Feds warn state on withheld funds, private school ends quarantine policy, mask policies and more

Feds pushing back: The U.S. Department of Education said Monday that it intends to take action to prevent Florida from withholding money from school boards equal to the federal grants they’re receiving to offset state sanctions over face mask mandates. The USDOE has warned the Florida Department of Education that doing so would violate federal law. “If FLDOE moves forward with its planned reduction of state aid to Alachua and Broward, the department is prepared to initiate enforcement action to stop these impermissible state actions,” Ian Rosenblum, deputy assistant secretary for policy and programs with the U.S. Department of Education, wrote in a letter to Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran. State officials withheld an amount equal to the monthly salaries of school board members in the district after their boards approved face mask mandates for students that did not include parental opt-outs. USDOE sent federal grants to those districts to replace the funds withheld, and the state reacted by threatening to then withhold funds equal to those grants as well. Politico. News Service of Florida. Miami Herald. Tallahassee Democrat.

In the Legislature: The Hope Scholarship program, which was established to offer state scholarships for bullied or harassed students to transfer to another public school or receive a stipend to attend a private school, would be expanded under a bill proposed by state Sen. Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah. Students who attend public school in districts that are subject to ongoing action initiated by the Florida Department of Education, such as districts being sanctioned because of their face mask mandates, would also be eligible if the bill is approved. reimaginED. A training and mentoring program for teachers would be set up under a bill filed Monday by state Sen. Shevrin Jones, D-West Park. Three mentors would be designated at every school, and each would receive $2,000. News Service of Florida. Another proposed bill would create education recovery scholarships for certain public school students to mitigate learning losses when in-person instruction is interrupted by an emergency. Only students in grades 3-5 who scored under Level 3 in the state’s standardized math or reading exams would be eligible. The bill is sponsored by state Sen. Jason Brodeur, R-Lake Mary. reimaginED.

Around the state: A private school in Miami has reversed its policy of requiring students to quarantine for 30 days after they’ve received vaccinations shots, Broward’s and Brevard’s school boards are considering changing their face mask policies, the state is withholding funding equal to the salaries and health insurance premiums of Leon County School Board members, 83 Lee County school bus drivers call in sick Monday, a state audit discloses that the Suwannee school district conducted less than half as many fire drills as required by law during the 2020-2021 school year, an Alachua County principal has been placed on administrative leave, and Bay County school officials are planning to better separate Rutherford High and Middle. Here are details about those stories and others from the state’s districts, private schools, and colleges and universities:

Miami-Dade: The Miami private school that told students they had to quarantine for 30 days after each vaccination shot they received has backed off its policy. Bianca Erickson, the chief operating officer at the Centner Academy, said in a letter to the state that the school would no longer be “requesting any student to quarantine at home due to vaccination status.” After the school’s policy made national headlines, K-12 Chancellor Jacob Oliva said a state investigation showed the school might have “attendance policies which require parents of recently vaccinated students to quarantine their children for an unreasonable, unnecessary and unduly burdensome amount of time before returning for in-person instruction,” and threatened to cut the school’s funding if it violated state attendance laws. Miami Herald. WPLG. WSVN. A teacher at John A. Ferguson Senior High School in Miami has been reassigned after allegations of sexual behavior with a student. WSVN.

Broward: School board members may consider changing the district’s face mask mandate for students during today’s board meeting. They had previously agreed to relax the policy, which requires students to wear masks unless they have a note from a doctor, once the positivity rate of those being tested for COVID-19 dropped below an average of 3 percent for 10 consecutive days. State data showed the past seven-day average for the community was 2.9 percent. “We have to have the discussion and look at the figures,” said board member Nora Rupert. “We said we were going to follow the data, and this would be following the data.” Sun Sentinel. WPLG. Three Miramar High School students have been arrested and accused of killing classmate Dwight Grant. Police officers said a 17-year-old boy talked two girls, 17 and 16, into helping him kill Grant, 18, after the victim began a relationship with his ex-girlfriend. WPLG. WFOR. WTVJ.

Orange: A group of parents, Democrats and the teachers union is urging the school board to extend the face mask mandate for students, which expires after Saturday, until the winter break begins Dec. 17. That will give students more time to get vaccinated, the group said. “Keep going,” said parent Lora Vail. The extension would help “protect children under 12, children like my son. All we’re asking is for an extension to finish the semester.” Masks are not on the agenda for today’s school board meeting, but could still be discussed. Orlando Sentinel. Florida Politics.

Duval: More than 100,000 black students in Florida are attending choice schools instead of the schools they’re zoned for, and 65,481 of them were enrolled in Florida charter schools last year. That’s up 86 percent from a decade ago. Margaret Lamkin, who has a granddaughter at the Somerset Eagle Academy Campus in Jacksonville, is not surprised that more African-American families are turning to choice schools. “They saw the same thing I did,” she said. Their prior schools “weren’t up to their standards.” It’s paid off for Lamkin and others. About 75 percent of black 8th-graders in charter schools are reading at the basic passing level or above, compared to just 52 percent of black 8th-graders in district schools. reimaginED.

Lee: More than 80 school bus drivers in the district east county zone called in sick Monday, leaving 166 routes uncovered and thousands of students without a ride to and from school. The bus drivers want higher pay and better working conditions. Transportation director Roger Lloyd said he’ll meet with drivers Thursday to talk about their concerns, but added that the strike is against school rules and drivers will be held accountable. WINK. WFTX. WBBH.

Brevard: School board members are expected to vote today whether to extend the face mask mandate for students beyond Oct. 29, the day it’s scheduled to expire. Friday, the district relaxed the policy to allow parents to opt-out. Today, the board will consider whether to make masks optional. School Board chair Misty Belford is proposing that the mandate be extended for a month for students in pre-K through 6th grade, with a parental opt-out, since those students still are not eligible for vaccines. Masks would be optional for older students, employees and visitors. Florida Today. A proposal to revise the public comments portion of school board meetings is up for a vote today by the board. Under the policy, speakers would be limited to 3 minutes if 10 or fewer sign up to comment. If 11-20 people sign up, each would get 2 minutes, and if more than 20 speakers register, each would get 1 minute.  If 10 or fewer public speakers sign up, each speaker can address the board for three minutes. If 11-20 public speakers sign up, each may speak for 2 minutes. If more than 20 speakers sign up, each may speak for one minute. Julie Bywater, a critic of the board, says the policy “further disenfranchises your community, and continues to create division.” Florida Today.

Volusia: A former New Smyrna Beach High School teacher has been sentenced to 30 months in prison for having sex with a 16-year-old student in 2019. Megan Parris, 30, pleaded guilty to unlawful sexual activity with a minor. She also surrendered her teaching license, must undergo a mental health evaluation, and can have no contact with minors. WESH. WKMG.

Collier: The school district’s migrant education program will soon start using a mobile classroom inside a renovated school bus to bring education to migrant students and their families in Immokalee. The Learning Express is a pilot project offering classes for students of all ages and their parents, with grants, federal funds and donations paying for the project. Traditionally, as many as 3,300 children of migrant workers a year are enrolled in county schools. Naples Daily News.

St. Johns: The district is ending free meals for all students on Dec. 1 because of supply shortages around the country. Qualified students will continue receiving the free or reduced-cost meals. WTLV.

Marion: Eighteen students and no employees tested positive for COVID-19 during the week of Oct. 16-22, according to school officials. That’s a decline of 56 percent from the previous week. Ocala Star-Banner.

Leon: The state is withholding funds equivalent to school board members’ salaries and health insurance premiums over their district’s face mask mandate. Board member Rosanne Wood was notified Monday by the school district that she would have to pay the premium for her health insurance, dental insurance and medical flex plan by the fifth of the month to continue coverage. Wood said she expected her salary to be withheld, but not her insurance premium, as part of the sanctions imposed by the state over the district’s face mask policy. “I’ve never heard of anything like this,” she said, “but that’s what they’ve chosen to do.” Tallahassee Democrat.

Alachua: The principal at Lake Forest Elementary School in Gainesville has been placed on administrative leave after a complaint was filed against her by a school employee. No details about the complaint against Beth LeClear were released. District spokeswoman Jackie Johnson called the move “a standard operation procedure.” LeClear has worked for the district since 1997, and was named principal at Lake Forest in 2020. Gainesville Sun.

Bay: The school district is planning to separate Rutherford High School and Rutherford Middle School as much as it can after the winter holiday, Superintendent Bill Husfelt has announced. The first official step was the appointment of Crystal Boyette as the acting principal of the middle school. The district had considered rebuilding the former Everett Middle School into a K-8 school, but enrollment at the combined Rutherford isn’t enough to justify a new school, Husfelt said. Panama City News Herald. Mosley High School is mourning the loss of 17-year-old Avery Sanders, a senior football player who died over the weekend in a motorcycle crash. Grief counselors are at the school for students and employees. WJHG. WMBB. Panama City News Herald.

Suwannee: A state audit has disclosed that the school district held less than half as many fire drills than required by law during the 2020-2021 school year. Only 40 percent of the required number of fire drills were held, and 59 percent of the mandatory active-shooter drills, auditors said in their report. WUFT.

Board members report abuse: At least five school board members in Florida reported that they’ve been verbally abused and threatened over mask mandates and other partisan issues. Four of them participated in a Zoom conference Monday hosted by Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, a Democrat who is running for governor next year. Florida Phoenix.

Around the nation: The vaccine manufacturer Moderna said Monday that testing shows its lower-dose COVID-19 vaccine is safe and works for children between the ages of 6 and 11. Moderna is still awaiting FDA approval to offer vaccines to teenagers. Associated Press.

Opinions on schools: Could school district democracy be made more legitimate? It’s not a substitute for empowering families to control the education of their child directly. Even in a well-functioning democracy, some disputes will remain unresolvable, creating the need for pluralism and tolerance. But no one other than the current beneficiaries would even attempt to justify a rigged democracy, so it would be worth a try. Matthew Ladner, reimaginED.