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Group hits back at COVID precautions in schools, project spurs clean buses, tax revenues, and more

‘Pro-liberty’ group: A current and two former Florida school board members have started a group called Moms for Liberty that intends to “fight back” against face masks and other safety precautions in schools that they believe infringe on the rights of parents to make decisions about their children. Sarasota County School Board member Bridget Ziegler and former board members Tina Descovich (Brevard County) and Tiffany Justice (Indian River County) said the “pro-liberty” group’s first target in Brevard County will be the district’s policy requiring students to wear face masks. “We believe it should be a parental choice and not a mandate,” said Ashley Hall, who chairs the Brevard chapter of the group, which said it opposes “government overreach” and promises to “fight those who stand in the way of liberty.” Another target is quarantine protocols, which the group views as excessive. Florida Today.

Around the state: The Miami-Dade School District followed the advice of a middle school student and is switching its diesel school bus fleet to electric, revenues from an extra half-cent in sales taxes are strong in St. Johns County and projected at up to $8 million a month in Duval, the Sarasota district plans to hire an equity director and has appointed a cultural proficiency committee to try to defuse racial tensions, Marion school officials are planning a choice academy for pre-K through 2nd-grade to better prepare students for 3rd-grade testing, Polk has received 19 applications for the superintendent’s job being vacated next month by the retiring Jacqueline Byrd, and Collier’s school district names its principal and assistant principal of the year. Here are details about those stories and other developments from the state’s districts and private schools, and colleges and universities:

Miami-Dade: A year after a middle school student’s science project concluded that carbon dioxide fumes inside the Miami-Dade County School District’s diesel buses were 10 times higher than allowed by federal law, school officials said they intend to switch to their fleet of 1,060 buses to electric. At last week’s school board meeting, Superintendent Alberto Carvalho told MAST Academy student Holly Thorpe that the district was following her advice to switch to clean energy and was applying for federal grant money from the $2.8 billion fund created when Volkswagen settled a federal lawsuit that alleged it cheated on government emissions tests. Miami Herald.

Broward: A security monitor at Silver Lakes Middle School in North Lauderdale has been arrested and accused of bringing a gun to the school campus. Deputies said Jennifer Melo, 33, left a gun in her backpack on the front seat of her vehicle in the school parking lot last Wednesday. Only law enforcement officers and school guardians trained by the sheriff’s are legally allowed to carry guns on campuses. Melo has been reassigned pending a review of her case. Sun Sentinel.

Tampa Bay area: The growth in the number of coronavirus cases in Tampa Bay area school districts has slowed. In Hillsborough, the number of cases declined to 369 from 456 the week before. Pinellas had 118, down from 286, Pasco saw a decline from 225 to 184, and Hernando from 54 to 43. Tampa Bay Times.

Orlando, central Florida: The principal at Dr. Phillips High School in Orlando, 18 other schools employees and 92 students have been placed under quarantine, and many teachers are suggesting that the school be closed. But health and school officials said a shutdown isn’t warranted. There have been eight coronavirus cases since Jan. 1, and 101 students and employees are under quarantine. Orlando Sentinel. WKMG. Central Florida students in the performing arts have had to adapt to outdoor performances, face masks with slits so they can play instruments, and ensemble shows played individually in front of a computer at home. “Yes, it’s not convenient,” said Diane Hasenbank, the dance teacher and chair of the Hagerty High School arts department. “Yes, it’s not comfortable. But we’re making it work, and the kids have this outlet that’s so very important to them.” Orlando Sentinel.

Palm Beach: Superintendent Donald Fennoy talks about his year of coronavirus and chaos, the mistakes he made, how he’s recovered from them and the stress that contributed to his 50-pound weight loss. “It is unsettling,” he said. “It’s like being on a roller coaster. Have you ever been on a roller coaster in the dark? … It was the most emotional leadership experience I’ve ever had.” Palm Beach Post.

Duval: The extra half-cent sales tax for education approved by voters in November is projected to raise $7 million to $8 million a month for the next 15 years, said Superintendent Diana Greene. The money will be used to build new schools and renovate and repair older ones, and Greene said the work will begin soon. WTLV. District high school graduations have been scheduled between May 20 and June 7, according to a schedule released last week by the school district. Most of the ceremonies will be at the schools’ football fields. WJXT.

Polk: Nineteen people have applied to replace the retiring Jacqueline Byrd as school superintendent, with Jan. 31 the deadline for applying. A citizens committee will review the applications and make recommendations to the school board, which plans to choose Byrd’s successor April 27. She’s retiring next month. Lakeland Ledger. School officials are negotiating with the health department to schedule coronavirus vaccinations for district employees who are over 65 years old. There are 783 employees in that group. “They (health officials) just want to make sure they can continue to meet our demands when they roll it out,” said Teddra Porteous, the district’s associate superintendent for human resources. Lakeland Ledger.

Lee: The number of coronavirus cases among teachers and staff jumped 34 percent between Dec. 29 and Jan. 2, according to district officials. Since Sept. 6, the district has reported 1,701 cases. Fort Myers News-Press. Fewer than 100 residents have offered their thoughts on the school district’s proposed rezoning that would have elementary students attend schools closer to home starting in the 2022-2023 school year. The four boundary maps will be revised based on feedback, then be reissued in March. The school board wants to vote on the proposal this summer so the new boundaries will be in place when parents can choose schools during the 2022 spring open enrollment period. Fort Myers News-Press.

Brevard: Laura Penfield, a music teacher at eight district schools who specializes in string instruments, has been named the secondary music educator of the year by the Florida Music Education Association. She’s worked in the district since 1988. Space Coast Daily.

Volusia, Flagler: The number of coronavirus cases in the Volusia school district jumped more than 40 percent last week, from 92 to 132, and school officials have now reported 1,074 cases since Sept. 6. Flagler’s school reported an increase in cases from 25 to 28, and now has counted 275 since Sept. 6. Daytona Beach News-Journal.

Collier: Darren Burkett of Naples High School has been named the Collier County School District’s principal of the year, and Amity Wyss of Poinciana Elementary is the assistant principal of the year. Naples Daily News.

Lake: About 800 school district employees will receive their first of two coronavirus vaccinations this week. School district nurses, medical technicians and employees over 65 years old will get their shots at the Tavares High School gymnasium. WKMG. A grant from the AT&T Foundation will finance programs for students at Leesburg, South Lake and Umatilla high schools to get training for potential careers in STEM-related subjects. Daily Commercial.

St. Johns: The half-cent sales tax surcharge that voters approved in 2015 for school district capital projects is bringing in more money than projected, but the cost of building schools has also soared, the school board was told last week by Jack Hardman, chairman for the Half-cent Sales Tax Citizen Advisory Committee. School officials said it’s not too early to be thinking about asking voters for a renewal. “Otherwise,” said school board president Patrick Canan, “I think we’d be hurting and there would be a lot of changes and sacrifice.” The revenue generated has already passed the 10-year goal, at $153 million, though this year’s take has been muted by the coronavirus’ effect on the economy. St. Augustine Record.

Sarasota: Superintendent Brennan Asplen is aiming to defuse racial tensions in the district by hiring a director of innovation and equity and creating a 21-member cultural proficiency committee. The committee includes racial equity leaders and some critics of school curriculum who accuse teachers of indoctrinating students with radical left-wing ideas. Asplen hopes the group can head off future controversies. Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

Marion: School officials want to start a choice academy program for students in preschool to 2nd grade to better prepare them for 3rd-grade testing. One option would be to place the program at the under-capacity Evergreen Elementary School, assuming it gets a C grade or better from the state. If Evergreen doesn’t get the C and is forced to close, district officials said they might move Oakcrest Elementary’s students to the Evergreen campus and place the choice academy at Oakcrest. Ocala Star-Banner. The school district reported 120 cases of the coronavirus last week, with 592 people placed under quarantine. Officials said they expected the uptick since 85 percent of the district’s students are now in classrooms, up from 66 percent a couple of months ago. Ocala Star-Banner. An ex-teacher’s aide at Romeo Elementary School has been arrested and accused of inappropriately touching a student at the school. Juvenal Gomez, 57, was fired after the allegation was made in November. Ocala Star-Banner.

St. Lucie, Martin, Indian River: The pandemic has put an emphasis on keeping schools clean, and the school districts on the Treasure Coast have committed more money to the effort. Last week the Indian River County School Board agreed to spend $120,000 to hire outside custodial help, and the Martin district has also struggled to fill open custodial positions. TCPalm.

Bay: The Bay Haven Charter Academy announced it is restructuring its human resources department. The department will now be supervised by chief education officer Larry Bolinger. The school’s board fired previous H.R. coordinator Elizabeth Austill in December, citing errors and poor judgment. WJHG.

Citrus: Zachary Leonard, the principal of the Academy of Environmental Science, resigned last week after four years leading the charter school of about 120 9th- and 10th-graders. No reason was given. Phil McLeod, an assistant principal at Crystal River High School, will be the academy’s interim principal until a replacement is hired. Citrus County Chronicle.

Walton: Ground was broken last week for the expansion of Freeport Elementary School, which will boost capacity by about 200 students. The school is over capacity now with 830 students. WJHG.

Holmes: Donald Etheridge, whose 37-year career with the school district concluded after 10 years as principal at Bonifay Middle School in 2017, died Jan. 15 at the age of 63. Washington County News.

Colleges and universities: Florida’s colleges and universities have received $427.5 million from the second coronavirus aid package approved by Congress and signed into law by President Trump. Based on the distribution formula that considered Pell Grant recipients and the number of online learners before the pandemic, Miami Dade College received the most at $100.1 million. The University of Central Florida got $88.8 million. Politico Florida. Bradford Kay, a retired biology professor at Indian River State College who had also worked with the CDC and WHO studying infection diseases, died last week when a tree he was helping cut down in Sebastian fell on him. He was 74. TCPalm. A University of Florida freshman, Sophia Lambert of Miami, was killed Saturday when an out-of-control car hit her and several others students as they stood on a Gainesville sidewalk at an intersection. Miami Herald. Gainesville Sun.

More on graduation rates: Here are more reports on high school graduation rates in districts around the state. WJAX. Perry News Herald.

Around the nation: Recent research suggests that children are about half as likely as adults to spread the more contagious coronavirus mutations. New York Times. Even before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, according to two new reports, U.S. schools were in financial disarray due to nearly $600 billion in cuts on education spending following the 2008 recession and wide regional disparities in spending. K-12 Dive.

Opinions on schools: The Hillsborough County School District is finally facing its longstanding budget crisis, and the way out won’t be cheap or easy. Tampa Bay Times. It’s impossible to be serious about equal opportunity if you only think about school as six hours a day, 180 days a year. … We’ve got to figure out how to deal with all the learning that happens outside of school, and what an education savings account does is it allows families to spend money not just on the school day but on after-school activities and summer activities to begin leveling that playing field. Doug Tuthill, redefinED. The Alachua County School District’s proposed school rezoning will save money, reduce the need to build new schools and promote educational equity. Alachua Superintendent Carlee Simon, Gainesville Sun.

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BY NextSteps staff