New school year: FL teachers, families, politicians face acrimony as relentless COVID continues

By: - August 10, 2021 7:00 am

Credit: Getty Images

For most Florida school districts, Tuesday is the first day of school for the 2021-22 academic year, a time of confusion, uncertainty and acrimony as the pandemic continues and educators struggle to mitigate COVID-19’s impact in the classroom.

Education and politics are now entwined and local school boards — who have power under the Florida Constitution —  are clashing with the executive branch. The DeSantis administration is threatening a loss of funding if districts don’t comply with orders and rules on mask wearing and other issues, and it’s possible that superintendent salaries could be withheld.

That said, Gov. Ron DeSantis spoke Monday on the phone with school superintendents across the state, emphasizing to them that “parents have the right to choose what is best for their children, including on mask wearing,” according to spokeswoman Christina Pushaw.

The governor also “expressed optimism about the upcoming school year, and thanked the superintendents for their hard work to open schools for in-person learning and for protecting parents’ freedom to choose,” Pushaw said.

Just months ago, school officials expected a relatively pre-pandemic start of the school year, with students back in brick-and-mortar buildings and most districts pushing for a policy that would allow masks as optional.

But a more transmissible variant called Delta jostled the return-to-normal expectations as cases surged. New COVID cases have spiked above 20,000 for several days in early August, according to the CDC.

Still, more students are likely to return to face-to-face instruction, though others will opt for an online experience this year.

The new vaccinations against COVID-19 are helpful, though a large chunk of students are not old enough to be vaccinated.

Bucking an order against masks?

Last school year, districts could decide whether to impose a mask mandate for students and teachers in public schools.

Some districts never had a mask policy in place, while others dropped theirs by the end of the 2021 spring semester. Until recently, most school districts were satisfied with keeping a mask-optional policy into the next school year.

This is an image of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. The virus is now creating mutations that are spreading in the United States and elsewhere, including the Delta variant. Credit: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Rocky Mountain Lab

But things changed very quickly over the course of a few weeks,  as COVID cases surged this summer.

Some districts considered imposing a mask mandate for the fall semester, but others opposed the idea.

On July 30,  DeSantis posted an executive order to protect a parent’s right to “direct the upbringing, education, health care or mental health” of their student. The executive order prohibits school districts from infringing on that right, including mask mandates, through policies and law.

The Alachua County School District in Northeast Florida has bucked that order with an announcement that masks would be required for the first two weeks of school. Spokeswoman Jackie Johnson said that the district will continue with that policy.

“We are still requiring masks for the first two weeks of school,” she told the Phoenix.  Families can opt their students out of the mask mandate through a form that must be signed by a licensed medical doctor, a licensed osteopathic physician, or an advanced registered nurse practitioner, Johnson said.

“Until younger students can be vaccinated, and until more people who are currently eligible get vaccinated, universal masking is the best way to protect students and staff, to keep schools open and to keep kids in the class room,” she said.

Other districts have reconsidered their mask policies, even as recently as Monday.

Leon County Schools Supt. Rocky Hanna, in a Facebook livestream, announced that masks would be required for Pre-K students through 8th grade, at least through August.

He had sent a letter to DeSantis last week asking that school districts have local autonomy over whether mask mandates should be in place or not.

“I did not hear directly back from the governor by the end of last week, and I needed to make a decision today as we start school on Wednesday,” Hanna said at the press conference Monday.

He said that masks would be required by all students unless “otherwise noted by a physician or a psychologist.”

But the state agencies have put policies and rules into place to ensure that parents maintain their right to choose health decisions for their children, regardless of districtwide policies.

The Florida Board of Education approved a new rule Friday to allow public school students to transfer to private schools if their families are against a district’s COVID-19 safety measures, including masks.

Families can apply for taxpayer-funded scholarships, originally designed to help students suffering from bullying, for so-called “COVID-19 harassment.”

The rule defines such harassment as “any threatening, discriminatory, insulting, or dehumanizing verbal, written or physical conduct an individual student suffers in relation to, or as a result of, school district protocols for COVID-19, including masking requirements, the separation or isolation of students, or COVID-19 testing requirements, that have the effect of substantially interfering with a student’s educational performance, opportunities or benefits.”

In addition, the Florida Department of Health issued a rule that schools may use masks but they must  provide an opt-out option for families. That means districts cannot make masks mandatory across the board.

What’s going on with online instruction

Last school year, as part of a series of emergency orders, Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran gave flexibility to school districts to provide their students options to learn in brick-and-mortar settings, learn at home through an online platform, or learn in an “innovative learning option.”

For some districts, that meant providing a “hybrid” option, where students could learn from home but live-stream into a classroom that follows a standard school bell schedule and maintain a connection to the students and their teacher.

Florida 5th grader learning on his laptop at home during the coronavirus pandemic. Credit: Laura Cassels.

So far, Corcoran has not released an additional emergency order to provide the same flexibility this school year.

In addition, many school boards voted to do away with hybrid options at the end of the 2020-21 school year, because the trajectory of COVID in Florida was more favorable. But now, the Delta variant steered Florida off course and school boards are having to reconsider.

Andrea Messina, executive director of the Florida School Boards Association, says that school districts are looking into setting up some of those options again, as COVID cases rise  in Florida.

“They (school boards) were hoping not to have teachers serve in dual roles of classroom teacher and virtual classroom teacher,” Messina told the Phoenix. “But, we have to be prepared to ensure that students who have been exposed can continue their learning in a robust way and that’s what districts are wrangling with.”

Andrew Spar, president of the Florida Education Association, thinks that hybrid options should be available to districts in case students have to quarantine briefly due to COVID exposure. That way,  students can keep learning with their class while they wait out the quarantine period.

“If we have outbreaks in schools… its going to create disruptions,” Spar told the Phoenix.

There are online learning options available to students right now, but they’re different from a hybrid model. Traditional virtual options, such as Florida Virtual School, allow individual students to work at their own pace, Jackie Johnson from Alachua said.

“The students learn much more independently,” she explained of Alachua eSchool, the district’s virtual learning option. “They do have teachers — the teachers are local — but the students are working at their own pace and on their own schedules. So if they wanted to do math in the middle of the night, they can do math in the middle of the night. If they want to spend one week on language arts and another week on social studies, they can do that.”

Testing and results

After a break from statewide assessments in the spring of 2020, the Department of Education reinstated state exams for the 2020-21 school year. But an emergency order for the 2020-21 school year lifted the high-stakes aspect to many of these tests, meaning that student grade promotion or high school graduation would not be impacted by a student’s score on those exams.

Testing. Photo by Getty Images

Over the summer, test results were released and students across Florida did not score as high as in previous years, especially in math.

State testing is expected to continue again this year, but the high stakes associated with those exams may return, too.

“We’re not hearing of any changes in testing,” Spar, from the FEA, told the Phoenix. “Which actually means it’s going to be more like it normally is, and of course, that could mean that kids are going to be tested, and those tests are going to be counted for kids, and schools, and teachers,” a part of the accountability system used to track how well students and schools are doing.

Mixed emotions about the school year

Spar noted that many teachers are likely feeling mixed emotions.

“The beginning of the school year is always exciting,” Spar said. “At the same time, I think people are quite concerned of the health and safety of their students and their parents – and their own health and safety.”

That seems to be the case for Antoinette O’Brian, an elementary school teacher for Heritage Trails in Leon County, who said in an email to the Phoenix that her morale is “pretty low.”

“I am pretty fed up with the political aspects of COVID-19 and with people who can do their part to end this but are choosing not to,” she said in an email to the Phoenix.

But she indicated that her mindset related to the 2021-22 school year is different than that of last year.

“I know I haven’t really allowed myself to focus so heavily on all of the ‘what-ifs’ this time around. I have spent my time making my classroom look cute and getting materials that I believe will help my students have a fun year despite the learning conditions we are in once again,” O’Brian wrote.

“The kids will feed off my energy. If I just keep my focus on making this school year as fun as possible then I know I will be able to keep the anxiety in my classroom low,” she said.

“I am going to keep a smile on their faces this year.”

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Danielle J. Brown
Danielle J. Brown

Danielle J. Brown is a 2018 graduate of Florida State University, majoring in English with a focus in editing, writing, and media. While at FSU, she served as an editorial intern for International Program’s annual magazine, Nomadic Noles. Last fall, she fulfilled another editorial internship with Rowland Publishing, where she wrote for the Tallahassee Magazine, Emerald Coast Magazine, and 850 Business Magazine. She was born and raised in Tallahassee and reviews community theater productions for the Tallahassee Democrat. She spends her downtime traveling to all corners of Florida and beyond to practice lindy hop.