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DeSantis signs school choice bill, Runcie’s severance and Hillsborough’s fiscal plan approved, and more

School choice bill signed: Gov. Ron DeSantis has signed the bill that can expand the state’s K-12 scholarship programs by as many as 61,000 students at an estimated cost of $200 million. H.B. 7045 folds the McKay and Gardiner scholarships for special-needs students into the existing Family Empowerment Scholarship for students of families with lower incomes. It also boosts the maximum income eligibility to receive a scholarship to 375 percent of the federal poverty level, or $99,375 a year for a family of four. Priority will continue to be given to families whose income does not exceed 185 percent of that benchmark, or $49,025 for that family of four. “We will be doubling down on our commitment to supporting our working families and making sure they have the ability to get their kids into schools of their choices,” DeSantis said. “We are blowing up all these tired old narratives. We’re showing that we want parents to be able to obtain quality education for their kids.” Step Up For Students, which hosts this blog, helps administer the state’s scholarship programs. News Service of Florida. Associated Press. redefinED. Miami Herald. Orlando Sentinel. Politico Florida. Florida Politics. The Capitolist. WPTV. WTVJ. Florida Phoenix. Parents of students with special needs worry that the combination of the scholarships could mean less money for their children. DeSantis promised, “If it turns out there’s any hiccups in this, we will not hesitate to propose reforms in the January (2022) legislative session.” WFTV. The signing of the school choice bill highlights a philosophical question: should public dollars be used to finance private education for children in families making nearly $100,000 a year? Florida Phoenix.

DeSantis on masks: At his press conference in Jacksonville to announce the signing of the school choice bill, Gov. DeSantis also took aim at school districts’ face mask mandates. “These kids do not need to be wearing these masks, OK? I’m sorry, they don’t,” DeSantis said. “We need to be able to let them be kids and let them act normally. And that’s what should be the case in the fall throughout the school year.” But he didn’t issue any mandates or orders. Instead, he said, “Our direction is relatively simple: Have a normal school year.” Last month, Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran sent a letter to school districts urging them to make face masks optional. Parents around the state have been intensifying the pressure on school boards to end the mandates immediately. WPTV. Sun Sentinel.

Around the state: A $754,900 severance package for indicted Broward Superintendent Robert Runcie is approved by the school board, Hillsborough school board members vote to use $24 million in federal coronavirus relief aid to meet a state demand to boost the district’s reserves or risk a financial takeover, Education Commissioner Corcoran and eight other candidates make the short list for the president’s job at Florida State University, Orange County won’t offer its hybrid remote learning platform next fall, a historically black Orange County high school goes from having no physics classes to boasting one of the largest programs in the state in four years, and parents continue to protest districts’ mask requirements while most districts are holding off on making changes until the school year ends. Here are details about those stories and other developments from the state’s districts, private schools, and colleges and universities:

Miami-Dade: A 28-year-old woman has been arrested after posing as a student to get publicity for her Instagram account. North Miami Beach police said Audrey Nicole Francisquini walked into American Senior High School on Monday dressed like a student and carrying a backpack and a skateboard. She handed out flyers promoting her Instagram account, then fled when confronted by school security and administrators. She was identified through that  Instagram account and arrested at home. She’s been charged with burglary, interference with an educational institution and resisting an officer without violence. WFOR. WTVJ. WPLG. WSVN.

Broward: School board members voted 5-4 on Tuesday to approve a $754,900 severance package for Superintendent Robert Runcie. Runcie, who was indicted by a statewide grand jury last month on a charge of perjury, will stay on the payroll at full salary until Aug. 10, but not as superintendent. Instead, he will help whomever is appointed as the interim superintendent. “It allows us to move on as a district and focus on students and student outcomes,” said board vice chair Laurie Rich Levinson. Her colleague Ann Murray said the package Runcie is getting may seem exorbitant, but that changing it would punish an employee who has not been convicted of doing anything wrong. “We are not a jury,” she said. “We’re not trying anyone. We’re just trying to to take care of business today.” Sun Sentinel. Miami Herald. Associated Press. WLRN. WPLG. WSVN. WFOR. WTVJ. Board members said they will select an interim superintendent from internal applicants. The deadline to apply is May 28. Miami Herald.

Hillsborough: A plan to use $24 million of federal coronavirus relief funds to raise the school district’s reserves and avoid a financial takeover by the state was approved by the school board Tuesday on a 6-1 vote. Superintendent Addison Davis will deliver the plan to the Florida Department of Education today, which is the deadline set by Education Commissioner Corcoran. The board also agreed in a 4-3 vote to evaluate Davis in September. The superintendent has been a target of criticism from the public, principals and some board members over his decisions, including laying off hundreds of teachers and other workers as he tries to balance the budget. Finally, the board agreed to create a citizens advisory board to review the district’s $3 billion annual budget. Tampa Bay Times. WTSP. WTVT. WFLA.

Orange: District officials have notified parents that the hybrid learning model known as LaunchED@Home will not be offered for the 2021-2022 academic year. Students can return to school classrooms or enroll in the Orange County Virtual School. Orange joins Seminole, Osceola, Brevard, Lake and Volusia counties in dropping hybrid remote options. WKMG. Orlando Sentinel. Six years ago, physics classes weren’t even offered at Jones High School, a historically black school in Orlando. Today, about 250 of the county’s smallest traditional high school’s students are in a physics class, which is more than most of the other 19 high schools in the district. The surge began four years ago when principal Allison Kirby hired the school’s first physics teacher, Sharon Agawin from the Philippines, through an international exchange program. Then Kirby decided to make physics the default science class for seniors and hired another teacher. Orlando Sentinel. For the fourth straight year, the district has received a Best Communities for Music Education designation from the NAMM Foundation for its commitment to provide music access and education to all students. Orange Observer.

Palm Beach: Adults aren’t the only people who are afflicted with chronic illnesses months after contracting COVID-19. Children can also be “long-haulers,” the nickname for those who suffer from symptoms long after they’ve been infected. Ask Heaven Moody, a 14-year-old 8th-grader in Boca Raton who is a year past her mild infection, still has headaches, fatigue, impaired vision, rashes, dizziness and even thinning hair. Even more frustrating for the high-achieving student is the effect the ongoing symptoms have had on her memory and concentration. “The brain fog is the worst,” she said. Doctors are only beginning to understand the phenomenon. “The epidemic of the long-haulers is going to stay with us for a long time,” said Dr. Bruce Patterson, whose company IncellDX is working on identifying and treating long-haulers. Palm Beach Post. A Boca Raton teacher describes her transition from the traditional school setting to launching a tutoring business that has worked with two pandemic pods during the 2020-2021 school year. “It’s been magical,” said Christy Kian. “It’s been better than I could have imagined.” redefinED.

Polk: School board members voted to decide whether to end the district’s mask mandate at their June 8 meeting so new Superintendent Frederick Heid can participate in the discussion and to get the district through its high school graduations. “I would not want that for any of our children,” said board chair Lori Cunningham. “Once again, you may not have COVID, but if you’re contact-traced by one of our high schools, you might not be allowed to go to your own graduation. … It just doesn’t make sense with only a couple of weeks left to take a chance with graduation.” Lakeland Ledger.

Pinellas: After being cajoled, berated and threatened by parents who want an immediate end to the district’s mask mandate, school board members voted unanimously on Tuesday to continue requiring masks be worn in schools through June 9. Superintendent Michael Grego said his medical advisory team supports a voluntary mask policy beginning in summer school. Tampa Bay Times. WFLA.

Lee: A former Dunbar High School teacher has been sentenced to seven years in prison after being convicted of possessing child pornography images and videos. Christopher Ted Duluk, 32, was found guilty on Dec. 2. Fort Myers News-Press. WBBH.

Pasco: The district’s face mask mandate will expire May 28, two days after this school year ends. Masks will be optional for graduations and summer school, and probably longer. “Though it is impossible to predict what course the pandemic will take in the coming months, Pasco County schools is fully expecting the ‘masks optional’ approach to carry over into the 2021-2022 school year,” said district spokesman Stephen Hegarty. WTVT.

Brevard: The conservative Moms for Liberty group staged another protest against the district’s face mask policy at Tuesday’s school board meeting. Thirty-four people signed up to speak, and their comments took up most of the two-hour meeting. But the school board showed no signs of budging from its  decision April 27 to meet with health experts in early June to discuss masks and other COVID-19 protections. Florida Today.

Seminole: School board members have started the process of making face masks optional instead of mandatory. That process will take 28 days. WESH.

Volusia, Flagler: Volusia school board members tentatively approved a change in district policy to make face masks optional. A final vote is set June 14. WKMG. With their proms canceled, students are organizing a “VIProm” open to seniors in Volusia and Flagler counties and those graduates who missed out last year. It’s May 21 on the rooftop of the Streamline Hotel in Daytona Beach. Attendance is limited to 200. Daytona Beach News-Journal.

Manatee: Some parents are planning to send their children to school Monday without a face mask as a protest to the district’s mandate. The protest is part of an ongoing revolt against masks. “On May 17, I’m sending my daughter to school without her mask as a protest — a peaceful protest that you guys all support,” protest organizer Ryan Bray recently said to school board members. The board has already signaled that it will make masks optional when schools resume in August, but these parents want the policy changed now. Bradenton Herald. Sarasota Herald-Tribune. WWSB.

St. Johns: About 30 parents pressed the school board at Tuesday’s meeting to end the mask mandate now, claiming the masks are harming their children’s morale and mental health. Superintendent Tim Forson said the district plans to keep the mask mandate in place until the school board meets in June to determine the policy for the 2021-2022 school year. St. Augustine Record. The medical examiner said 13-year-old Tristyn Bailey was stabbed to death Sunday. A 14-year-old classmate at Patriot Oaks Academy has been charged with second-degree murder. St. Augustine Record. WJAX. WJXT. WTLV.

Leon: School officials announced the summer school program, which they’re calling Summer 850, which is short for 8 programs over 5 weeks with 0 students left behind. “Across our country, some students have been more negatively impacted than others by this horrific pandemic. Our district is investing $1.5 million on summer programs designed to combat the COVID slide,” said Superintendent Rocky Hanna. WTXL. WCTV.

Bay: School board members voted Tuesday to make face masks in schools optional immediately. Other COVID protocols will be decided at a meeting May 25. The new policy does not affect charter schools. WJHG. WMBB. The high school years for this year’s graduating class will forever be marked by the back-to-back disasters of Hurricane Michael in 2018 and the coronavirus pandemic in 2020. “It’s incredible to take a step back and understand and appreciate the momentous occasion that we’ve reached,” said Bay High School senior David Schultz. “The circumstances that we’ve had to endure over the last several years, it means a lot to me right now, so I can only imagine what it’ll mean to me 20 or 30 years from now.” Panama City News Herald. West Bay Elementary School is now the home to a therapy dog. Murphy, a 5-year-old poodle/Bernese mountain dog mix, arrived on campus a few weeks ago. He’s owned by counselor Kelly Dean. Panama City News Herald.

Alachua: Anticipating that the CDC will support the FDA’s announcement opening the Pfizer vaccine to children 12-15 years old, the school district has scheduled a series of clinics to vaccinate students at middle schools May 17-28. “Just in case the CDC does not confirm the FDA approval then we might have to reschedule those clinics, but we don’t anticipate that happening,” said district spokeswoman Jackie Johnson. Gainesville Sun.

Monroe: An 11-year-old student at the Sugarloaf School in the Lower Keys was arrested and accused of stabbing two classmates with a pair of scissors. Deputies said the incident happened while the 5th-graders were watching a social studies video. The teacher said the boy told her, “I’m just crazy. I have a bad temper. I chase my brother around at home with a knife.” Miami Herald. Key West Citizen.

Colleges and universities: The Florida State University presidential search committee has chosen nine candidates to interview as a replacement for the retiring John Thrasher. Tuesday, the school released the short list of candidates. Among them are Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran, FSU vice president and athletic director David Coburn, and Tallahassee attorney and lobbyist Sean Pittman. Among those not making the cut were former lieutenant governor Jeff Kottkamp and former education commissioner Frank Brogan. Interviews are Friday and Saturday. Tallahassee Democrat. Tampa Bay Times. WCTV. Politico Florida. WFSU. Florida A&M University announced Tuesday that it expects to return to pre-COVID class sizes in the fall. WCTV. The Board of Governors has begun the process of setting the rules for a new law that allows college athletes to be paid for the use of their names, images and likenesses. The public has 30 days to comment, and a vote is set for June 22 on the new regulations. News Service of Florida. Amy Bockerstette, 22, became the first collegiate athlete with Down syndrome to compete for a championship at the college level this week. She is on the Paradise Valley Community College golf team, which is competing in the NJCAA Women’s Golf Championship at Plantation Bay in Ormond Beach. WKMG.

Around the nation: Rates of suicides among teenage black girls have skyrocketed 182 percent between 2001 and 2017, according to a study in the Journal of Community Health. About 15 percent of black female high school students attempted suicide in the year leading up to the CDC’s 2019 Youth Risk Behavior Survey, compared to about 9 percent of white girls and 12 percent of Hispanic girls. Time. The Biden administration has reversed a Trump administration policy banning undocumented college students and others from receiving federal pandemic relief grants for food, housing and child care. Politico. Republican-dominated states are making plans to stonewall the Biden administration’s proposal for universal pre-kindergarten and free community college tuition if the $1.8 trillion American Families Plan is approved by Congress. Politico.

Opinions on schools: If we keep children from a learning environment that is right for them, public or private, we set them up for failure. Kids in Nebraska deserve a chance, just like the one that was given to me in Florida. Ashley Elliott, Omaha World-Herald.

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BY NextSteps staff