State-run education: Educators will long remember 2021 as the year when the state stepped in to make many of the decisions that had traditionally been handled by local school boards and district officials. Mandatory face masks, critical race theory, a parental bill of rights, charter school approvals and renewals, transgender females playing school sports, and more are all areas in which Gov. Ron DeSantis and other officials imposed their will on districts. In October, Senate Majority Leader Debbie Mayfield directed this message to local school boards: “You are not equal to the Legislature. Your role is to do what we put in policy to do.” Billy Townsend, a former member of the Polk County School Board and a harsh critic of the state’s approach to education, said, “The word I used for school boards, even before COVID, was ‘ceremonial.’ This is a state-run school system. … Nothing made it clearer than COVID.” Tampa Bay Times. The Florida Department of Education has released a list of what it calls its major accomplishments for 2021. WTXL. What to expect in K-12 schools and colleges and universities this year. Miami Herald.
In the Legislature: School districts would be authorized to require cameras in the classroom, with recordings kept at least three months, and teachers to wear microphones if a bill proposed by state Rep. Bob Rommel, R-Naples, is approved. News Service of Florida. The Capitolist. School districts would be required to identify “critical employment shortages” of educational support staff and start incentive programs to recruit and retain those workers under a bill proposed by Rep. Andrew Learned, D-Brandon. News Service of Florida. Teachers would be allowed to use money from the state to buy personal protective equipment under bills (S.B. 1376 and H.B. 919) filed by state Sen. Ana Maria Rodriguez, R-Doral, and state Rep. Travaris McCurdy, D-Orlando. News Service of Florida. Gov. DeSantis’ top 10 priorities for the Legislature include giving $1,000 bonuses to teachers and principals and replacing statewide standardized tests with a progress-monitoring system. The 60-day legislative session begins Jan. 11. News Service of Florida.
Around the state: Florida schools are preparing for the omicron surge with several school districts reintroducing face masks for adults but not students when schools reopen this week, the University of Miami will begin its spring semester online but many other colleges will continue to hold in-person classes, Sarasota teachers and the district tentatively agree on a contract that will increase minimum teacher pay to $50,000, Hillsborough’s school district announces finalists for teacher of the year, the start of the penalty trial phase for the Parkland school shooter has been delayed from Tuesday to Feb. 21, and Hernando County School Board members are considering changing the rules for public comments at board meetings. Here are details about those stories and others from the state’s districts, private schools, and colleges and universities:
Miami-Dade: All adults, including teachers, will be required to wear face masks when schools reopen today, Superintendent Alberto Carvalho announced last week. Students will be “strongly encouraged” but not required to wear masks. “It’s clear that the increase in cases is mainly driven by the highly contagious omicron variant,” Carvalho said. “We are forced to do what we’ve done for a long period of time, which is embrace protective protocols.” The district is also distributing at-home COVID test kits. Miami Herald. WLRN. WSVN. When the 61 schools and three preschools in the Archdiocese of Miami reopen today, all students above the age of 2 and employees will be wearing masks regardless of their vaccination status. The change in policy, announced Saturday, was prompted by the surge in COVID-19 cases. WPLG. Miami Herald.
Broward: School visitors and vendors will be required to wear face masks when schools reopen today, the school board decided last week during an emergency meeting. Masks are “strongly recommended” for students and school employees, but remain optional. Sun Sentinel. Miami Herald. The penalty trial phase for Parkland school shooter Nikolas Cruz has been postponed from Jan. 4 to Feb. 21. Cruz has pleaded guilty to killing 17 students and employees and wounding 17 others in 2018 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. The judge said both the prosecution and defense need more time to prepare, Sun Sentinel. Jason Gilliam-Alexander, a former teacher and coach at Nova High School in Davie, has been banned from teaching in public schools after a state investigation concluded he acted inappropriately with female students. He resigned in 2019 and is now in his third season as an assistant basketball coach and adjunct professor at Florida Memorial University in Miami Gardens. Sun Sentinel.
Hillsborough: Five finalists have been selected for the school district’s teacher of the year award. They are: Sonya Kelly, a 3rd-grade teacher at Tampa Palms Elementary; Trista Willard, a 3rd-grade teacher Mendenhall Elementary; Melissa Bondoc, who teaches 2nd grade at Summerfield Elementary; Laura Widerberg, a biology teacher at Armwood High; and Jennifer Price, a 5th-grade teacher at Lanier Elementary. Five finalists also were chosen for the Ida S. Baker diversity educator of the year award, and three for the instructional support employee of the year honor. Winners will be announced Jan. 20. Tampa Bay Times.
Orange: School officials are “encouraging” but not requiring students and employees to wear masks when schools reopen Tuesday. “Orange County continues to track the climbing positivity rates and hospitalizations and we will continue to monitor the data,” district officials wrote in a Facebook post. “As always, thank you for helping us lead students to success. We look forward to welcoming them back on Tuesday!” Orlando Sentinel. WESH. An Altamonte Springs man has been arrested and accused of threatening to shoot anyone who tried to stop him from removing a relative from Winter Springs High School. Police said David Gomez, 37, sent intimidating texts to the student and his mother, grandmother, aunt and uncle on Dec. 16. Orlando Sentinel. WFTV.
Palm Beach: Face masks will be required for teachers and other school employees, visitors and vendors when schools reopen Tuesday, school officials announced. Students return Wednesday, but will not be required to wear masks. Palm Beach Post. WPTV. WPEC. A retired school district investigator is suing the school board, alleging that the district engaged in a coverup to protect a high school principal who told a parent he couldn’t say if the Holocaust was a factual event, and retaliated against him when he questioned the investigation. Boca News Now. Kyle Gero, a U.S. history teacher at Watson B. Duncan Middle School for 26 years and head coach of the William T. Dwyer High School girls soccer team, died Dec. 23 in a motorcycle accident in West Palm Beach. He was 49. Palm Beach Post.
Duval: Teachers and other school employees will be required to wear face masks when working with students or when they’re unable to maintain a social distance from others when schools reopen today, school district officials announced Sunday. Visitors will be required to wear masks, but they remain optional for students. Field trips have been canceled, and capacity at sporting events and other extracurricular activities will be capped at 75 percent. The new rules will continue at least through the end of this month. WJXT. WJAX. WTLV.
Pinellas: A Seminole-based school that serves children and adults with intellectual disabilities is buying the Clearwater YMCA building on Highland Avenue for $3.8 million. Learning Independence for Tomorrow, or LiFT, plans to move into its new quarters next fall. St. Pete Catalyst. A longtime teacher and former state legislator has announced that he’s running for the District 3 seat on the school board. Carl Zimmerman, 70, had been a broadcast journalism instructor at Countryside High School for three decades before retiring in 2018. Current seat holder Nicole Carr has said she isn’t running for re-election. Dawn Peters is the only other announced candidate. Bay News 9.
Lee: With the rapid spread of the omicron variant of the coronavirus, district officials are adjusting their safety protocols, starting when schools reopen today. Stricter social distancing will be enforced, attendance will be limited at sporting events and other extracurricular activities, field trips are being canceled, and grab and go meals are being prepared so students can eat in classrooms instead of cafeterias. Fort Myers News-Press. WBBH.
Pasco: The second semester begins Tuesday with new school start times prompted by a shortage of school bus drivers that left hundreds of students routinely arriving up to an hour late during the first semester. The changes have forced many parents to rework their schedules, and some are predicting a “massive disaster.” Assistant superintendent Betsy Kuhn acknowledged, “It is for sure a big hassle. But if it gets kids to school on time, and they’re not waiting at bus stops 45 minutes to an hour, that’s what we’re wanting.” Tampa Bay Times.
Volusia: A 41-year-old office assistant at Heritage Middle School in Deltona has been arrested and accused of smoking marijuana with a 14-year-old student. Kristen Williams told deputies she serves as a mentor to some 6th-graders at the school. Daytona Beach News-Journal. WKMG. Orlando Sentinel.
Collier: District officials have released a proposed academic calendar for the 2023-2024 school year. Classes would begin Aug. 10. Students would get three days off Thanksgiving week, and possibly five if no hurricane makeup days are needed. Spring break would be March 11-15, and the last day of school is scheduled May 30. WINK.
Lake: Pfizer first-dose vaccines will be available this week at Leesburg and Triangle elementary schools for eligible students, district employees and members of the community, Feb. 15 at Sawgrass Bay Elementary and Feb. 17 at Cypress Ridge Elementary. Second doses will be available later this month and in March. WOFL.
St. Johns: The Diocese of St. Augustine announced Sunday that all students and employees at its schools will be required to wear face masks because the coronavirus positivity rate is now over 10 percent in all the counties where it has schools. Diocese officials said the new policy remains in effect until the positivity rate drops. WJAX. WJXT. WTLV.
Sarasota: Teachers and the school district have reached a tentative agreement on a contract that will pay teachers a minimum of $50,000 a year, an increase of $2,500. The proposal also includes a 5.25 percent pay increase on their 2021-22 salary, which is in addition to the 0.5 percent increase teachers received July 1, boost non-instructional employees $2 an hour, and reinstate a $7,500 bonus for teachers with master’s degrees plus 45 credit hours and a $2,500 bonus for teachers with a bachelor’s degree and 30 credit hours. The proposed agreement must still be approved by school employees and the school board, Sarasota Herald-Tribune. Charlotte Sun.
St. Lucie, Martin, Indian River: As the state of the coronavirus pandemic has peaked and ebbed during the semester, so too have the policies of the three Treasure Coast school districts to deal with it. TCPalm. David L. Anderson, the first black Martin County School Board member who served 32 years before retiring in 2012, has died at the age of 80. The district named a Stuart middle school in his honor. TCPalm. A 20-year-old West Palm Beach man has been arrested for allegedly making threats against St. Lucie West Centennial High School. Police said Brandon Tyrique Kelly made a post on Instagram that showed a photo of several rifles “with threatening wording about killing people” at the school. WPTV. TCPalm. Palm Beach Post.
Leon: A teacher at Lincoln High School in Tallahassee has been arrested and accused of soliciting a minor using a computer. Deputies said Sophina Webb, 27, of Crawfordville, exchanged thousands of messages with an underage student between Nov. 9 and Dec. 6, many of a sexual nature. Tallahassee Democrat. Fred Pickard, a longtime coach and athletic director at schools in Leon and Duval counties and a member of the Florida State Athletic Hall of Fame, has died in Tennessee of Parkinson’s disease. He was 83. Tallahassee Democrat.
Alachua: When schools reopen Tuesday, all employees, visitors and volunteers will be required to wear face masks. Students are “strongly encouraged” to wear masks, but they remain optional. WCJB. Alachua Chronicle. All-black Lincoln High School in Gainesville was closed midway through the 1969-1970 school year after the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the district to integrate its previously segregated system. Since then the school’s alumni have worked to keep the legacy of the school alive for the black community. WUFT. Two University of Florida grads have announced plans to open a private high school by September. Jordan Alexander Key and Jason Johnson said the goal of the Aegis Institute is to modernize the teaching of math and science. Gainesville Sun.
Hernando: School board members are considering changing the rules for public comments at board meetings. The amount of time given to individual speakers will be three minutes, but could be cut if more than 20 people register to speak. Suncoast News.
Monroe: Among the 8,900 student population in the district are students from 91 countries, according to district officials. “We’ve had an increase in enrollment for students born outside of the U.S. in the last few years,” said Natallie Liz, the district’s coordinator of the program for English speakers of other languages. About 10 percent of the district’s students are in that program. Florida Keys Weekly.
Columbia: Chester Norcross, an art teacher at Columbia High School in Lake City, has been arrested on misdemeanor simple assault-domestic battery charges. Deputies said Norcross, 44, allegedly threatened to cut the arms off a person. WCJB.
Colleges and universities: While the University of Miami will begin its spring semester online, many other colleges will continue to hold in-person classes despite pleas from faculty members to delay having students in classrooms. Miami Herald. WPLG. Associated Press. News Service of Florida. WCJB. WGFL. Bethune-Cookman University students will be required to show a negative COVID test before they can check back into dorms this week. WKMG. Students on all Nova Southeastern University campuses will be required to wear face masks indoors and outdoors when classes resume today. WSVN. Rogan Donelly, the president and CEO of the Tervis Tumbler Co. in Sarasota, has been appointed by Gov. DeSantis to the board of trustees at the University of South Florida. The USF graduate will replace John Ramil, who has been on the board since 2001. St. Pete Catalyst. William R. Butler, the University of Miami’s first and longest tenured vice president for student affairs, died Dec. 30 at the age of 95. Miami Herald.
Florida juvenile arrests: The number of juvenile arrests in Florida hit a 46-year low in 2021 and has now declined 51 percent in the past five years, according to the state’s Department of Juvenile Justice. The Capitolist.
Around the nation: A federal judge in Louisiana has blocked the Biden administration’s order requiring workers in Head Start programs to be vaccinated by Jan. 31 and all students over the age of 2 to wear masks indoors in those programs. The ruling, issued last weekend, affects programs in Florida and 23 other states. Associated Press. At least 42 acts of gun violence were committed during regular school hours on K-12 campuses in the United States in 2021, according to figures compiled by the Washington Post. Washington Post. A New York school district banned the use of the song Jingle Bells because of its origins as a song that was first performed in minstrel shows with white actors in blackface. WFLA.
Opinions on schools: It’s important not to let the politics of federal vs. state vs. local vs. parental control obscure what should be the center of every discussion in the new year: our students and their education. Tampa Bay Times. Critical race theory is complicated and subject to honest debate, but there is nothing honest about ambitious politicians like Gov. DeSantis trying to suppress it or turn it into a boogeyman. Sun Sentinel. In 2022, we must change course in education. We must target new funding for public schools to providing more resources, teachers, paraprofessionals and programs to students who live in poverty, and we must start those investments with early childhood and continue them into the K-12 years. And we must increase pay and address pay inequities for teachers and staff in our public schools. FEA president Andrew Spar, Orlando Sentinel. We must restore fairness to women’s sports by banning biological males from competing as females. Greg Salsbury, Orlando Sentinel.