FSA test scores decline from 2019, state to pay $3.6 million to issue bonuses, tax holiday and more

Test scores decline: Student test scores in the language arts and math portions of the Florida Standards Assessments declined sharply this year compared with 2019, according to results released Thursday by the Florida Department of Education. No tests were taken in 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic. Only 51 percent of students in grades 3-8 received scores of satisfactory or higher on the math tests, down 10 percentage points from 2019. In language arts, the percentage of students in grades 3-10 with satisfactory or better scores dropped from 55 percent in 2019 to 52 percent in 2021. Results in most districts generally mirrored the losses seen statewide. “This data only partially represents an extremely difficult year for our schools,” Orange County Superintendent Barbara Jenkins said in a statement. “The data is still useful, as it informs instructional decisions for the new school year. Teachers and principals will evaluate student outcomes and determine how to accelerate learning.” News Service of Florida. Orlando Sentinel. Tampa Bay Times. Sun Sentinel. Palm Beach Post. Florida Times-Union. Tallahassee Democrat. TCPalm. Bradenton Herald. Sarasota Herald-Tribune. WMBB. Lakeland Ledger. Ocala Star-Banner. Naples Daily News. Gainesville Sun. WTSP. WINK. WPTV.

Firm hired to issue bonuses: A private contractor will be paid $3.6 million by the state to issue $1,000 bonus checks to public school teachers, principals and first responders. Fidelity Information Services signed deals last month with two state agencies to collect information on teachers, principals, police officers, firefighters and paramedics to determine who is eligible for the bonuses, and to send them checks. The contracts call for every check to bear an “office of the governor” design. The checks are expected to be issued by mid-August. The decision to hire a contractor drew criticism from the president of the Florida Education Association. “They could have just sent the money to school districts at no cost to taxpayers,” said Andrew Spar. “It sounds like the governor’s wasting money.” Miami Herald and Tampa Bay Times.

Masks in schools: The Florida Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics has called for “universal” wearing of face masks in schools this fall. The pediatricians’ statement, issued Thursday, cited the ineligibility of children under 12 to be vaccinated and the spread of the Delta variant of the coronavirus around the state. News Service of Florida. Florida Politics.

Back-to-school tax holiday: The state’s 10-day back-to-school sales tax holiday begins Saturday. Sales taxes will be waived for clothing, shoes and some accessories that cost less than $60 per item, school supplies that are $15 each, and the first $1,000 on electronics and accessories through Aug. 9. State economists estimate residents will save $69.4 million during the 10-day period. News Service of Florida. Miami Herald. Tampa Bay TimesFlorida Phoenix.

Around the state: A spokeswoman from Gov. Ron DeSantis’ office said the Broward school board’s decision to require face masks for the coming school year “will be addressed,” the governor’s calls Thursday to legislative leaders spark speculation about a special session being called to ban mask mandates, Brevard school board members were escorted temporarily from a board meeting Thursday by security when the largely anti-mask audience got vocally abusive, Palm Beach County’s interim superintendent said he wouldn’t rule out imposing a mask mandate, Pensacola State College students and employees will be required to wear face masks beginning Monday, the Florida Ethics Commission finds probable cause that the former general counsel at Florida Virtual School violated state ethics laws by using his position to benefit himself and his family, a Duval county teacher has died of complications from the coronavirus, Marion County School Board members approve a tentative $700 million budget, and Citrus County school officials are proposing a program to help interested teachers train to become school psychologists. Here are details about those stories and other developments from the state’s districts, private schools, and colleges and universities:

Miami-Dade: The district’s rules for dealing with the coronavirus are changing for the coming school year, school officials announced Thursday. Masks are optional, at least for now, although that decision is being reconsidered. Social distancing and sanitation protocols will continue, but the quarantine process will now “focus on individuals directly impacted by a potential exposure,” meaning that entire classrooms won’t have to go into quarantine when a student or employee tests positive. Miami Herald. A rabbi accused of inappropriately touching students at the Lubavitch Educational Center will not be charged, prosecutors announced this week. Yosef Benita, 33, was arrested in April and initially charged with lewd and lascivious molestation on a child under 12. He was suspended. But this week the state attorney said charges would not be pursued because there was a “lack of physical evidence and one of the children saying the touching was an accident.” Miami Herald.

Broward: The school board’s decision this week to require face masks in schools “will be addressed,” said Christina Pushaw, a spokeswoman for Gov. Ron DeSantis. Earlier this week, DeSantis said the state would not accept any school mask mandates, and would call a special session of the Legislature “to ensure that all Florida school districts are mask optional.” Thursday, the governor made separate phone calls to Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, and House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, which some state officials suggest are a prelude to a special session. Orlando Sentinel. Miami Herald.

Palm Beach: The new interim school superintendent said Thursday that he would not rule out imposing a face mask mandate when schools open Aug. 10. “At the end of the day, I need to do what’s best to protect our students and our staff,” said Michael Burke. “School’s not that far off. We have a little time here. But it is a situation I’m closely monitoring, and it’s one of my top priorities.” WPTV. WPEC. When Lake Worth Beach city commissioners decided to form an education task force to suggest ways to improve schools in the city, it made the decision to include representatives from the six public schools and the lone private one, Sacred Heart Catholic School. Principal Tricia Clarke called that decision “atypical,” and said, “It is fantastic that the city of Lake Worth Beach is placing a high value on the education of our entire community. What’s even more impressive is that the city of Lake Worth Beach sees the value and importance of including a small school such as Sacred Heart in the conversation on the current state of education in Lake Worth Beach.” redefinED.

Duval: A teacher and assistant football coach at Jackson High School died this week of complications from the coronavirus. Lin Shell, 39, was a physical education teacher and the interim head football coach at Ribault High in 2019 before switching to Jackson. In 2018, Shell disarmed a woman bringing a gun to a fight in the Ribault gym, and detained her until a school resource officer arrived. WJXT. A family of school district workers in Jacksonville has been devastated by the coronavirus. Parents Mark and Sherry McCall, who work in the maintenance and as a media specialist, respectively, are fighting for their lives in the ICU, while their 35-year-old son Britt, who also worked in the maintenance department, died Monday. One of the McCalls’ children, Payten, is going public with the story in the hope that it will inspire people to get vaccinated. “I would never want anyone to feel what we feel,” she said. “I really want people to understand that none of my family was vaccinated. We were all against it because we were scared.” Florida Times-Union.

Polk: School Superintendent Frederick Heid has announced he will hold a series of six listening and speaking engagements around the county starting in September, and will host a seventh online. “I am looking forward to making stops throughout Polk County and talking with all of our stakeholders. We will have candid discussions and look for ways to improve our school system,” he said in a statement. “We need the community’s feedback to determine the qualities, characteristics, training and skills that we expect in our graduates. Together, we will develop a strategic plan to better serve our students and give them the best educational experience possible.” Lakeland Ledger.

Brevard: School board members and district officials were escorted out of the school board meeting Thursday by security when anti-mask parents began shouting at board member Jennifer Jenkins, who said she had faced threats and harassment from members of the community. They returned about 15 minutes later, heard more heated arguments from both pro- and anti-mask speakers before voting to put the issue on the Aug. 10 agenda. WFTV. WKMG. WESH.

Volusia: A new HVAC Academy will open this fall at Pine Ridge High School in Deltona. A ribbon-cutting ceremony was held this week for the heating, ventilation and air conditioning lab. Daytona Beach News-Journal.

St. Johns: School board members are considering two options for a panic alarm system all schools are now required by state law to have. One would be a card-based system with a button employees could push to initiative a lockdown. It would cost the district $1.5 million over five years. The other option is an app-based system that employees would have to load onto their phones and would not have any further costs to the district. The board has meetings Aug. 3 and 10 to consider its options. St. Augustine Record.

Marion: A nearly $700 million budget has been tentatively approved by the school board. That’s $46.7 million more than the 2020-2021 budget and $105.1 million more than 2019-2020 spending. The budget calls for a slight property tax millage rate cut, to 6.903, but most homeowners will pay more in taxes because of higher property valuations. Each mill represents $1 in taxes for every $1,000 of taxable property value. Budget hearings will be held in August, and the board will take a final vote in September. Ocala Star-Banner.

Okaloosa: District officials said they expect school operations to be “more normal” this year. Masks will be optional in classes and on buses, according to the reopening plan released by Superintendent Marcus Chambers, field trips, athletic events and extracurricular activities will resume and parents can again volunteer in classrooms and as chaperones. Enhanced cleaning and sanitization protocols will remain in place. Northwest Florida Daily News. The extra half-cent sales tax approved by voters in November has collected $2 million more than expected in its first six months. The original projection was to bring in $10.3 million in the first six months. So far the money has been used for security upgrades and building repairs. Northwest Florida Daily News. The school district is working with the University of Florida to develop artificial intelligence courses for students in every grade. The program begins in 2022 with AI labs in two elementary, two middle and two high schools. WFSU.

Alachua: Some parents of schoolchildren are lobbying the school board to reconsider its decision to make face masks optional for the school year that begins in a few weeks. A petition has been started, and some parents are calling for mask-only classrooms to be an option. Gainesville Sun.

Citrus: School officials are proposing to start a program that would help interested teachers train to become school psychologists. Assistant superintendent Jonny Bishop said the goal is “to try to cultivate interest and grow our own school psychologists.” He said the program would be based on the successful one that helps paraprofessionals become certified as teachers. Citrus County Chronicle.

Bradford: David Hurse, a teacher and longtime football coach at Bradford High School whose teams won two state championships, has died at the age of 90.  Florida Times-Union.

Colleges and universities: Pensacola State College students and employees will be required to wear face masks, beginning Monday. President Ed Meadows made the announcement just after the CDC recommended new guidelines for face masks. Last week, 11 students and three employees tested positive for the coronavirus. WEAR. Some University of Florida employees are petitioning President Kent Fuchs and the board of trustees to require students and employees to have vaccinations before the fall semester begins. Gainesville Sun. Saint Leo University in Pasco County has bought Marymount California University in Rancho Palos Verde, and now has 16 campuses in five states. Tampa Bay Times. WUSF.

FLVS ethics violations: The Florida Ethics Commission has found probable cause that the former general counsel at Florida Virtual School violated state ethics laws by using his position to benefit himself and his family. The commission called for a hearing into the allegations against Frank Kruppenbacher. “It is incomprehensible that state resources should/would be used to further the private interests of a public employee, in this manner,” said Melody Hadley, an advocate for the ethics panel. Politico Florida.

Around the nation: U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, a Democrat from Tampa, has introduced an amendment to the House’s education appropriation bill that would reduce grant money for charter schools, block federal funds from going to charters run by for-profit companies, and add oversight by federal agencies. Tampa Bay Times.

Opinions on schools: It’s dangerous when people condemn critical race theory without knowing what it is. When racial ignorance and national arrogance meets cognitive dissidence, fascist attitudes and societal conflict are inevitable. Jeremy I. Levitt, Orlando Sentinel.