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Federal aid going unspent, civics bill resurfaces, failed courses, quarantine period and more

Unspent federal aid: In August, the state received $700 million in federal coronavirus relief aid through the CARES Act approved by the U.S. Congress to help schools educate students during the pandemic. As of last week, about $500 million of it has not been spent, according to Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran. A majority of districts have not yet requested even 75 percent of their allotment, according to DOE, and some smaller school districts have spent nothing. Kurt Browning, the Pasco County superintendent, disputes the idea that districts are not spending the money. “They’re saying you’ve got to spend the money, you’ve got to spend the money and we’re going, well we are spending that money,” he said. Browning pointed to the process as the biggest issue. Districts that use the money for payroll must spend the money first, then ask the state for the reimbursement that will come only after the payroll for each period is completed. Districts that want to use the money to buy laptops must buy them and wait for them because they’re probably on back-order due to demand, but not be reimbursed until they’re delivered. Districts have until the end of 2022 to spend their share of the money. Browning worries that the Legislature will simply focus on the amount as yet unspent and ask why it should provide more money. WFTS.

Civics education: A bill has been filed for the next legislative session that would give school districts the option of including a nonpartisan civics project for students through the U.S. government class curriculum. Students would be required to identify a community problem or issue, research it and then offer solutions. The hours on the project would also be counted toward students’ eligibility for Bright Futures scholarships. State Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, sponsored the bill. A similar measure cleared the Senate in the 2020 session but did not get a floor hearing in the House. The legislative session begins March 2. Florida Politics.

Around the state: More than double the number of courses are being failed this year than last year in Florida and elsewhere because of the impact the coronavirus pandemic has had on students, Volusia County cuts the required quarantine time for students and employees who were exposed to the coronavirus from 14 to 10 days, the Alachua County School Board picks a University of North Florida professor to be the interim superintendent, the Duval County School Board will consider selling its administrative headquarters, and a principal in Flagler County who contracted the coronavirus in mid-November is now in a hospital’s intensive care unit. Here are details about those stories and other developments from the state’s districts and private schools, and colleges and universities:

Broward, south Florida: The percentage of courses being failed has more than doubled nationally and in south Florida because of the “COVID slide,” according to school districts. In Miami-Dade, 9 percent of middle and high school courses were failed and in Broward it was 11 percent, both up from 4 percent last year. In Palm Beach, 13.5 percent of high school grades were Fs, up from 5 percent, and 7.7 percent of middle school grades were Fs, up from 1.6 percent last year. Sun Sentinel. Associated Press. The former president of the Paramount Charter School in Broward has been indicted on federal charges of stealing funds from the K-8 school in Sunrise and committing wire fraud. Jimika Williams faces up to 30 years in prison if convicted. Sun Sentinel. A national report recently cited the Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach County school districts as examples of how to use special magnet programs to improve racial and socioeconomic integration by attracting a more diverse student body to schools. WLRN.

Hillsborough, Tampa Bay area: Two high-ranking Hillsborough County School District administrators are leaving for jobs elsewhere. Jenna Hodgens, 58, who oversaw the district’s charter schools, is now the senior director of government relations for the clerk of courts. Chief financial officer Gretchen Saunders, 53, leaves Jan. 1 to become the chief financial officer for the St. Johns County School District. Tampa Bay Times. Tampa Bay area school districts are anticipating movement between in-person and online learning in the second semester due to coronavirus spikes, and have stopped asking parents to make long-term commitments to one method or another. Tampa Bay Times. More than 470 coronavirus cases were reported last week in the Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco and Hernando school districts, and 125 were reported at area colleges and universities. Tampa Bay Times. Two experiments from Tampa Bay area students have been taken into space on a cargo capsule scheduled to dock today at the space station. One, from students at Wendell Krinn Technical High School in Pasco County, explores the effects of microgravity on amoxicillin’s ability to kill the bacteria that causes staph infections. The other, from students at Randall Middle School in Hillsborough County, will test whether spinach seeds can sprout in space. WTVT.

Orange: The cofounder of the group 100 Black Men in Orlando, which supports the college dreams of black students at Jones High School through scholarships and mentoring, has died. Ronald Rogers, who was called “the ambassador to the Washington Shores community,” was 69. He was the town planner and administrative assistant to Eatonville’s mayor, and later started a business development and management firm in Orlando. Orlando Sentinel.

Palm Beach: Rapid coronavirus test kits will be available this week at schools for symptomatic students and employees. Officials said 12,000 of the tests are available in the district. Parents must consent for the test, which will be given by a doctor or nurse. WPTV.

Duval: The school board recently approved a resolution to consider selling the district’s main office on the St. Johns River and consolidating administrative offices. “I think it’s time to have a conversation over true opportunity regarding our location,” said board member Lori Hershey. “I think we are in a good position now … the value of the property has increased between $4 and $6 million in four years. We’ve paid off and own the building and property.” The main office building was appraised at about $13 million 18 months ago. Florida Times-Union.

Polk: Now that the state had approved the continuation of online learning, school district officials have begun working on the options it will give parents for the second semester. Each district’s plan must be submitted to the state by Dec. 15 for approval. “We are working on that plan and will provide details to PCPS families once they are available,” said district spokesman Jason Geary. About 71 percent of the district’s students are learning in classrooms, with 29 percent attending virtually. Lakeland Ledger.

Lee: A school district assistant principal has resigned after being arrested for the third time on a driving under the influence charge. Heather Morse, 43, an assistant principal at Estero High School, was arrested Thursday when deputies said she hit a car in a parking lot, pushing it into a sheriff’s office vehicle, then tried to drive away. She was arrested for DUI in 2008 and again in 2011. Fort Myers News-Press. School officials said the district will continue to offer two virtual learning options as well as in-person instruction in the second semester. WINK.

Osceola: Current and former students are working with school administrators to rewrite the district’s policies on addressing sexual misconduct. Called the Osceola Coalition for Change, the group wants to provide stronger safeguards for students do report incidents and better oversight to make sure the established protocols are being followed. Orlando Sentinel.

Volusia: The quarantine period for Volusia County students and employees who have been exposed to the coronavirus has been trimmed from 14 days to 10, which aligns with the latest guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The change goes into effect today. Those exposed but showing no symptoms can quarantine for 10 days or get a test on Day 6 and return to school the next day if the test result is negative. WKMG.

Manatee, Sarasota: Manatee and Sarasota school officials said they are sticking, for now, with the 14-day quarantine period for students and employees exposed to someone with the coronavirus. “Until we get marching orders from Tallahassee, we’ll stand firm,” said Sarasota health department official Steve Huard. Chris Tittel, a health department employee in Manatee County, said, “Presumably, Monday we will have a fuller picture.” Sarasota Herald-Tribune. Manatee County school Superintendent Cynthia Saunders has been named the 2020 “STAR” superintendent of the year this week by the Consortium of Florida Education Foundations. The award is given for a superintendent’s leadership skills and involvement with his or her local education foundation. Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

Collier: The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Collier schools nearly doubled in November, according to health department statistics. Between Sept. 6 and Nov. 28, 327 cases were reported among students and employees. From Sept. 6 through Oct. 31, 169 had been reported. Naples Daily News. All nine public county high schools are planning events Dec. 15-19 to honor the Class of 2020, which lost its traditional celebratory ceremonies to the pandemic. Naples Daily News.

St. Johns: A school-by-school coronavirus dashboard was launched last week by the school district. Every day between 4 and 5 p.m., it reports the number of students and employees who have tested positive for COVID-19 or have been placed into quarantine. “Making the numbers available on a daily basis serves to provide a higher level of transparency in the actual number of cases we are seeing at schools,” said district spokeswoman Christina Langston. “It can also help students and parents to be more comfortable in (remaining in) the brick-and-mortar setting.” St. Augustine Record.

Alachua: Carlee Simon, a member of the Alachua County Education Task Force and adjunct faculty member with the University of North Florida College of Education and Human Services, was named the interim school superintendent by the school board on Friday. Simon has never been a public school teacher or administrator, but “represents a new voice, a new skill set and a new perspective that was homegrown right here in Alachua County,” said board member Tina Certain. Simon replaced Karen Clarke, who had planned to leave the district in the summer but was dismissed early by the board. Gainesville Sun. The school district’s director of food and nutrition services, Maria Eunice, has been chosen as the winner of the Golden School Foodservice director of the year award, the highest honor in the national Food Service Achievement Management Excellence competition. Gainesville Sun.

Bay: School board members will vote Tuesday whether to offer virtual enrollment option to students in the second semester. BayLink allows students to register with the school of their choice, follow classes virtually in real time and interact with teachers. Superintendent Bill Husfelt is recommending an end to BayLink, which would mean students who want to continue remote learning would have to move to the Bay Virtual School, return to schools or home-school. He said 83 percent of students are in school classrooms now, and he expects that to increase to about 90 percent. WMBB. Panama City News Herald.

Flagler: Flagler Palm Coast High School principal Tom Russell is in a hospital intensive unit with COVID-19, according to school officials. Russell, who was formerly the Volusia County school superintendent, announced Nov. 16 on Facebook that he’d contracted the virus. Daytona Beach News-Journal.

Colleges and universities: The University of South Florida has received a $60,000 grant to hire a consultant to advise how to recruit more black students to the campus. That number has declined by 2.4 percent over the last five years. Tampa Bay Times. A dozen students and a teacher in a preschool class at Florida Southern College have been put under quarantine for two weeks after a student tested positive for the coronavirus. There are three preschool classes at the college. Lakeland Ledger. Florida Gulf Coast University students and employees who request coronavirus test kits but don’t use them will be billed $194, school officials said. Nearly 1,200 of the at-home test kits were requested before Thanksgiving, but only 33 percent were submitted to a lab. Fort Myers News-Press. The College of Central Florida Foundation has received a $6 million gift, its largest ever, from the estate of Mary Brent Kraus to provide scholarships and to benefit the Appleton Museum of Art education programs. Ocala Star-Banner.

Virtual VPK: Virtual learning will continue to be an option for students in the Florida voluntary pre-kindergarten program, officials with the state Department of Education announced last week. The option was scheduled to end at the end of this month. WPTV.

Around the nation: School budgets have not suffered as much from the coronavirus pandemic as feared, said school officials around the country. But they said the longer-term financial picture remains a worry because of ongoing economic problems faced by states, the uncertainty of the path of the coronavirus and federal aid, and the need of students to make up for lost learning. Chalkbeat. Parents around the country have expressed their unhappiness with virtual learning as they lobby for their children to return to schools. Associated Press. Educators said many questions must be answered before it can be decided if students will be required to be vaccinated against the coronavirus. Education Week.

Opinions on schools: The order allowing remote learning to continue in the new year, while setting expectations for results from those students, is a balanced approach that enables families to make their own decisions while recognizing the harm the pandemic has caused to the traditional scholastic experience. Tampa Bay Times. Is there hope that my political party, the Democrats, will ever begin to represent and honor the poor family by subsidizing its choice of school? John E. Coons, redefinED. Critical decisions about the future of Florida’s public schools will be made this spring, and many of them will be made by parents and students. Paul Cottle, Bridge to Tomorrow.

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BY NextSteps staff