Ransomware negotiations ban, revised virtual instruction, proposed state budgets, and more

No negotiations with hackers: School districts and other government agencies would be prohibited from negotiating with cyberattackers who have taken control of sensitive or personal data and demand millions of dollars in ransom to release the information, under a bill moving through the Florida House. “We have to ask, should we allow taxpayer dollars to be financiers of terrorist organizations to our foreign adversaries?” asked bill sponsor Rep. Mike Giallombardo, R-Cape Coral. “If we continue to enable this, we’re creating the market.” Last year, hackers seized personal information of students and employees from the Broward County School District and demanded $40 million in ransom to return control of it to the district. The district offered $500,000, and the hackers leaked about 27,000 accounting files and personal data. Miami Herald.

Virtual education changes: A bill introduced last week would make significant changes in the state’s virtual education laws, and, say critics, restrict school choice for about 21,700 students and increase costs for schools. H.B. 5101, which was proposed by state Rep. Randy Fine, R-Palm Bay, would end the franchising of the Florida Virtual School by local school districts. Fine said the academic standards of the franchises haven’t been up to the standards of the core FLVS, which has more than 50,000 fulltime students. “It makes sense,” Fine said. “If you think outside the education model: In most models, the corporate-owned stores often perform better than the franchise-owned stores.” The changes would cause serious problems for 40 school districts that use FLVS as a “major resource” of resources, contends JoAnne Glenn, the president of a group representing online virtual schools. “We are more than just an extension of Florida Virtual School with our local district logos slapped on,” said Glenn. Fine said the bill is an “aggressive” signal of changes for virtual education. “This was my way to wake everybody up,” he said. Politico Florida.

Also in the Legislature: State budget proposals are being bolstered by rising tax revenues and federal coronavirus aid. Last Friday, the Florida Senate put forth a budget of $108.6 billion and the House offered one coming in at $105.3 billion. Gov. Ron DeSantis recently proposed spending $99.7 billion next year, and this year’s budget is about $100 billion. House Appropriations chair Jay Trumbull, R-Panama City, said the House proposal is “bold and resilient,” and Senate Appropriations chair Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, said, “The Senate’s balanced budget continues our commitment to responsibly spend state revenues on the critical needs of the day.” Both committees are expected to begin discussing the proposals Wednesday. News Service of Florida. Florida Politics. News Service of Florida. Florida Politics. WEAR. Is Gov. DeSantis getting what he wants in the Senate and House budgets? Tampa Bay Times. Schools would be allowed to stockpile naloxone, a drug used to counteract drug overdoses, under a bill that was approved last week in the Senate. After a doctor developed protocols for using naloxone, school staff trained in its use could administer it in case of emergencies. WUSF.

Around the state: The Broward, Brevard, Lake, Santa Rosa, Columbia and Gilchrist school districts name their teacher of the year, a Seminole County Sheriff’s Office employee is named the state’s school crossing guard of the year, Polk’s school superintendent defends the quick removal of 16 books from school library shelves after complaints that they violated state laws, Lee County School Board members meet today to discuss how to retain teachers, the U.S. Department of Agriculture says it will change school nutrition rules for the next school year to bring back health goals that were overturned by the Trump administration, and a new study of more than 100 school districts concludes that universal masking in schools is associated “with low rates of secondary transmission” of COVID-19. Here are details about those stories and others from the state’s districts, private schools, and colleges and universities:

Broward: Seema Naik, a 4th-grade teacher at Eagle Ridge Elementary School in Coral Springs, has been selected as the school district’s teacher of the year. Others honored were: Heilange Porcena of North Side Elementary, principal of the year; Derek Gordon of Western High as assistant principal of the year; and Kimberly Kummler of Sheridan Technical College and High School as school-related employee of the year. WSVN. WTVJ. Broward County School District.

Pinellas Tampa Bay area: The number of coronavirus cases in the Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco and Hernando school districts have declined 50 percent in the past two weeks, to 3,039 from 6,100 for the week ending Jan. 21. Tampa Bay Times. Kyle Handfield, the band director at Fivay High School in Pasco County, has been arrested and accused of sexual battery on a 14-year-old student from 2017 to 2018 when he taught at Pinellas Park Middle School in neighboring Pinellas County. Police said Handfield, now 32, had a sexual relationship with the girl, who was one of his students. He’s been placed on administrative leave from Fivay. WFTS. Tampa Bay Times. WTSP. WFLA. WTVT.

Polk: Superintendent Frederick Heid said the district decided to remove 16 books from library shelves for a review after complaints suggested that having the books available for checkout in multiple schools could be a violation of state law and open school officials and librarians to arrest. “Our typical process would allow for a book to be challenged at the individual school level,” Heid said. In such a case, he said, a committee would review the book to recommend if it should be retained or removed. But in this case, “The escalation from a ‘concern’ that a book is offensive to an allegation that we are in violation of statute justifies the need to remove these books and conduct a district-level review. … Pausing their distribution ensures that my staff is protected while this review process takes place,” Heid said. Lakeland Ledger.

Lee: The school district has lost about 900 teachers who have resigned since July 2020, and finding ways to improve retention will be the focus of a school board meeting today. Providing higher compensation and incentives to make teachers feel valued are required to turn the exodus around, said board member Debbie Jordan. WINK.

Brevard: Alex Wicker, a 7th-grade science and science research teacher at Andrew Jackson Middle School in Titusville, has been chosen as the school district’s teacher of the year. Jennifer Imperato, a school resource officer at Ocean Breeze Elementary, was named the district’s employee of the year. Jud Kaminski of Palm Bay Magnet High was named principal of the year, and Denise Stewart of Cocoa High is the assistant principal of the year. Florida Today. Space Coast Daily.

Seminole: Pat Alfonso of the Seminole County Sheriff’s Office was named the state’s school crossing guard of the year on Friday by the Florida Department of Transportation. The winner of the DOE’s extra mile award was Heather Calloway, who works for the Fort Walton Beach Police Department. WFTV. Florida Department of Transportation.

Lake: Jessica Woods, a literacy coach for students in 6th through 8th grades at Windy Hill Middle School in Clermont, has been named the school district’s teacher of the year. Daily Commercial.

Marion: Nancy Thrower has announced that she will run for re-election to her District 4 seat on the school board. She’s the first announced candidate in any of the four of five districts that are up for election in the August primary. Only the District 1 seat, held by board vice chair Allison Campbell is not on the ballot. The other seat-holders are Don Browning in District 2, chair Eric Cummings in District 3 and Kelly King in District 5. Ocala Star-Banner.

Leon: A group of parents have ordered 25,000 N95 face masks, with about half to be donated to local schools. WCTV. An 18-year-old man was arrested Friday and accused of shooting water beads from a splatter gun at students and vehicles at Chiles High School. Harper Cotton faces charges of trespassing on school grounds, aggravated assault, battery, and violation of probation. WCTV. WTXL.

Santa Rosa: Zack Butler, who teaches physical education to students with special needs at Oriole Beach Elementary, Gulf Breeze Middle, Gulf Breeze Elementary and Gulf Breeze High and has been battling late-stage cancer, has been named the district’s teacher of the year. Pensacola News Journal.

Bay: School district officials announced that the county’s high school graduation rate increased from 88.5 percent in 2020 to 90.2 percent in 2021, and is higher than the state average for the first time. Graduation specialist Jennifer Jennings said Rosenwald High, which is a credit recovery option for students who have fallen behind, has boosted its graduation rate from 29 percent to 54 percent since 2018. WJHG.

Hernando: A Gulf Coast Academy student has been arrested and accused of threatening to kill or harm a student at another school. WTSP. WFLA.

Charlotte: About 40 teachers’ jobs are now open in the district, according to officials, as well as about 80 support jobs. “There is not a county in this state that is not being affected, not just by teacher shortages but custodians, bus drivers, food service worker, everybody,” said school board member Kim Amontree. “It’s one of the biggest problems that we’re all facing right now.” WGCU.

Citrus: School board members meet Tuesday to consider the $350,000 purchase of a commercial building in Inverness that would be used as a food warehouse and distribution point. The building is adjacent to Inverness Middle School. Buying it would save about $20,000 a year in food storage costs, according to district officials. Citrus County Chronicle. A 47-year-old man was arrested and accused of aggravated assault for pouring a bottle of water on a teacher’s head after being denied entry into a high school basketball game. Deputies said Mark Edward Lipski was exiting the game at Lecanto High School when the teacher advised him there was no re-entry permitted, and he responded by dousing the teacher. Citrus County Chronicle.

Columbia: Darryl Thomas, a welding teacher at Columbia High School, has been named the school district’s teacher of the year. WCJB.

Gilchrist: Brooke Whittington of Bell Elementary School has been named the school district’s teacher of the year. Debbie Hill, who works in the district office, was chosen as employee of the year. WCJB. Gilchrist County School District.

Colleges and universities: A 23-year-old Eckerd College student has been arrested and accused of making written or electronic threats to kill, do bodily injury or conduct a mass shooting or an act of terrorism. Campus police said Eli Altman Johnson threatened a person off-campus through voice-mails and texts. WFLA. WTVT.

COVID in schools: A new study in the Pediatrics publication concludes that, “With universal masking, in-person education was associated with low rates of secondary transmission, even with less stringent distancing and bus practices. Given the rates of sports-associated secondary transmission, additional mitigation may be warranted.” The report studied more than 1 million students and employees in 100 North Carolina school districts, 13 Wisconsin districts and 14 North Carolina charter schools. The 74.

Around the nation: The U.S. Department of Agriculture has announced it will change school nutrition rules for the next school year to bring back health goals that were overturned by the Trump administration. Low-fat or nonfat unflavored milks would have to be offered, and the fat in sweet flavored milks would have to be limited. At least 80 percent of the grains served in school lunch and breakfast each week must be considered rich in whole grains, and the weekly sodium limit for school lunch and breakfast will be reduced for the 2023-2024 school year. WFTV. Washington Post. U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Opinions on schools: Before you legislate “Don’t Say Gay,” Florida legislators, ask for the opinions of state’s gay and straight students and consult the professionals, warriors on the front lines of mental health. It’s as simple as this: You might have the political power. But, no, you don’t know better. Fabiola Santiago, Miami Herald. Book banning is starting to take off in Florida, and as long as it is, we shouldn’t leave the Bible out of the discussion. Frank Cerabino, Palm Beach Post. The entire Republican legislative caucus could use a jolt of racial and sexual enlightenment before they reconfigure Florida’s racist history. Fred Grimm, Sun Sentinel. Hispanic educators bring powerful, essential, and necessary voices and gifts that are essential to sustain the mission of Catholic schools in the United States. We must support them and create pathways that lead more educators like them to dedicate their lives to these school communities. Melodie Wyttenbach and Hosffman Ospino, reimaginED. There is a real threat facing women’s sports, but it comes more from narcissistic parents and conservative politicians cutting school funding and turning a blind eye to systems of abuse and sexual harassment in their communities than from transgender women. Robin Witt, Orlando Sentinel. The St. Lucie County school system isn’t some rinky-dink family business where leadership can be arbitrarily handed down to whichever relative is deemed to be next in the line of succession. It’s a public organization — a rather large one at that, with about 40,000 students — and the decision about who runs it ought to be handled through an open and competitive process that’s transparent to the public. Blake Fontenay, TCPalm.

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BY NextSteps staff