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DeSantis says surge won’t close Florida schools, Broward schools to use metal detectors, and more

No school closings: The rapid spread of the omicron COVID-19 variant will not close Florida schools, Gov. Ron DeSantis vowed again on Monday. “Kids need to be in school,” DeSantis said at a news conference in Fort Lauderdale. School districts “do not need to be doing any crazy mitigation. Just let them be kids.” He said district mitigation efforts such as mask mandates and quarantining haven’t worked and have led to a decline in academic achievement. “You look at places that did real strict mitigation in schools, some of them had the biggest declines,” he said. “Broward led the state in declines. Kids need to have a normal environment. We can’t go backwards.” Sun Sentinel. Florida Phoenix. DeSantis also said college students who were forced by colleges to learn remotely last year should receive full tuition refunds. “It’s absolutely insane what’s going on,” said DeSantis. “Our universities are going to be open … they’re going to have in-person instruction. And I think any university that doesn’t do that should have to refund 100 percent of the tuition to the parents.” Florida Politics.

Around the state: Handheld metal detector wands are expected to be randomly used this spring to detect guns and other weapons in Broward County schools, many Florida school districts are making little or no adjustments to their COVID safety protocols despite the surge in cases, a federal judge has declined to dismiss a lawsuit brought by three University of Florida professors against the school for blocking them from testifying in a court proceeding against the state, parents of children with disabilities are resubmitting a lawsuit challenging the state’s ban on face mask mandates in schools, all middle and high school students in Jacksonville are eligible for student passes to ride city buses for free Mondays through Fridays, and a group of parents has organized to counter the political influence of the conservative Moms for Liberty group in Brevard schools. Here are details about those stories and others from the state’s districts, private schools, and colleges and universities:

Broward: Metal detectors are expected to be used this spring to help schools cut down on the number of guns and other weapons being brought onto campuses. The initiative, which will be discussed by the school board Wednesday, would include using handheld wands to randomly screen backpacks and purses. Each school will get at least one wand, and some larger schools will get more. It’s the latest measure employed by the district to improve safety in schools. Several board members have indicated their support, including Rosalind Osgood, who previously opposed their use. “I’ve been blown away by the number of guns and knives we’re seeing regularly on our campuses,” she said. “I think we do need to put in another level of safety.” Sun Sentinel.

Tampa Bay area: Officials with the Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco school districts said they expect to make no major adjustments to their COVID rules as classes resume today. They’re encouraging but not requiring students and employees to wear face masks, but quarantines for those who test positive have been trimmed from 10 days to five. Tampa Bay Times. WTSP. WTVT.

Orange, central Florida: Orange County Superintendent Barbara Jenkins announced Monday that all adults will be required to wear face masks at least until the end of the month. Schools reopen from winter break today. Masks will be “strongly encouraged” but not required for students. Masks remain optional in the Osceola, Lake and Seminole school districts, and Seminole school officials are offering all employees free home COVID-19 testing kits. Teachers and other staffers are being asked to take the tests before classes resume Wednesday, and stay home to quarantine for five days if they test positive. Orlando Sentinel. WFTVWKMG. WESH. WOFL. WMFE. Osceola schools reopened Monday, and district officials said the number of students absent was double the typical day in December. More than 12,600 students didn’t come to classes, which is about 23 percent of total enrollment. WOFL.

Duval: Starting today, every public, charter and private middle and high school student in Jacksonville will be eligible for student passes to ride for free Mondays through Fridays on Jacksonville Transportation Authority buses. The My Ride 2 School pilot program is a partnership among the school district, the city and JTA, and is expected to help combat the shortage of school bus drivers. “I quickly realized there was a great need,” said city council vice president Terrance Freeman, who is credited with helping start the program. “When I think of the value of a program like this, I think of what the purpose is — these kids are getting a ride to school, to jobs.” Florida Times-Union. WJXT. WTLV.

Polk: With coronavirus cases soaring in the county and among juveniles statewide, school officials are strongly encouraging students and employees to wear face masks when classes resume today. The district has reported 4,142 COVID cases from the first day of school Aug. 10 through Dec. 29, with 474 employees and 3,668 students getting sick. At least 16 district employees have died since schools opened. Lakeland Ledger.

Lee: Long lines at COVID testing sites are causing delays for school bus drivers, district officials said Monday. Buses are being slowed in picking up and dropping off students near the health department’s Michigan Avenue testing site in Fort Myers. Delays are being reported to parents through e-mails and text messages. WINK.

Brevard: A group of parents who want the school district to continue its face mask mandate have started an organization called Families for Safe Schools. It bills itself as a counterpart to the conservative group Moms for Liberty, which opposes mask mandates and critical race theory, and promotes parental rights. Families for Safe Schools’ mission statement said it “supports public education and aims to protect it from politically motivated attacks. We believe that K-12 public schools and our elected officials have a responsibility to provide a safe and inclusive learning environment to all children.” It has about 1,600 members who connect through Facebook. Florida Today. The school district is continuing the coronavirus mitigation policies it had in place before the winter break, which strongly encourage students and employees to wear masks, observe social distancing and wash their hands regularly. Students return to classrooms Thursday. Brevard County School District.

Sarasota: An annual poetry festival has been canceled amid reports that the school district chose not to participate after receiving threats from conservative parental rights advocacy groups. The festival organizer, Bookstore1Sarasota owner Georgia Court, said she was told by Renee Di Pilato, the county’s director of Libraries and Historical Resources, that the district was backing out because of the pressure. De Pilato denies that, saying, “We issued an invitation to the school district, and we did not hear back from them. … I pretty much assumed it was due to the uncertainty around COVID-19.” Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

Marion: School board members meet Thursday to consider reinstating a mask mandate for students and employees, with opt-out provisions, because of the rapid rise in coronavirus cases. The number of cases rose tenfold from the week of Dec. 9 to the week ending Dec. 30. Ocala Star-Banner.

St. Lucie, Martin, Indian River: Indian River schools are making a slight adjustment to their rules to deal with the coronavirus, while St. Lucie and Martin will keep the measures they had in place before the winter break. Indian River is  temporarily requiring employees to wear face masks. TCPalm.

Escambia, Santa Rosa: Few changes to coronavirus safety protocols are expected when schools reopen in Escambia and Santa Rosa counties. Those protocols include optional masks and 10-day quarantines for infected but asymptomatic students and employees. But Santa Rosa school officials said they would meet next week to consider possible changes. WEAR.

Leon: School officials said there won’t be any major changes to the safety measures used by the district against the coronavirus. They’ve scheduled a press conference for today to discuss their plans for the second semester. WCTV.

Colleges and universities: A federal judge has declined to dismiss a lawsuit brought by three University of Florida professors against the school for blocking them from testifying in a court proceeding against the state. The three allege that UF violated their First Amendment rights and academic freedoms by prohibiting them from testifying against a new state voting rights law. UF lawyers said the suit should have been dismissed because the school subsequently reversed its decision. But U.S. District Judge Mark Walker said the issue is larger than the voting rights lawsuit. “This case is not moot just because the university reversed its past decisions,” Walker wrote. News Service of Florida. Politico Florida. WCJB. A federal judge has refused to dismiss a lawsuit seeking a refund fees Florida International University student fees paid for the period in 2020 when the school switched to remote learning. Judge William Thomas also certified the lawsuit as a class action. Miami Herald. News Service of Florida.

Mask lawsuit refiled: Parents of children with disabilities are resubmitting a lawsuit challenging the state’s ban on face mask mandates in schools. The lawsuit, which alleged the state’s ban jeopardized the health of their children, has been dismissed by a federal appeals court. But the parents filed an updated complaint Monday, saying the emergence of the omicron coronavirus variant is a new threat to their children, who are not yet eligible for booster shots. WKMG.

In the Legislature: Florida’s general revenue tax collection was nearly $400 million more than forecast for November, according to state economists. The report continues a streak of the state’s revenues outpacing projections, and is good news for the Legislature since those revenues make up a large portion of school spending. News Service of Florida.

Around the nation: The Food and Drug Administration is recommending that children 12 to 15 become eligible to receive Pfizer booster shots against the coronavirus. A panel to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is expected to decide this week whether to approve boosters for the younger teens, and the CDC director, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, will then make the final decision. Associated Press. Politico.

Opinions on schools: Hope is on the K-12 horizon. A pending Supreme Court decision could end state-sanctioned discrimination against religious schools, and the number of states offering greater education choice is growing. Change is coming in 2022, and families and their children will be the beneficiaries. Jonathan Butcher, reimaginED.

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BY NextSteps staff