COVID-19 making a comeback in state schools, bill guarantees speaking time before boards, and more

COVID’s comeback: The recent surge in COVID cases in the state and nationally, driven by the rapid spread of the omicron variant, started to show up last week in Florida schools. In the Tampa Bay area counties of Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco and Hernando, for instance, cases have nearly doubled from the average of the past eight weeks to last week, from 160 to 308. That’s about the same rate of increase in the number of cases statewide. While effects from the omicron variant appear less severe, it’s reportedly more easily transmitted, and educators worry that will quickly become a problem because schools no longer have the options of countermeasures such as requiring face masks or quarantining students who are exposed but healthy. Gov. Ron DeSantis said Friday that the state expects a seasonal surge in the number of cases, but vowed to continue fighting against mandates of any kind. Tampa Bay Times. Sarasota Herald-Tribune. Miami Herald. Sun Sentinel. Tampa Bay Times. Florida Today. WPTV. The CDC has announced support for a “test to stay” policy to keep students in schools. The policy requires frequent COVID-19 testing for students who have been in close contact to someone who has tested positive. NPR. Pfizer officials said Friday that vaccines may not be ready for children under the age of 5 until the middle of 2022. Politico.

In the Legislature: A bill has been filed that would require school boards to listen to at least 30 minutes of public comments before meetings and allow those commenters to criticize board members. S.B. 1300 was filed by state Sen. Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, after some school boards have begun putting limits on how long members of the public can speak and what they can talk about. News Service of Florida. Meetings between parents and school administrators about children’s individual education plans could be recorded under another bill filed by Gruters. reimaginED. An Early Learning School state scholarship would be established for children under the age of 6 who are or were in foster or out-of-home care under a bill filed by state Rep. Rick Roth, R-Palm Beach Gardens. reimaginED. The Florida House releases its schedule for the first week of the 60-day legislative session that begins Jan. 11. News Service of Florida.

Food for schools: Federal officials have announced that Florida will receive $86.9 million to buy food for school meals. The money is intended to help school districts offset disruptions in the supply chains for food. “USDA is aware that some schools are experiencing challenges purchasing and obtaining food for their meal programs and is taking swift action to ensure that doesn’t interfere with their ability to serve meals to the children in their care,” the Food and Nutrition Service said on its website. Florida Phoenix.

Around the state: Some University of Florida faculty members said they were rushed to vote on tenure for Dr. Joseph Ladapo before he was also appointed the state’s surgeon general and weren’t aware that some of his beliefs “directly contradict sound scientific evidence,” students and former students of Blake High School in Tampa want an investigation into the way the school district handled their allegations of sexual harassment at the school, a teacher and a teacher’s aide at Emma E. Booker Elementary School in Sarasota have been commended for keeping a threatening stranger away from a class of 2nd-graders on Aug. 31, Monroe school board members approve a two-year contract extension for Superintendent Theresa Axford, members of the conservative group Concerned Citizens Defending Freedom in Brevard County want the school board to reject the district’s proposed human reproductive systems curriculum, and schools around the state and nation were busy Friday dealing with threats sparked by a rumored TikTok challenge that was later called a hoax. Here are details about those stories and others from the state’s districts, private schools, and colleges and universities:

Miami-Dade: Last Wednesday in Miami, when Gov. DeSantis called on legislators to draft and pass a bill banning schools from teaching critical race theory and businesses from using it in training, one of the people standing at his side was a Miami activist who has parroted QAnon conspiracy theories and apparently supports the rioters at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. Eulalia Maria Jimenez is the chair of the Miami chapter of the Moms for Liberty who joined DeSantis in criticizing CRT, which she said “breeds division and segregation.” After she spoke, DeSantis said, “You’re wonderful. That was so good.” DeSantis spokeswoman Christina Pushaw defended the decision to have Jimenez appear at the event, and said, “It’s not on us to look into their private social media account and police what they say. We want people on stage that is line with our message.” Politico Florida.

Broward: A Miramar High School student was arrested Friday for having a loaded gun at school, and South Plantation High School was locked down for hours while officers searched the school after a threat. “We are under attack by a social media platform that will not intervene when it is necessary,” said interim superintendent Vickie Cartwright. “I’m asking for our federal government at this point in time to intervene. We need help. I cannot fathom that any other country would allow this type of attack to be occurring on their education system.” Sun Sentinel. WPTV. Associated Press. Miami Herald. The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld the federal cyberstalking conviction of a man who posed as mass murderer online and sent messages to victims of the Parkland school shooting. Sun Sentinel. Lawyers who represented families of the Parkland school shooting in a lawsuit against the FBI are asking a judge to decide how they will split up their fees from the $127.5 million settlement. Sun Sentinel.

Hillsborough: Students and former students of Blake High School in Tampa who are unhappy with the district’s handling of their sexual harassment complaints have launched an online petition demanding an independent investigation of the district’s policies and plan a protest at the Jan. 11 school board meeting. The students said they felt belittled and punished by the school’s response to their allegations. “It makes me feel like they do not care about us because if so many students are going through this, why did you not change it? Or try to help it? Or even speak about it?” asked Blake High junior Kassandra Glor. Tampa Bay Times.

Orange: A 13-year-old boy who had been expelled from the private Champion Preparatory Academy in Apopka has been arrested and accused of threatening a shooting at the school. Deputies said the boy made the threat in a video chat. Orlando Sentinel. WKMG. WMFE.

Palm Beach: School officials have set graduation dates for 32 in-person ceremonies, starting in mid-May. Indian Ridge High and Palm Beach Virtual will hold ceremonies May 12, and Palm Beach Lakes Community High, William T. Dwyer High and Inlet Grove Community High will finish May 26. “We’re hoping to get back to normal and the way it was,” said deputy superintendent Ed Tierney. Palm Beach Post.

Polk: Members of the conservative group Concerned Citizens Defending Freedom said they’re concerned that the school district is promoting anal sex because the vocabulary for the human reproductive systems curriculum, and some of the diagrams, includes the anus. “I also was appalled to find the anus as a part of the reproductive system when anal sex clearly is not part of the reproductive system,” said David Cooper. “This curriculum is not following the law or the science … Not only does it violate several Florida statutes, but it also endangers the innocence of our children. Please don’t approve this curriculum. Review it.” When asked if anal sex is taught in schools, district spokesman Kyle Kennedy said, “The answer is no; we don’t ‘teach anal sex.’ ” The board is expected to vote on the curriculum Jan. 11. Lakeland Ledger.

Lee: District officials have released a new five-tiered COVID-19 mitigation policy with recommended actions for low, moderate, substantial and high levels of community transmission. WINK. Three teen-age students were arrested Friday and accused of making social media threats against schools. Deputies said a 15-year-old threatened a mass shooting at Bonita Springs High, a 14-year-old made a bomb threat against Lehigh Acres Veterans’ Park Academy for the Arts, and a 13-year-old said he was going to shoot black students at North Fort Myers Academy for the Arts. WINK. Fort Myers News-Press. WFTX.

Brevard: School board members say the rising numbers of disciplinary action and mental health issues among students are indicators that the school district needs more social workers and counselors. “We have a lot of hurting kids,” said board member Katye Campbell. “Whether it’s the continued trajectory that we were already on, the conversations we were having before the pandemic ever started, or the results of pandemic, or all of the above, we’ve got a lot of needs to meet.” Florida Today.

Manatee: A 12-year-old student at Palm View K-8 in Palmetto who used her phone camera to record a fight at her school in September quickly became the focus of police and school officials once the fight was broken up. They demanded she hand over the phone and delete the video, contending she illegally filmed the fight. When she refused, she was arrested and handcuffed. Legal experts and Sheriff Rick Wells later disputed the idea that she was committing a crime by filming the fight, and officers and district officials are now using a video from an officer’s body camera for training. Bradenton Herald. Two 13-year-old students were arrested Friday and accused of making a bomb threat against their school, Haile Middle, through social media accounts. Bradenton Herald. WWSB.

St. Johns: Contract negotiations between the school district and the union representing teachers have been postponed until January after the sides failed to reach an agreement last week. The district wants to raise starting teacher pay to $47,500, as the state is encouraging, while the union wants to set it at $46,125 so there will be more money for raises for veteran teachers. St. Augustine Record.

Sarasota: A teacher and a teacher’s aide at Emma E. Booker Elementary School in Sarasota have been commended by district and law enforcement officials for keeping a threatening stranger away from a class of 2nd-graders on Aug. 31. The man got onto campus and began moving toward the students when P.E. teacher Amber Rylak and aide Jackie Mendolia intervened, fighting with the man long enough for the children to get into their classroom and lock the door. The school resource officer then arrived and detained the man, who was involuntarily committed to a hospital under the Baker Act. Sarasota Herald-Tribune. Duane Oakes has been appointed as the chief of the school’s district police department, and starts Jan. 11. He replaces Tim Enos, who is retiring after the winter bresk. Sarasota Herald-Tribune. Charlotte Sun.

Citrus: One student has been arrested and six others disciplined for making social media threats against district schools last week. Disciplinary measures will range from out-of-school suspensions to recommendation for expulsion, according to district officials. Citrus County Chronicle. WFLA.

Flagler: A 13-year-old student has been arrested and is accused of making social media threats against his school, Indian Trails Middle School. The boy told deputies it was just a joke. WJXT.

Monroe: School board members approved a two-year contract extension for Superintendent Theresa Axford at a meeting last week. Her $175,000-a-year contract now runs through July 2024. The vote was 4-1 in favor, with board member Bobby Highsmith arguing that Axford’s original contract called for only one-year extensions if approved by a supermajority of the board. He said that language was included because when Axford was hired in 2020, the understanding was she would be an interim superintendent and didn’t want the job for more than two years. Florida Keys Weekly.

Colleges and universities: Some University of Florida faculty members said they were rushed to vote on tenure for Dr. Joseph Ladapo before he was also appointed the state’s surgeon general and weren’t aware that some of his beliefs “directly contradict sound scientific evidence,” according to a letter drafted by professors in UF’s Department of Medicine but never sent. Tampa Bay Times. A surge in coronavirus cases at the University of Miami has moved exams online and canceled mid-year graduation parties. Miami Herald. University of Florida researcher Jaret Daniels wants to rebuild monarch butterflies’ habitats through the sale of a new beer made by Gainesville’s First Magnitude Brewing. Mainstreet Daily News. Gov. DeSantis said a charge that he was requiring $100,000 donations for appointments to seats as university trustees is a “baseless conspiracy charge.” Nikki Fried, the state’s agriculture commissioner and a challenger to DeSantis’ re-election in 2022, made the accusation last week but offered no evidence. Florida Politics.

Around the nation: Conservatives are increasingly focusing on education as a political issue. Face masks, vaccines,  transgender athletes, instruction about the nation’s racial history, books have all become targets for angry parents who are organizing to spread their ideas into the nation’s classrooms. Associated Press. Schools are placing an emphasis on social and emotional learning to help students who are feeling overwhelmed by the effects of the pandemic. Associated Press.

Opinions on schools: If the worst COVID-19 projections materialize with a massive January wave, public schools again will be forced to chose between protecting students and complying with state law created by Republicans who disregard the nation’s top health experts and favor anti-mask, anti-vaccine rhetoric. Miami Herald. The radical right wants to turn school boards into incubators for political revolutionaries. And in Florida, the mainstream Republican Party is preparing to meekly acquiesce. Frank Cerabino, Palm Beach Post. The social media impact on school violence is a disturbing new tech trend. Blake Dowling, Florida Politics.

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BY NextSteps staff