State agencies okay mask opt-outs, voucher option for bullied maskless students, suits filed and more

Mask vouchers, opt-outs: Students who don’t want to wear masks in school got good news Friday. The Florida Department of Health adopted a rule that allows parents to opt-out of mask mandates for their children even if their district requires them, simply by notifying their schools. And the state Board of Education approved a rule allowing students to apply for a state Hope Scholarship to attend another school, public or private, if they experience “COVID-19 harassment” at school for not wearing a mask. Both rules were adopted at the urging of Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has contended that masking decisions should be made by parents. The governor also reiterated his threat to hold back state funding from districts that require students to wear masks and don’t offer opt-outs. “Giving parents options to make these decisions is not controversial,” he said. “I’m proud that today we took action to make sure school administrators respect parents’ rights to make educational and health care decisions for their families.” Friday’s decision left some districts scrambling to decide if they should alter their previously announced policies, which mostly made masks optional. News Service of Florida. Associated Press. Miami Herald and Tampa Bay Times. Politico Florida. Orlando Sentinel. Sun Sentinel. USA Today Florida Network. Florida Politics. Florida Phoenix. Even as decisions are still being made on district coronavirus safety protocols, including masks, 44 of the state’s 67 public school districts begin classes Tuesday. Eleven start Wednesday, five on Thursday, four on Aug. 16, and three others start Aug. 17 (Putnam), 18 (Broward) and 23 (Miami-Dade). Florida Smart. Jefferson County School District. Suwannee County School District. Florida continues to be the epicenter of the coronavirus surge, reporting 22,783 cases and 199 deaths on Thursday, and 23,903 cases and 93 deaths on Friday. Florida also has the most children hospitalized for COVID among the states. WFOR. Miami Herald. Palm Beach Post. Worldometer.

Suits challenge mask ban: Two lawsuits have been filed challenging Gov. DeSantis’ executive order issued July 27 that was intended to deter school districts from issuing mask mandates for students by threatening to withhold state funding. Both allege that the order violates federal law and puts disabled students at a greater risk for contracting COVID-19. “The governor’s most recent executive order preventing school districts from putting protections in place for students … has tied the hands of school districts from acting and made it impossible for school districts to provide students with disabilities a free appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment,” one of the complaints reads. CNN. WPTV. Orlando Sentinel. Florida Today. News Service of Florida. WTVJ. WKMG. WFTS. WJXT. WOFL.

Around the state: Several school districts announced over the weekend that they will require students to wear face masks and will honor opt-out forms signed by parents, Alachua school officials said they would follow those rules but will require the opt-out forms to be signed by a medical professional, other districts will consider their policies this week as schools open for a majority of districts, Gov. DeSantis appoints a member to the Manatee County School Board who says he stands with the governor in “opposing a mask mandate in Manatee County schools, keeping critical race theory out of our classrooms and prioritizing civics education,” the back-to-school sales tax holiday ends today, Florida ranks just 39th for early education in a personal finance website’s rankings, and longtime Florida State University football coach Bobby Bowden dies at the age of 91. Here are details about those stories and other developments from the state’s districts, private schools, and colleges and universities:

Miami-Dade, Broward: Miami-Dade and Broward school officials are still considering their next steps after the state Board of Education approved two rules Friday governing mask-wearing. Broward schools open Aug. 18, and board members will meet Tuesday to discuss their next step. The district’s current rule requires masks for all students. Miami-Dade schools don’t start until Aug. 23. “We have been a district and will continue to be a district that is absolutely guided by science and the expert advice of public health and medical experts,” Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said Friday. “We have a task force meeting this coming week to deliberate these issues.” WFOR. WPLG. WSVN. Members of the United Teachers of Dade are voting on a proposed contract with the district that includes $1,500 bonuses, pay increase ranging from 0.57 percent to 0.76 percent, and an increase in base pay for teachers from $47,500 to $47,717. Teachers will also get Juneteenth off as a holiday, and a commitment of no layoffs from the district. Balloting ends today. Miami Herald. The Archdiocese of Miami announced Friday that students will have to wear face masks when schools resume Aug. 18 unless they are fully vaccinated. There are 57 schools and about 6,000 students in the archdiocese. Miami Herald. WPLG.

Hillsborough: Students will be required to wear face masks when schools open unless their parents sign an opt-out form, Superintendent Addison Davis announced Saturday. The decision, which will be in place at least until Sept. 3, reverses the district’s previously stated policy that made masks optional. Masks will continue to be optional for employees. “While the outcome may be the same whether we make face coverings optional or required with an opt-out, we believe this decision continues to illustrate that Hillsborough County public schools takes public safety seriously,” Davis said. “We want to ensure we are doing all we can to help community-wide efforts to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.” Tampa Bay Times. WUSF. Florida Politics. WFLA. WTVT. WFTS.

Orange, central Florida: Orange County district officials have announced that students must wear face masks when schools resume this week unless their parents sent an opt-out note to their children’s teachers on the first day of school Tuesday. Superintendent Barbara Jenkins said she imposed the mandate “out of an abundance of caution for the safety of our students and employees.” The mandate will be reviewed after 30 days. Orlando Sentinel. WKMG. Florida Politics. Five of six central Florida school districts reported increases in the number of students retained this year. Brevard had a 65 percent increase, Lake 55 percent, Seminole 40, Volusia 36 and Osceola 15. Lake officials said some of their increase is due to 11th-graders who weren’t retained, but also aren’t on track to graduate. The “retained” code helps educators identify students who need extra help. Orange was the only district that showed a decline, reporting a 61 percent drop in the number of middle-schoolers held back over the past two years. WESH.

Palm Beach: Students will be required to wear face masks in district schools unless their parents provide them an opt-out note, interim superintendent Michael Burke announced Saturday. Masks had been optional, but Burke changed direction after the state’s rules were revised on Friday. He said he listened to “passionate pleas on both sides” of the issue but that he “must make decisions that safeguard the health and well-being of our students and staff. As the landscape of the pandemic is continually changing, I will revisit the facial covering requirement every 30 days and adjust accordingly,” he added. Palm Beach Post. Sun Sentinel. WPTV. WPEC. WPBF. Florida Politics.

Duval: School officials have posted an opt-out form online for students who don’t want to wear masks in schools this fall. Parents will have to log in or create an account in the district’s FOCUS portal, then submit the opt-out form electronically. It has to be done before classes start Tuesday. WJXT. WTLV.

Polk: Superintendent Frederick Heid said Friday’s decisions by the state have left him and a lot of other superintendents “frustrated at the time and the situation we find ourselves in. As far as banding together and denying the governor’s decisions, I think a decision of that magnitude is made with the school board, our partners. We would be exposing ourselves to litigation.” Heid also suggested that the district could still set up some form of online learning for students who have to quarantine. Lakeland Ledger. WFLA. District officials said they’ve reached a tentative contract agreement with the union representing bus drivers and other non-instructional workers. Hourly pay for bus drivers goes up from $13.40 to $14.50. Other employees will be paid a minimum of $11 an hour, and will get hourly raises of 75 cents in each of the next two years. Union members will vote on the proposal Aug. 21. Polk County School District.

Pinellas: A special meeting will be held today for school board members to decide whether to change the district’s policy on face masks. Right now, masks are optional but “strongly recommended” for students, employees and visitors. But the board will take another look after Friday’s decisions by the state Board of Education and health officials. Tampa Bay Times.

Lee, Collier: Face masks will be mandatory for Lee County students this fall, though parents can opt their children out of the requirement, school officials announced Sunday. They said they based the decision on the governor’s executive order, the state’s new rule on masking, and guidance from the CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics. The new mask policy will be in place at least until Sept. 10. Collier County schools are keeping their mask-optional policy. The first day of school in both districts is Tuesday. Fort Myers News-Press. WINK. WBBH. WFTX. Florida Politics.

Seminole: District schools will require students to wear masks when classes begin Tuesday and for the next 30 days unless their parents choose to opt them out. “We will continue to collaborate with our local health department and local experts to review the procedure before the 30 days have expired,” Superintendent Serita Beamon wrote in an e-mail to employees and families. She cited the surge in COVID-19 infections, primarily because of the spread of the more infectious Delta variant. Orlando Sentinel. WESH. WKMG.

Volusia: An ethics complaint has been filed by a parent against school board member Jamie Haynes for statements she’s made questioning the effectiveness of vaccinations that are contrary to the advice given by health officials. In doing so, the complaint to the Florida Commission on Ethics states, Haynes violated the code of ethics for public officers. Daytona Beach News-Journal.

Manatee: Gov. DeSantis has appointed financial adviser Wesley “Chad” Choate to fill the school board vacancy created when Scott Hopes resigned to become county administrator. Choate, 36, will represent District 4. “I am humbled by this opportunity to serve and look forward to standing with Gov. DeSantis by opposing a mask mandate in Manatee County schools, keeping critical race theory out of our classrooms and prioritizing civics education,” he said in a statement. Bradenton Herald. Sarasota Herald-Tribune. Florida Politics. WWSB. Thirty-three students and school district employees have tested positive for the coronavirus in the past two weeks. Bradenton Herald.

Escambia, Santa Rosa: Student scores on the Florida Standards Assessments and end-of-course exams declined in both Escambia and Santa Rosa counties this year. “What we have seen in the scores is that certainly the experience of COVID has impacted (scores),” said Escambia Superintendent Tim Smith. “There’s a correlation in lower test scores this year. The combination of COVID and blended learning and kids being off campus and learning through electronic processes correlates with some low test score numbers.” Santa Rosa students did finish first in the state in 8th-grade math scores, with 69 percent passing. “I am happy with our performance this year but I’m not satisfied, meaning that we want to continue to improve,” said Superintendent Karen Barber. Pensacola News Journal. Escambia school safety protocols for the 2021-2022 school year include optional masks, quarantines for students exposed to someone with the coronavirus until they are asymptomatic and test negative, and continuation of social distancing when possible and sanitization measures established last year. WEAR.

Alachua: District officials will follow the new state guidance on mask-wearing in schools, except for this: Students who want to opt-out have to submit the student mask opt-out medical exemption form that “must be signed by a licensed medical doctor, a licensed osteopathic physician or a licensed advanced registered nurse practitioner.” That goes beyond the language of the state rule, which simply states: “Students may wear masks or facial coverings as a mitigation measure; however. the school must allow for a parent or legal guardian of the student to opt-out the student from wearing a face covering or mask.” Alachua Chronicle. Alachua County School District. WUFT.

Bay: School district employees will be required to wear masks in schools, starting today and continuing at least until Aug. 24. No visitors will be permitted on campuses either, Superintendent Bill Husfelt said Sunday, although previously scheduled orientations will be held. WMBB. WJHG.

Flagler: The school district’s plan to use rapid-results coronavirus tests on students and employees who have been in contact with infected people could be short-circuited by the Florida Department of Health’s rules issued Friday. The DOH said students and employees who have been exposed must quarantine at least four days, and possibly six. The district wanted to use rapid-results testing to avoid sending students and workers home if they tested negative. Flagler Live.

Colleges and universities: Bobby Bowden, longtime football coach at Florida State University whose teams won two national championships, has died of pancreatic cancer. He was 91. Tallahassee Democrat. The suspension of federal student loan payments will continue through January, U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona announced Friday. He said this will be the final extension. Associated Press. Politico. Seminole State College will use federal funding to cancel $725,295 in student debt incurred by 1,074 students in 2020 and 2021. Orlando Sentinel. University of Florida officials said Friday that they “expect everyone to wear a mask at all times inside any UF facility.” Gainesville Sun. University of West Florida officials are “strongly encouraging” students to get vaccinated and wear face masks this fall. Pensacola News Journal. The University of Tampa has announced plans to build a 105-foot musical tower with 61 bells in the middle of campus. It’s expected to be finished next year. Tampa Bay Times. Ali Korman Shelton, who was once the director of government affairs for Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry, has been appointed to the University of North Florida Board of Trustees by Gov. DeSantis. Florida Politics. The governor also appointed Frederick Piccolo, the president and CEO of Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport, to the University of South Florida Board of Trustees. Florida Politics. Two Stetson University students, a senior from Orlando and a freshman from Mount Dora, won a random lottery drawing and will receive a free full year of tuition. More than 1,500 students entered. Daytona Beach News-Journal.

Sales tax holiday ending: The 10-day back-to-school sales tax holiday ends today at midnight. It began July 31. Taxes aren’t being collected on clothing, footwear and backpacks costing $60 or less; school supplies costing $15 or less; and the first $1,000 for personal computers or accessories. Tampa Bay Times. WWSB.

Teacher shortage: The president of the Florida Education Association, Andrew Spar, estimates that the state is short about 10,000 teachers as most Florida districts start classes this week. Florida has an estimated 200,000 teachers, according to the Department of Education. WKMG.

Early education: Florida ranks just 39th among the states in early education, according to rankings by the personal finance website WalletHub. States are ranked on such criteria as quality, access, safety and amount spent on each child enrolled in preschool head start programs. WJXT.

Opinions on schools: A more effective future awaits after families decide which schools to favor and which to avoid. A more humane system of K-12 education beckons, but it will be a rough ride getting there. Matthew Ladner, redefinED. The Broward County School Board must stand firm at an emergency meeting Tuesday and require masks for students, employees and visitors to reduce the spread of COVID-19 and its vicious variants. This is the right decision. It’s also vital that these elected officials know how strongly the public is behind them as they are being unfairly browbeaten by Gov. DeSantis and threatened with a loss of money to run schools during a dire emergency. Sun Sentinel. It’s time to ditch the politics and put kids first. Let’s boldly prioritize students over systems. Members of Congress must reject language in the latest U.S. House education budget, restore federal funding to the Charter School Program fund and treat all public school students equally. Jeb Bush, Miami Herald. Has the pandemic dented Florida’s STEM pipeline? It’s too soon to say, but many of the students in the pipeline need extra attention this year. Paul Cottle, Bridge to Tomorrow.