DeSantis’ dominant agenda, number of children hospitalized soars, preschool hours bill, and more

Legislative session: When the Legislature convenes Tuesday for the 60-day session, its actions will be driven largely by the agenda of Gov. Ron DeSantis. He’s proposed, among other things, $1,000 bonuses for teachers and first responders, a ban on the teaching of critical race theory and giving parents the authority to sue districts that attempt to, $600 million to give teachers raises, a switch from end-of-the-year statewide testing to periodic assessments, and several tax holidays. “It’s kind of like the trifecta of crazy. You have an election year, you have a reapportionment year and … you have a very strong governor right now,” said state Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg. “Gov. DeSantis has an intense amount of control over these legislators,” said House Democratic leader Evan Jenne of Dania Beach. “Whatever he wants, he will not find it difficult in this House to find 78 Republicans to jump up and say they’ll run it for him.” About 3,000 bills have been filed or will be, but the only two measures legislators are required to pass are a budget and new maps for state House, Senate and congressional districts. Associated Press. Miami Herald. Tampa Bay Times. Orlando Sentinel. USA Today Florida Network. WFSU.

Also in the Legislature: The state’s public and private preschools would have to provide children with at least 1,440 instructional hours during the school year, up from the current 540, and at least 480 hours in the summer, up from 300, under a bill proposed by state Rep. Kamia Brown, D-Ocoee. Florida Senate. Companion bills have been filed to initiate an early learning scholarship program to improve access to preschools for children of lower-income families. The program is aimed at families whose income is too high for existing child-care subsidies but who struggle to pay for preschool. S.B. 710 is sponsored by Sen. Loranne Ausley, D-Tallahassee, and H.B. 1299 was filed by Rep. Ben Diamond, D-St. Petersburg. Capital Soup. Student journalists would be guaranteed the right to exercise freedom of the press in school-sponsored media and school districts would be prohibited from restricting the publication or broadcast of certain materials under a bill proposed by state Sen. Tina Polsky, D-Boca Raton. Florida Senate.

Hospitalized children: More than 200 children were among the 8,914 Floridians in hospitals Friday, according to the Florida Hospital Association. The number of pediatric cases was up 90.6 percent over the previous week and 365.6 percent over the past two weeks. “This is the highest number of pediatric hospitalizations we have seen throughout this pandemic,” said Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Florida Phoenix. New York Times. Associated Press.

Around the state: School districts around Florida reports huge increases in the number of students and teachers absent on the first week back to school after the winter break, the Orange County School Board votes to improve the district’s contract offer to teachers, 10 Flagler County teachers have been named as finalists for the district’s teacher of the year award, and both sides made their arguments Friday in a lawsuit filed by three professors against the University of Florida for denying them from testifying in a voting rights case against the position of the state. Here are details about those stories and others from the state’s districts, private schools, and colleges and universities:

Miami-Dade, Broward: Nearly 100,000 students and 3,760 teachers were absent on the first day of school last Monday in the Miami-Dade and Broward school districts. By Friday, the number of students staying home had declined to about 67,000, but the number of instructors out was still almost 3,600. “I hope we see less absentees [moving forward], but what we’ve seen, scientists say we may hit the peak in the next two weeks,” said Karla Hernandez-Mats, Dade teachers union. “It’s possible more people will be absent, so we have to see.” Miami Herald. Sun Sentinel. A 7-year-old student from Lakeside Elementary School in Pembroke Pines died Friday from injuries suffered when her bicycle was hit by a vehicle that ran a stop sign at an intersection Thursday afternoon. Police said the 40-year-old driver apparently suffered a “sudden medical event” that led to the crash. Miami Herald. WTVJ. WPLG. Some Broward teachers said they were given expired at-home COVID-19 tests by the district. Anna Fusco, the president of the teachers union, said the district was trying to fix the problem. WPLG.

Hillsborough, Tampa Bay area: More than 4,200 cases of the coronavirus were reported in the Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco and Hernando school districts last week, up from the lowest number of about 120 earlier in the school year. Hillsborough reported 2,452, Pinellas 594, Pasco 1,090 and Hernando 103. Tampa Bay Times. Kayla Godwin, a 28-year-old teacher at Davis Elementary School in Tampa who was arrested in December for allegedly pushing an 8-year-old student into a desk, has resigned. Last week her principal, Patrick LaLone, was arrested and accused of failing to report the abuse. Florida Politics.

Orange: School board members voted Friday to boost proposed raises for teachers from $175 to $500, make no changes in employee health insurance plans before October, and increase bonuses to all instructors from $2,500 to $5,000. The proposal, which was made after the district and the teachers union had reached an impasse, now goes to the 14,300 teachers union members for a vote. Union officials said they were pleased. “It is still not what our hard-working teachers deserve, but considering the inadequate funds from Tallahassee it certainly is a welcome improvement,” the union wrote on its Facebook page Saturday. Orlando Sentinel. Spectrum News 13. WFTV. WESH. WKMG. Jim McIntyre, the president of Father Ryan High School in Nashville, has been named president of Lake Highland Preparatory School in Orlando. He’ll start the new job after the end of the school year. Main Street Nashville.

Palm Beach: More than 1,120 teachers reported out sick Friday, a 28 percent increase from Wednesday, according to school officials. That’s nearly 10 percent of the teaching staff. Substitutes were only able to cover 41 percent of the absences. Schools have merged classes, asked teachers to teach during planning periods and are using administrative staff to cover other absences. Edward Tierney, the district’s deputy superintendent, said he doesn’t expect the absences to decline until later this month. Palm Beach Post.

Duval: Hundreds of school and district administrators are filling in for sick teachers and other school employees. Almost 100 school employees reported contracting COVID last week, including 46 on Friday. That’s the highest single-day total since the school year started. “It is my sincere hope that the number of COVID-19 cases will decline by February, and we will be able to resume normal work schedules,” Superintendent Diana Greene wrote in an e-mail Friday. WJCT. An assistant principal at Ribault High School in Jacksonville has been arrested and accused of, among other things, aggravated stalking and official misconduct and battery. School police said Kenyannya Wilcox stalked and struck her ex-boyfriend, and has made false allegations against him and his new girlfriend. Wilcox has been assigned to non-school duties pending the outcome of the case. WJXT. WTLV.

Polk: The school district is partnering with Hazel Health to offer students free virtual consultations with a physician from home or at school. The service started in November. Many parents are using the service before sending their child to school. “So, they’re not going to school sick with symptoms that could be COVID and we are able to advise them based on them based on a number of screenings whether getting tested for COVID is the appropriate next step,” said Andrew Post, Hazel Health chief innovation officer. WFTS.

Brevard: District officials reported 486 cases of COVID from Tuesday to Thursday of last week. Thursday was the first day back for students. In the district’s last report before the winter break, covering Dec. 17-20, 27 cases were reported. Barry Inman, an epidemiologist with the Florida Department of Health-Brevard, called the increase “basically incredible.” Florida Today.

Osceola: Friday, 383 teachers and 16 bus drivers were sick with COVID or quarantining, according to Superintendent Debra Pace. She said some of the middle and high schools have had to hold classes in cafeterias and auditoriums. Nearly a quarter of the students were absent last Monday, the first day back from the break, but that dropped to 5 percent by Friday. WKMG.

Volusia: A DeLand family said it plans to sue the school board, alleging that a male administrator put a girl in a chokehold following an argument with another student on Nov. 19 at DeLand High School. An attorney representing the student said the assistant principal would not let go even after the student said he was hurting her. Daytona Beach News-Journal. WOFL.

Manatee: A pickup truck struck the extended stop bar on a stopped school bus Friday and drove away. Troopers said one student suffered minor injuries and was taken to a hospital for treatment. Bradenton Herald.

St. Johns: The number of coronavirus cases and quarantines in the school district tripled over the winter break, according to school officials. On Thursday, the first day back, the district reported 105 positive COVID cases and 75 quarantines among students. Friday, there were 214 cases and 150 students quarantined. On Dec. 21, the last day before winter break, 31 students tested positive for COVID-19 and 26 were quarantined. St. Augustine Record.

Escambia: Instagram has removed most of the videos showing fights at Beulah Middle School in Pensacola after the school district sent a request to do so, saying, “We don’t allow content that shows, depicts or promotes physical harm against other people, and we will take action when we find evidence of this.” Seven of the eight videos had been taken down by Friday. Pensacola News Journal.

Okaloosa: A Niceville High School teacher was arrested Friday and accused of possession of child pornography. Cameron Cherenzia, 25, was connected to an account on the Kik platform that was used to upload pornographic images, according to deputies. Cherenzia denied knowing of an image or video with young children on the account. Superintendent Marcus Chambers placed Cherenzia on administrative leave  and said he’ll be fired if the allegations are proven true. Northwest Florida Daily News. WMBB.

Bay: No changes have been made in the school district’s coronavirus protocols, district officials announced last week. Masks will still be optional, and students who contract COVID can return to school after a negative COVID-19 test, or 10 days after their symptoms start or their first positive result, and are fever-free for over 24 hours with other symptoms improving. Panama City News Herald.

Citrus: On Tuesday, school board members will review and discuss the district’s five-year financial management and performance audit of its educational planning and construction activities, spanning from July 1, 2016, to June 30, 2021. The audit recommended that the district consider asking voters to approve a higher sales tax to help pay for improvements. In 2016, voters rejected a school district request for a higher sales tax. Citrus County Chronicle.

Flagler: Ten teachers have been nominated for the district’s teacher of the year award. They are: Svetlana Panameno, Bunnell Elementary; Natalie Muldoon, Belle Terre Elementary; Caitlin Hall, Old Kings Elementary; Robert Cerasi, Rymfire Elementary; Katie Acosta, Buddy Taylor Middle; Beth Blumengarten, Indian Trails Middle; Jim Gambone, Flagler-Palm Coast High; Cami Brocksmith, iFlagler; Dawn Lord, Flagler Technical College; and Susan Bryant, Wadsworth Elementary. Seventeen finalists have been chosen for the employee of the year award. Winners will be announced Jan. 29. Daytona Beach News-Journal. Flagler County School District.

Colleges and universities: Both sides made their arguments Friday in a lawsuit filed by three professors against the University of Florida for not allowing them to testify against the position of the state in a voting rights case. UF officials said allowing the testimony was “adverse” to the school’s interests. The professors contend the policy violated their First Amendment free speech rights. Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker has scheduled another hearing Friday to consider the professors’ request for an injunction. News Service of Florida. Students at UF, Florida State University, the University of Central Florida and the University of South Florida have no mandates as they return to their schools for the spring semester. Gainesville Sun. Bay News 9.

More on graduation rates: More reports about the 2021 high school graduation rates for Florida school districts. The state average was 90.1 percent, a tick higher than in 2020. Seniors in both classes benefited from the state waiving end-of-year tests previously required to pass to be eligible to graduate. Alachua. Charlotte. Citrus. Volusia. Hernando. Escambia. St. Lucie, Martin, Indian River. Miami-Dade, Broward.

Opinions on schools: Florida’s state capitol may be awash with cash, but don’t count on the governor or the Republican-controlled Legislature to think long-term in addressing some of the state’s more pressing needs. It’s an election year, and with Gov. DeSantis and most state lawmakers seeking re-election, generosity is simply good politics. Palm Beach Post. If our children are to make up for the educational and emotional setbacks suffered during the pandemic, then parents must be an integral part of any educational solution going forward. Politicians that ignore parents may find 2022 a very long year indeed. Edward J. Pozzuoli, Miami Herald. Even as an educator well-versed in differentiated instruction, it took me years to fully appreciate my children’s different learning styles, and how much changing their school could help them. We as parents need to truly accept each child’s unique needs, and that means taking action to find the best school for them. Adriana Casillas, Orlando Sentinel. The rise of the IDEA public charter system in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas is one of the clearest, yet least known, indicators of how good such schools can be for impoverished children. Jay Mathews. Washington Post.

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BY NextSteps staff