FL’s COVID school year: ‘A year that they will never forget — probably don’t want to ever have to repeat’

By: - May 27, 2021 1:06 pm

Classroom. Getty Images.

The 2020-21 academic year is wrapping up for Florida schools across the state — a relief from fears, struggles and exhaustion.

Throughout the year, educators, parents and students faced disruptions in education due to quarantining during the COVID-19 pandemic, stresses about academic achievement, worries about students falling behind and the threat of students or teachers getting sick from a virus that has ravaged residents, from adults to children.

Some teachers and faculty members died from COVID. Some students lost family members to COVID and had to continue their education while working through the traumatic experience of losing a loved one.

“It’s probably a year that they will never forget — probably don’t want to ever have to repeat,” said Andrea Messina, executive director of the Florida School Boards Association. “It was taxing physically and emotionally — on the families, on the students and on the teachers.”

Gov. Ron DeSantis speaking at a charter school — the Sarasota School of Arts and Sciences on May 26, 2021. Screenshot/Florida Channel

Gov. Ron DeSantis visited schools Wednesday and touted successes in the 2020-21 year, such as pushing $550 million in funding for starting teacher salaries in 2021-22 and promoting $1,000 bonuses for teachers and principals.

But while those silver linings were appreciated, the Florida education system will be recovering from the academic impact and emotional toll of the 2020-21 school year for what could be a long time.

Different learning options raise concerns

Cheryl McDaniel, deputy superintendent for the Jackson County school district in the Panhandle, told the Phoenix that she had been in education for about 33 years and that the challenges this year were unlike any she had ever seen.

“There were so many unknowns,” McDaniel said. “You never knew what was around the corner.”

While DeSantis praised an effort to keep schools open for in-person instruction during the COVID-19 pandemic, many families opted for virtual instruction because they did not feel safe sending their student to brick-and-mortar schools.

That meant variations in learning — some students learning in-person, some learning online and some doing a mixture of both in what’s called a hybrid model.

Student using laptops. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Of concern is that the multiple learning options led to vastly different experiences during the 2020-21 school year, with virtual students potentially making less progress than students who attended brick-and-mortar schools with in-person teachers.

According to a report from the RAND Corporation, a non-profit research organization, virtual learning students have lost instruction time throughout the 2020-21 school year.

The report found that: “Elementary students in fully remote settings received fewer instructional minutes in core academic subjects than their counterparts who were attending school in person in the 2020–2021 school year.”

McDaniel with Jackson County schools expressed similar observations.

“The students who have been back at school since day one I think have benefitted the most,” she said.

She noted that some students in her district who started out as virtual learners for part of the year but later started in-person learning may have some catching up to do.

“Teachers have tried their best to get those (students) caught up,” she said. “It’s different when you’re trying to learn remotely and don’t have the benefit of that teacher full-time with you.”

Messina, of the school boards association, said, “We know that not every student learns well in an online environment.”

But Messina also noted that other students fared well in virtual or hybrid environments.

She said school districts are going to have to look at the results of statewide assessments, which have not yet been released, to see the the impact of COVID on student achievement.

Fewer students have been tested on state exams

With Florida students in different learning modalities and the emotional toll of learning during a pandemic, some students likely have fallen behind. But to what extent is yet to be known.

“The true measure will be when we get state results,” McDaniel told the Phoenix.

In a normal year, thousands of students would be taking standardized assessments in various subjects, to demonstrate that they’ve met learning goals.

The results are crucial for such requirements as graduating high school or needing to repeat a grade. During the pandemic, the Florida Department of Education issued an emergency order to waive some of those requirements.

Photo by Getty Images

Students didn’t take state exams in 2019-20, but they did this school year — in-person, regardless of whether students were learning virtually or not. The rational was that by waiving some requirements associated with assessments, but still testing students, school districts and state officials can better identify which kids have struggled and need extra help in the upcoming school year.

By law, states are required to provide standardized tests to at least 95 percent of their students. This spring, Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran Corcoran sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Education asking for that stipulation to be waived for this year, given that Florida schools probably won’t meet that threshold.

His request was approved by the U.S. Department of Education on April 21, so Florida will not be held responsible for a lower testing turnout.

COVID infections rose related to schools

Novel coronavirus SARS CoV2, which causes COVID-19.
Meanwhile, new COVID mutations called variants are now spreading across the U.S. Microphotography by National Institute on Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

The Phoenix previously reported that the 2020-21 school year will end with more than 115,000 cases of COVID-19 infections related to Florida’s public and privates K-12 schools. Those cases spanned from Sept. 6, 2020 to May 15, and infections will likely rise by the time all schools end in June.

And for a majority of this school year, COVID vaccines were not widely available for teachers, staff, students, or anyone. Many teachers and staff expressed fear for their health, or even death, if they returned to the classroom.

The Florida Education Association, a statewide teacher union, has a collection of local news articles about Florida educators who have died from COVID-19 since Education Commissioner Corcoran ordered schools do be open for the 2020-21 school year.

The FEA shows 43 educators who died due to COVID-19, with one as recent as mid-April of this year. On April 14, 34 year-old teacher Adam Fraum, who worked at a Jewish private school in Broward County, died after battling health complications from COVID for months, the Miami Herald reported.

In January, a Duval County teacher’s assistant died from COVID complications, News4Jax reported. Teacher assistants and other paraprofessionals often serve vital roles to provide additional support and attention to students.

One heartbreaking moment from COVID occurred in December, when the Daytona Beach News-Journal reported that “James ‘Tom’ Russell, the former superintendent of Volusia County Schools and the current principal of Flagler Palm Coast High School, has died after contracting COVID-19.”

With widespread availability of vaccines for adults and children ages 12 and older, the COVID situation in schools has already begun to improve.

But for 2020-21, the year started off very scary for much of Florida’s schools.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Danielle J. Brown
Danielle J. Brown

Danielle J. Brown is a 2018 graduate of Florida State University. She has served as an editorial intern for International Program’s annual magazine and Rowland Publishing. She was born and raised in Tallahassee and reviews community theater productions for the Tallahassee Democrat.