fewer students took the test. Pensacola News Journal. A Pensacola man was arrested for sexual abuse after a student wrote a note to her teacher describing what he’d done. William Outten, 43, has been charged with sexual assault on a victim under the age of 12 and two counts of lewd or lascivious behavior. Pensacola News Journal.

Alachua: Two brothers escaped serious injury when a vehicle hit them as they bicycled to Littlewood Elementary School in Gainesville and then drove away, leaving them on the side of the road. Lucas Perkins, 10, landed in grass but his brother Nathaniel, 8, hit a cement pole and was knocked out. Police are searching for the driver. Gainesville Sun.

Hardee: A 4-year-old girl has died of complications from the coronavirus, becoming the youngest victim in the state, according to Florida Department of Health officials. The virus has now claimed the lives of seven children under the age of 14. Florida Times-Union.

Gulf: Voters overwhelmingly have approved the renewal of a 1-mill tax referendum to benefit the school district. The tax has been in place for 12 years, and helps pay for school programs and employee salaries with the $2 million a year it brings in. It received support from nearly 80 percent of voters. Port St. Joe Star. Gulf County Supervisor of Elections.

Jefferson: The school board has twice voted down a Somerset-Jefferson proposal to start a virtual school, but the issue could go before the board again if the charter school company appeals to the Florida Department of Education. Somerset-Academy hopes to convince some students to leave Florida Virtual School for the more local Somerset Virtual Academy, which would bring more state funding to the district. ECB Publishing.

Ocoee Massacre curriculum: A task force has completed a 32-page plan outlining how school districts should incorporate the 1920 Ocoee Massacre into their curriculum. The report recommends that teachers use the word massacre instead of riot, that districts develop grade-level appropriate activities while incorporating primary and secondary sources in textbooks, develop relationships with outside organizations, and utilize resources from the task force website. WFTV.

Colleges and universities: Enrollment at two community colleges in central Florida is down significantly from last year. Santa Fe College has declined by about 12 percent, while enrollment is down 7 percent at the College of Central Florida. “Whenever the economy is not doing great, you would expect the community college enrollment to go up,” said Justin Ortagus, an assistant professor at the University of Florida. “But that is not necessarily the case in the midst of the pandemic.” WUFT. University of Central Florida and Florida A&M University officials said in-person graduations will be held this spring. UCF graduations are scheduled between May 5 and 9, with “grad walks” being held from April 30 to May 4. Florida A&M said it will have six ceremonies between April 23 and 25. WKMG. WCTV.

Around the nation: President Biden said Tuesday that the country to be able to vaccinate all adults by the end of May, and is urging states to prioritize shots for teachers now. NPR. Politico. Children should be able to get vaccinated by the next school year, according to health officials in central Florida. WFLA.

Opinions on schools: The sensible middle ground on state standardized testing is to use the testing as a gauge for moving forward without compounding the punishment of a public health crisis by holding the results against students and schools. Tampa Bay Times. Florida has been a national leader in seeking ways to personalize education for K-12 students. Hispanics, who account for more than one-fourth of Floridians, have been a primary beneficiary of these policies. Juan M. Martinez, Orlando Sentinel.