DeSantis defends his coronavirus policies, a boom in home education, masking questions and more

Hospitalization ‘hysteria’: Gov. Ron DeSantis struck back during a press conference Monday against criticism of the way he’s handled the coronavirus crisis. He blamed the media for causing a “hysteria” over the new surge in infections that has led to record numbers of hospitalizations, including among children. He also defended his executive order that threatens to withhold state funding from districts that require masks in schools, and his vow that there would no more lockdowns or school closures. “I think kids are very low risk. I’m confident things will go well,” he said, adding, ” We’re not shutting down. We’re going to have schools open. We’re protecting every Floridian’s job in this state. These interventions have failed time and time again throughout this pandemic, not just within the United States but abroad. They have not stopped the spread. And, particularly with Delta, which is more transmissible, if it didn’t stop it before it definitely ain’t going to stop it now.” Associated Press. Orlando Sentinel. Politico Florida. Florida Phoenix. Sarasota Herald-Tribune. WPTV. A top state education lawyer said he expects DeSantis’ order on face masks will be challenged in court. “The governor and the commissioner of education (Richard Corcoran) are simply removing the authority from local elected school boards, which flies right in the face of the constitution,” said Ron Meyer. He added that the language in the state constitution “is pretty plain that local school districts, elected by local citizens, have the power to operate, control and supervise public schools in the district.” WUSF. Sixty-two percent of Floridians want to see mask mandates in schools, according to a new poll. Supporting mandatory masking are 84 percent of Democrats, 66 percent of independents and 39 percent of Republicans. Florida Politics. WTLV.

Home education surge: The number of students who were educated at home jumped 35 percent last year, according to the Florida Department of Education, from 106,115 in 2019-2020 to 143,431. The increase “is believed to be a direct result of families opting out of face-to-face instruction in a classroom due to the ongoing pandemic,” according to the DOE. Hillsborough showed the greatest growth in the state, up 4,127 to a total of 10,964 students. Brevard, Broward, Miami-Dade, Marion and Orange counties each reported increases of more than 2,000 students. Politico Florida.

Around the state: Broward school board members may consider requiring masks for adults only on school campuses this fall, Duval school board members pass a student face mandate that allows parents to opt out only if they fill out the appropriate paperwork, Alachua’s school board approves a two-week mask mandate for students, Tampa Bay area districts make plans to continue educating students who are quarantined, the St. Johns County School Board adopts a more gender-neutral student dress code, declines in state math test scores for 8th-graders are concerning because they could translate to struggling at higher levels of math, the Volusia County School District and the U.S. Department of Justice reach a settlement over complaints that the district discriminated against students with disabilities, and an internal equity report concludes that the Sarasota school district needs to make improvements in hiring and Title IX compliance. Here are details about those stories and other developments from the state’s districts, private schools, and colleges and universities:

Miami-Dade, Broward: Broward school board members have said they will comply with Gov. DeSantis’ executive order on face masks so state funding is not put at risk, but are now considering making masks mandatory for all employees and adult visitors. The adults-only mask idea is being tried out in Duval County for the next 30 days. The governor’s spokeswoman, Christina Pushaw, has confirmed that the order applies only to students. “I think we could argue that the board voted for students, staff and volunteers to wear masks. The only change is the executive order pertaining to students,” said board chair Rosalind Osgood. “So everything is still the same as the board approved except that which we legally cannot enforce.” Sun Sentinel. WPLG. The Miami-Dade and Broward school districts are hiring more teachers and mental health counselors, expanding tutoring, partnering with after-school programs and asking for more parental involvement to help counteract the learning lost during the pandemic. Miami Herald.

Tampa Bay area: Most districts have ended their online learning options for students that kept them connected with their classes in real time, so parents are wondering what happens this year when their children are exposed to the coronavirus and have to be quarantined. The Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco school districts will offer extra teacher support as well as making material for courses available online and providing some live remote tutoring. Tampa Bay Times. Face masks will be optional this fall for the 13,000 students at 46 Catholic schools under the Diocese of St. Petersburg, Superintendent Christopher Pastura announced this week. The diocese had considered requiring masks, but changed direction after Gov. DeSantis issued his order to discourage districts from mandating them. Tampa Bay Times. Half of the Hillsborough County School District’s 28 lowest-performing schools are on track to improve their state grades from a D or F to a C or B, said Superintendent Addison Davis. Tampa Bay Times.

Orange: With districts unwilling to risk their state funding by requiring masks for students, health officials are pleading with parents to get their children 12 and older vaccinated and for students to wear masks. “It is important to offer that protection to our children, and also we are protecting our family members. Those kids will be going back and forth between two different environments … where we in many cases have multi-generational living,” said Dr. Raul Pino, the county’s health director. “And when we had our peak in January and in February earlier this year, it was a lot of transmission among family members. And that is why we are concerned.” Florida Politics. School board chair Teresa Jacobs said she was in favor of continuing the custom online learning option called LaunchEd, but said the state funding wasn’t there to sustain it, and even if it were reinstated, there wouldn’t be enough time to organize it. WKMG.

Palm Beach: A former Seminole Ridge High School English teacher has been sentenced to a year in prison for unlawful sexual activity with a minor by an authority figure of a school. Stephen Tori was 27 in 2018 when an investigation was launched after a complaint was made that he was having sex with a 17-year-old student. Sun Sentinel.

Duval: School board members are trying to work around the governor’s order on masks by approving a rule Tuesday that makes masks mandatory for student unless their parents sign paperwork to opt out. “Emergency! I’m saying it,” said board member Darryl Willie. “Our hospitals are full … and because we just got the order and because we start school in six days now and because it’s almost midnight. We need to go down that path.” A spokeswoman for DeSantis said that any district mask mandate was unenforceable because of the governor’s order. Florida Times-Union. Florida Politics. WJAX. WJXT. WJCT. WTLV. Board members also voted to approve a settlement with teacher Amy Donofrio, who had been removed from her Lee High School job because she refused to take down a Black Lives Matter flag hanging outside her classroom. Terms of the settlement with Donofrio’s legal representatives were not disclosed. Florida Times-Union. WJXT.

Polk: The school district has 18 new principals and assistant principals. Seven others have been hired for jobs in the district offices, including Joe McNaughton III as associate superintendent and chief academic officer. He had been senior director of K-12 mathematics, curriculum and instruction. All have already begun their new jobs. Lakeland Ledger. Backpacks, school supplies and lunch boxes will be given away Sunday at a drive-through Back-to-School Bash in Lakeland. Lakeland Ledger.

Brevard: The school district is among many in the state that have reopened a window for parents to enroll in virtual school programs. Those enrollment periods ended for most districts, but are being reopened because of the recent surge in coronavirus cases. Florida Today. WOFL.

Osceola: School board members voted 3-2 on Tuesday to add a maximum of 10 coronavirus-related sick days for district employees who are fully vaccinated and contract the virus at a school building. WKMG.

Volusia: The school district and the U.S. Department of Justice have settled a complaint that accused the district of “systemic and discriminatory practices” against students with disabilities. Specifically, the department said it substantiated that the district disciplined students for behavior resulting from their disabilities, urged law enforcement to remove students with disabilities from schools, and required parents to pick up their children or keep them home. U.S. Department of Justice. District transportation director Mitch Moyer said he expects about 5,000 more students to ride school buses this year and if that happens, the district will be short by about 20 drivers. Daytona Beach News-Journal.

St. Johns, Clay: St. Johns County School Board members unanimously approved an amended student dress code intended to allay the concerns of students and parents who called the previous code biased against girls. Among other things, the code eliminates specific inseam measurements for shorts, shirts and dresses for all students for a “mid-thigh” rule, and makes an allowance for the “style of the day” by allowing rips and tears in clothing above the thigh if there are patches or mesh underneath. St. Augustine Record. WJAX. WJXT. WJCT. Teachers in St. Johns and Clay counties are protesting the end of paid sick leave for anyone who has to quarantine because of the coronavirus. Last year they were allowed 14 days of sick pay. But that was funded by federal aid, which has not been renewed. WJXT.

Sarasota: Vaccinated students and employees will not have to quarantine this school year if they’ve been exposed to the coronavirus, district officials said Tuesday. Unvaccinated students who are quarantined won’t be able to keep up this year by following their classes in real time online. Instead, elementary students will get packets of work to do while they’re home, while older students will get their assigned through one of the district’s portals. Social distancing and sanitization measures will continue, and wearing a mask is “strongly encouraged.” Sarasota Herald-Tribune. Charlotte Sun. WFLA. WWSB. The district’s annual equity report concludes that improvements need to made in hiring and Title IX compliance. Harriet Moore, the district director of innovation and equity, said blacks and Hispanics remain significantly underrepresented among teachers, and there are far more males than females competing in school sports. Your Observer.

Leon: Caleb Stewart, a 7-year-old student at Sealey Elementary School in Tallahassee, has opened a pop-up library at the Alarm International Church. He calls it the Blue Box because that’s his favorite color. “Our goal is to get more books into the hands of kids unlocking every child’s reading potential to comprehend and retain any text placed in front of them,” he said at the grand opening. “We will encourage them to have confidence and know that it’s OK to ask for help when reading unfamiliar words.” Tallahassee Democrat.

Alachua: School board members approved a face mask mandate for students for the first two weeks of school, citing an increase in coronavirus cases and hospitalizations. Aug. 10 is the first day of classes. The board will re-evaluate at its next meeting Aug. 17. A spokeswoman for the governor said any mask mandates are unenforceable because of the governor’s recent executive order. WCJB. WGFL. WJXT. Alachua County School District. Florida Politics.

Bay: While most Florida Standards Assessments test scores declined overall for district students, they did perform above the state average in several categories on end-of-course tests, according to school officials. Bay students were 3 percentage points above the state average for algebra 1 scores, 9 percentage points in geometry, 4 points in U.S. history, 8 points for civics, and 1 point for biology. Panama City News Herald.

Putnam: Coronavirus safety protocols for the new school year include optional face masks, though they are “highly recommended” by district officials. Last year’s sanitization measures will be carried over from last year, and visitors will be banned for at least the first nine weeks of school. WJXT.

Colleges and universities: Valencia College in Orlando announced Tuesday that it will require students, staff and visitors to wear masks indoors on campus. WKMG. Kanika Tomalin, St. Petersburg’s deputy mayor, has been named vice president for strategy and chief operating officer for Eckerd College. She’ll begin the job in January, when Mayor Rick Kriseman leaves office after two terms. Tampa Bay Times.

8th-grade math problem: In a year when Florida Standards Assessments test scores in math declined across the board, the drop among 8th-graders was especially concerning to educators. Just 37 percent of 8th-graders scored a 3, 4 or 5 on the test. A 3 is considered satisfactory, while scoring at a 4 or 5 level indicates proficiency. In 2019, the last year students took the exam, 46 percent scored at a satisfactory or higher level. Educators worry that the falloff is a precursor to more struggles at higher levels of math. Florida Phoenix.

Around the nation: Eighteen months in the pandemic, there’s still no national consensus on how to keep students and schools safe. Politico. New research suggests that the number of cyberbullying cases declined while students learned remotely in 2020 and this year. “We were surprised by the drop in cyberbullying,” said study co-author Andrew Bacher-Hicks. “It stands in contrast to the belief that (the shift to online instruction) would increase cyberbullying.” The 74.

Opinions on schools: Decisions regarding the spending of legislatively appropriated money for schools should be made in conjunction with the Legislature. But the fiercely determined Gov. DeSantis is hell-bent to go-it-alone, and almost no one in his party is willing to challenge him. Sun Sentinel. School-choice advocates held a much stronger hand this year than they’ve enjoyed in the recent past. The question now is whether they’ll be able to build on their success, or whether the pandemic created a singular set of political circumstances. Allan Greenblatt, Education Next. Expanding open enrollment opportunities is a critical victory for students and parents alike. For students, it paves the way for higher educational achievement. For parents, it provides flexibility and peace of mind that their child is succeeding. Sean Michael Pigeon, redefinED.

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BY NextSteps staff