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Legislature opens today, private vs. public school mask rules, high school pay for play suit, and more

Legislative session begins: The 124th state legislative session officially begins at 11 a.m. today with Gov. Ron DeSantis’ State of the State speech, in which he’s expected to make the case for $1,000 bonuses for teachers and principals, $600 million for teacher raises, a new periodic assessment process of student progress instead of end-of-the year state assessment tests, and against critical race theory and federal vaccine mandates. More than 3,000 bills have been filed for the 60-day session. Associated Press. News Service of FloridaUSA Today Florida Network. Capitol News Service. WPTV. WFOR. Florida Phoenix. News Service of Florida. A bill has been filed in the Senate as a companion to H.B. 1417, which would require the state’s public and private preschools 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. Florida Senate.

Masked confusion: Why is it that Florida’s public K-12 schools are forbidden by law to require students to wear face masks, but the state’s private schools are not even if they receive public funding? That’s a question that has been asked recently, most notably by Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho, who tweeted last week, “Help me understand this! Students in Florida can use publicly funded vouchers to attend private schools that impose student mask mandates, when public schools, the bedrock of democracy in America, are legislatively forbidden from doing so.” State Sen. Danny Burgess, a Pasco County Republican, said the intent of the bill that became a law aim was to protect families from government intrusion into their decisions. “Government’s role in dictating the actions of a governmental entity is much broader than our role in dictating the actions of a private organization,” said Jenna Sarkissian, a spokesperson for the House speaker’s office. Tampa Bay Times.

Pay for play in high schools: Two Miami-Dade student athletes are suing the Florida High School Athletic Association over its rules that forbid high school athletes from signing endorsement deals. The two said they had to reject offers by Lifewallet, a health care information service, because of the rules. “These are monopolies,” Miami attorney John H. Ruiz said Monday at a news conference. “We need to challenge them. Times have changed.” New rules put in place in the past few years by the National Collegiate Athletic Association and some states allow college athletes to be compensated for selling rights to the use of their names, images and likenesses. Sun Sentinel.

Around the state: Tax renewals for teacher raises and school safety initiatives will be on the ballot this year in Broward and Palm Beach counties, the number of coronavirus cases continues to soar in districts around the state, Pasco’s plan to stagger school times to help offset a shortage of school bus drivers has been overwhelmed by the latest COVID surge, finalists are named for the Polk County teacher and employee of the year awards, and a Citrus County high school football player who died after practice in September had a condition that causes the heart to grow thickened muscles that block or restrict blood flow to the body. Here are details about those stories and others from the state’s districts, private schools, and colleges and universities:

Broward, Palm Beach: Voters in Broward and Palm Beach counties will be asked this year to renew a property tax to avoid cuts in teacher raises and school safety initiatives. Both districts had tax initiatives approved in 2018 after the school shooting in Parkland, but both expire this year. “It’s important for the community to know if the referendum were to go away, all these individual [allocations] would go away, teacher supplements, safety and security and mental health,” said John Sullivan, the legislative liaison for Broward schools. Sun Sentinel. A Broward County teacher was arrested over the weekend on charges of sexual battery on a minor and involving a person of authority soliciting sex. Police said Philip Velez, a 28-year-old culinary arts teacher and assistant basketball coach at Charles W. Flanagan High School in Pembroke Pines, acknowledged having a sexual relationship with a 17-year-old student. Sun Sentinel. Miami Herald. WPLG. WTVJ.

Duval, northeast Florida: The number of coronavirus cases reported in northeast Florida school districts soared last week when students returned to school. Duval reported 492 total cases last week, compared to 35 the week before winter break. Monday, Duval added another 305 student cases, breaking the previous daily record of 199. St. Johns had 327 cases last week compared to 46 before the break. Clay County schools reported 166 total cases last week, compared to 13 in the week before the break. WJXT. WTLV. Duval County School Board members have approved a contract of up to $250,000 with Bernhardt Laboratories to continue sending the district rapid tests that will be provided at no charge to teachers. WJAX.

Polk: Seven finalists have been chosen for the school district’s teacher and employee of the year awards. Teaching finalists are: Ashley Brannon, curriculum coach at Karen M. Siegel Academy; Jennifer Campbell, reading teacher at Lake Gibson High; Robynn Hamrick, kindergarten teacher at Davenport Elementary; Lindsey Hanger, English teacher at Bartow High/International Baccalaureate/Summerlin Academy; Kailyn Reynolds-Keller, physical education teacher at R. Clem Churchwell Elementary; Tracy Single, LEA facilitator at Scott Lake Elementary in Lakeland; and Kent Viles, ESE teacher at Lake Region High. The employee of the year finalists are: Sandra Alls, school nurse at Davenport Elementary; Tiffany Berrien, physical education paraeducator at Rochelle School of the Arts; Betty Goldwire, ESE paraeducator at Southwest Middle; Jacquelyn Mulford, finance secretary at Auburndale High; Diana Tinker, paraeducator at Floral Avenue Elementary; Tracy Walling, principal’s secretary at Eagle Lake Elementary; and John Winghart, school safety guardian at Brigham Academy. The winners will be announced Jan. 20. Lakeland Ledger.

Pasco: The plan to shift school times in the second semester as a way of addressing a shortage of school bus drivers has been overwhelmed by the surge in the number of coronavirus cases. District officials sent a message to parents on Monday saying, “We are anticipating your student’s bus being very delayed this week” because a large number of bus drivers are calling in sick. Sixty-eight drivers and assistants were absent Monday, compared to the 30 or 40 who were off on a given day last week, said district spokesman Steve Hegarty. “We are concerned yet hopeful for the rest of the week,” he said. Tampa Bay Times.

Brevard: The school district is partnering with the Brevard Health Alliance to hand out almost 15,000 free at-home COVID-19 test kits for district students and employees. The tests were made available through the federal government’s testing supply program. WFTV. Space Coast Daily.

Volusia: Some of the at-home COVID-19 tests being given to students and employees by the school districts have passed their expiration dates. School officials halted the handout and consulted the county health department. Its officials contacted Abbott, which said expiration dates were extended for some of the batches. WESH.

Manatee, Sarasota: Manatee students returned to school Thursday and Sarasota students yesterday amid a spike in the number of coronavirus cases. Thursday and Friday, Manatee schools reported 206 cases, compared to five in the final days before the winter break. Sarasota County had 5,015 confirmed cases on Jan. 7, compared to the previous high of 3,371 on Aug. 27, 2021. Masks remain optional, though strongly encouraged in both districts, but other COVID protocols such as social distancing are being emphasized. Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

Lake: The number of coronavirus cases surged on the first week back to school after the holiday break. School officials reported 604 students and 204 employees tested positive for COVID-19 last week, compared to 22 students and three employees in the week just before the break. Daily Commercial.

Marion: More than 500 positive coronavirus cases were reported in the school district last week, the first week back from winter break, up from 25 for the week ending Dec. 17. More than 725 students and employees were asked to quarantine last week, more than four times the 169 for Dec. 11-17. Ocala Star-Banner.

Bay: Only about 65 percent of the district’s students attended school Friday, significantly lower than the average of 89 to 94 percent, school officials said Monday. They said they anticipated the lower turnout because it was the first day back from winter break and many students are affected by the coronavirus. WMBB. Tyndall Academy officials are asking school board members to authorize spending $13 million for a middle school building on the grounds of the Air Force base. If the funds are approved at today’s meeting, construction will begin in two weeks with a completion date in the fall of 2023. WMBB. Oscar Patterson Elementary School, which closed in 2018 after being damaged by Hurricane Michael, will reopen in the fall as the Oscar Patterson Academy. WJHG.

Citrus: A Citrus High School football player who died after practice last fall had hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a condition that causes the heart to grow thickened muscles that block or restrict blood flow to the body, according to the autopsy report. Antonio Hicks, 16, died Sept. 29. WFLA.

Flagler: School officials have rescinded a letter of reprimand that had been issued to Wadsworth Elementary School teacher Stacey Smith for telling her 5th-grade students a story about an experience she had with a black boy in Chicago. A parent contended the story painted the neighborhood where the boy lived as dangerous and anti-white. Smith was reprimanded for her “lack of professional judgment” and ordered to undergo diversity and sensitivity training. She appealed, and Bobby Bossardet, the assistant superintendent for academic services, rescinded the reprimand and reduced the penalty to a verbal warning, due to Smith’s long tenure. Flagler Live.

Colleges and universities: The State University System has launched an online report called “MyFloridaFuture Tool” showing data such as incomes of graduates by university, degree level and major. The dashboard was created as part of H.B. 1261, which was approved by the Legislature in 2021 and signed into law. News Service of Florida. COVID-19 precautions are encouraged but not required at Tampa Bay area colleges and universities as students return to classes. Tampa Bay Times.

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. Escambia, Santa Rosa. Flagler. St. Lucie.

Opinions on schools: Once again, the education unions are pushing for school closures, making it even more difficult for anyone to ignore the elephant in the K-12 room: If you are the parent of a school-age child, you need to develop self-reliance. Matthew Ladner, reimaginED. School choice doesn’t defund government schools; government schools defund families. School choice initiatives just return the money to the hands of the rightful owners — or at least the intended beneficiaries. Corey DeAngelis, reimaginED. The implications of the Republicans’ war on schools and teachers are horrifying, and with some exceptions, Democrats are watching it happen without anything resembling a plan to do anything about it. Paul Waldman, Washington Post. In writing a budget, what legislators should not do is steal revenue from local governments and bestow it indiscriminately on people who don’t need it. Sun Sentinel.

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BY NextSteps staff