DeSantis signs vaccine passport bill and suspends local COVID restrictions, dead bills and more

A new law and order: Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill into law Monday that bans schools and businesses from requiring proof of vaccinations before providing services, the so-called “vaccine passports,” gives him the authority to override emergency orders issued by local governments and gives the Legislature the power to overrule pandemic orders issued by governors in the future. The law goes into effect July 1. But DeSantis decided to go ahead and issue an emergency order suspending local COVID-19 restrictions, effective immediately. DeSantis and the Florida Department of Education later clarified that the order applies only to local governments, not private businesses and schools. “I think that’s the evidence-based thing to do,” DeSantis said. “I think folks that are saying they need to be policing people at this point, if you’re saying that, then you’re really saying you don’t believe in the vaccines.” His actions were criticized by Democrats. State Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, said the law and the order will “handcuff local governments and their ability to respond.” Broward County Mayor Steve Geller said he would explore legal options to continue a mask mandate. “The governor has said the COVID crisis is over in Florida and there are no longer any restrictions of any type whatsoever,” Geller said. “I hope the virus obeys his order.” News Service of Florida. Associated Press. Miami Herald. Tampa Bay Times. Orlando Sentinel. Sun Sentinel. Florida Phoenix. Politico Florida.

Bills that died: Several education bills were among the high-profile proposals that didn’t make it through the Legislature. They included a proposal to switch funding for Bright Futures Scholarships from a fixed percentage of tuition and fees to a yearly appropriation by legislators, replacing the state pension system with a 401(k)-style plan for new teachers and other public workers, limiting local school board members to eight years in office, and putting new restrictions on the collection of union dues from teachers and other state employees. News Service of Florida.

COVID-19 in schools: An analysis of Florida Department of Health data shows that the number of coronavirus cases reported by public and private K-12 schools passed the 100,000 mark in mid-April, and now stands at 106,649 from Sept. 6 through April 24. During the week of April 18-24, 3,604 cases were reported. Students made up 3,169 of those cases, teachers 147, school employees 149, and there were 127 other cases. Florida Phoenix. The Food and Drug Administration is expected within a week to approve the two-dose Pfizer coronavirus vaccine for children 12-15. It’s already been authorized for students 16 or older. Associated Press.

Around the state: Three bond rating firms have lowered the ratings for the Hillsborough County School District, Palm Beach school officials are offering educators extra money to convince students who left the district during the pandemic to return, a proposal to name a Brevard County school after a Hispanic astronaut runs into trouble, parents are trying to keep a Putnam County school from being closed, and the Santa Rosa School Board votes to make the wearing of face masks optional while other districts around the state said they are not changing their policies. Here are details about those stories and other developments from the state’s districts, private schools, and colleges and universities:

Hillsborough: Three major bond rating firms have lowered ratings on the district’s debt, which in turn has made the district’s bonds less attractive to investors and driven up the cost of borrowing. This comes at a time when school officials are scrambling to cut down a $100 million-plus deficit and have less than 10 days to file a financial recovery plan with the state or risk a financial takeover. For months those firms – Fitch, Moody’s and Standard & Poor – have been warning about the district’s financial situation due to overspending, and all three have expressed doubts about the district’s ability to cut back. School board members meet Thursday to discuss a plan that will satisfy the state before the May 12 deadline. Tampa Bay Times.

Orange, central Florida: Schools in central Florida said despite Gov. DeSantis’ order, they don’t plan to change their mask mandates yet. Representatives from the Orange, Seminole and Volusia school districts all said their face mask policies remain in place. WKMG. The family of an Orange County student with special needs is suing the district for legal fees, and the school board will consider the matter at today’s meeting. The district has twice been cited by the Florida Department of Education for not providing the 3rd-grader with the special services she’s supposed to get, and the family hired an attorney for advice in fighting the district. WFTV.

Palm Beach: School officials are offering educators a chance to earn extra money by cold-calling the 6,500 students who left the district during the pandemic and trying to convince them to return to a district school. With a budget of $190,000, school officials are asking designated employees to make the calls on the weekends and evenings. “Experience tells us there is no substitute for a school-based staff member reaching out to a parent and sharing a genuine interest in their child’s well-being, along with a welcoming invitation to attend your school,” chief financial officer Mike Burke wrote in a memo to principals announcing the program. Palm Beach Post. The district’s mandatory face mask policy in schools and on campuses will remain in place until further notice, school officials said Monday. “Health officials attribute the very low transmission rates in our schools to social distancing practices and the mandatory wearing of facial coverings,” according to district officials. WPTV.

Polk: A local publisher said it will donate 1,000 comic books to the school district to “provide an alternative reading source to help strengthen the reading skills of students.” Marcus Roberts, chief operating officer of Second Sight Publishing, said the district is reviewing the books to determine the appropriate age and grade level. The donated books are by two local authors: Aron Pohara of Tampa, who created the Book of Lyaxia, and Lady Freedom by Larry Jarrell of Orlando. Lakeland Ledger.

Pasco: River Ridge middle and high schools have been advised to boil drinking and cooking water before using. A water main was broken Monday near the schools, and crews are working on repairs. WFLA. WTSP.

Brevard: A proposal to change the name of Melbourne High School drew intense criticism from parents, alumni and other members of the community who attended a meeting Monday. A Hispanic advocacy group, United Third Bridge, had proposed naming the school Astronaut Joseph M. Acaba Melbourne High School, after a former teacher who became the first  person of Puerto Rican heritage to be named a NASA astronaut. The group later rescinded the recommendation, but the school district has moved ahead with community meetings. Many who oppose the name change said Acaba only taught at the school for a year, contend the proposed name is too long and unwieldy, and point to the costs. Florida Today.

Manatee: School officials said the district’s requirement to wear face masks at school will continue at least until May 25, when the school board meets to discuss making masks optional. WWSB.

Collier: School Superintendent Kamela Patton and other administrators talk about how they transitioned students from in-person to remote learning when the pandemic set in and schools were closed, and how everyone got through the past year. Naples Daily News.

Lake: A 14-year-old Eustis High School student has been arrested and is accused of setting a fire in a school bathroom. An assistant principal put out the fire, which damaged a sink, a wall and the floor. The boy has been charged with arson to an occupied structure, a felony. Daily Commercial.

Clay: A former swim coach at the private St. Johns Country Day School in Orange Park has been arrested and charged with using a computer to seduce or lure a child and electronic transfer of information to harm a child. Deputies said Mitchell Jacob Bentz, 24, solicited a child online for unlawful sexual conduct and sent lewd images to the child. School officials said as far as they knew, “none of our students or swimmers were subjects of his outreach.” They declined to say when he worked at the school. Florida Times-Union. WJAX. WJXT.

Santa Rosa: School board members voted Monday to make wearing face masks in schools optional, effective immediately. Several board members cited the Florida Department of Health’s decision last week to rescind its COVID-19 public health advisories, including wearing masks when social distancing is not possible. WEAR.

Martin: Students and employees are mourning the death last weekend of 17-year-old senior Nikolas Lawrynas, a 4.0 student and member of the football team. Grief counselors will be at the school all week. No cause of death was released. WPTV. TCPalm.

Indian River: The welding program at Sebastian River High School is being eliminated because “there just wasn’t a demand for two welding programs in the district” and because of a lack of funding, according to assistant superintendent Richard Myhre. The other program in the county is at Treasure Coast Technical College in Vero Beach, which offers career-ready certification. TCPalm.

Citrus: Traditional graduation ceremonies will be held May 20-27 at the county’s three high schools, Withlacoochee Technical College and CREST School, Superintendent Sandra Himmel has announced. Citrus County Chronicle.

Putnam: A concerted effort by parents saved Melrose Elementary School after district officials announced it would close as part of a school consolidation from 18 schools to 10. But it hasn’t worked for the parents of students at Jenkins Middle School, which is one of the more racially diverse schools in the district but is being closed to save money and help the district match the number of classroom seats to enrollment. Parents say they aren’t giving up on trying to keep Jenkins open, but time is running out because the school is closing at the end of this school year. WUFT.

Colleges and universities: Two recent cases of sexual misconduct at Florida Southern University have prompted students to call for changes in the way the university handles complaints. Students say victims are reluctant to come forward because there’s a “culture of intimidation” at the school. WFLA. Photos of “microaggressions” will be hung on a wall at Daytona State College as a reminder that some comments can unintentionally offend others. Daytona Beach News-Journal. Here are the U.S. colleges and universities that will require students to be vaccinated to return for classes in the fall. University Business.

Opinions on schools: Millions of mothers made the decision to leave the workforce during the COVID-19 pandemic. Choice policies give these women the tools they need to take control of their children’s education. Matthew Ladner, redefinED. Republicans broke legislative rules, rejected legitimate objections, ignored basic constitutional principles and steamrolled opposition so they could pass what may be the most radical political agenda in modern state legislative history. “Drunk with power,” a sometimes overused phrase, works fairly well in this instance in describing the 2021 Florida Legislature. Orlando Sentinel. As the last survivors of the Nazi atrocities begin to fade away, we must act now to preserve the true memory of the Holocaust for generations to come. Florida has always led our nation in so many ways. Now is the time for Gov. DeSantis to ensure that our Holocaust education becomes the gold standard for the entire country. Laurie Cardoza-Moore, Miami Herald.