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Researchers object to state’s vaccine guidance, budget vote is today, culture wars, and more

COVID researchers object: The researchers whose study was cited by the state as justification to recommend that children not get a COVID vaccine said their work was taken out of context, and they disagree with Surgeon General Dr. Joseph Ladapo’s conclusion that getting the vaccine is more dangerous for children than getting COVID-19. “I think there is cherry-picking of sentences to support what (the state) wanted,” said Kathryn Edwards, a pediatrics professor at Vanderbilt University Medical Center who cowrote one of the papers cited by Ladapo. Each of the three studies cited by the state concluded that the vaccines were safe for children and effective. That conclusion was not mentioned by Florida officials in the two-page guidance they issued. “You don’t just pick one sentence from one paper that agrees with what you think you want to say,” Edwards said. A Florida Department of Health official said it stands by the recommendation. “The researchers’ conclusions are their assessment of the data,” said Jeremy Redfern. “The surgeon general disagrees.” Tampa Bay Times.

Budget vote today: The 2022 legislative session will end today with a final vote on the proposed $112.1 billion budget, which includes $24.3 billion for K-12 education, followed by closing ceremonies. That’s a 10.4 percent increase from last year’s overall spending. Republicans said they were pleased with the budget, and Democrats also had good words for overall spending although they denounced the GOP’s focus on cultural issues. “Overall, I am somewhat happy with the budget,” said state Rep. Angela Nixon, D-Jacksonville. “But I wish we could have done more instead of dealing with some culture wars, but it is what it is.” Once signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis, the budget goes into effect July 1. Politico Florida. News Service of Florida. Associated Press. The Legislature’s increased spending for K-12 education drew praise from the state’s biggest teachers union, the Florida Education Association. Union president Andrew Spar called it a “real step forward.” Per-pupil spending is increasing almost 5 percent, by $384.55 to $8,142. Florida Politics.

Home to culture wars: Florida became the epicenter of the national cultural war debate during the legislative session, led by a governor who is running for re-election this fall and is widely expected to run for president in 2024. The emphasis on such issues as critical race theory, abortion, voting rights, sex education, LGBTQ rights and book bans pushed aside dealing with such issues as rising rents and housing prices, higher insurance costs and ensuring that high-rise residential towers are kept safe. “You know that old Wendy’s commercial, ‘Where’s the Beef?’ I think we have big buns and not a lot of meat this year, and got distracted by nationally red meat political issues that serve a great political purpose, but are light on policy,” said state Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg. Politico Florida. Tampa Bay Times and Miami Herald. USA Today Florida Network. Capitol News Service. Miami Herald.

Also in the Legislature: Florida public schools, universities and state agencies will be banned from accepting grants from Russia or participating in any cultural exchanges with the country under a late addition to the budget agreement. All state contracts will also be reviewed to see if any tax dollars are going to Russia-based business. The review is due to the Legislature by Dec. 1. Orlando Sentinel. Representatives from some of the 12 school districts that were threatened with the loss of $200 million in state funding because they didn’t comply with the state’s ban on face mask mandates now say it’s wrong that they’ve been declared not eligible for $200 million in state recognition grants rewarding high-performing schools. Melissa Byrd, an Orange County School Board member, called the state plan “disappointing. We were doing what our parents wanted at the time. We were doing the right thing.” Miami Herald. Orlando Sentinel.

Around the state: The extra half-cent of sales tax generated a much-higher-than-expected $110 million for Duval schools in 2021, Polk County school’s self-insured plan spent about $11 million on health care in 2021 for almost 3,000 employees who contracted COVID-19, Osceola schools name a district teacher of the year, Lee County school officials present Golden Apple awards to six teachers, Manatee’s superintendent is reprimanded by the state for ordering employees to falsify records to boost graduation rates from 2014-2016, and a woman who has defended far-right extremist groups Proud Boys and QAnon as well as the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol rioters has been appointed by Gov. DeSantis to the state Board of Education. Here are details about those stories and others from the state’s districts, private schools, and colleges and universities:

Miami-Dade: A Miami-Dade police officer has been suspended for pulling his gun out during car line Feb. 11 at Lakeview Elementary School in Miami. The event was recorded by a parent waiting in line. The video shows a man in the line expressing concern about the officer, Carlos Baez, having his hand on his gun. Baez then pulled the gun and asked the man for his name and date of birth. The man, Lazaro Gonzalez, initially refused but later relented and was arrested. He spent a month in jail before being released when the state attorney questioned the arrest. Baez is on desk duty pending the results of the department’s investigation. WSVN.

Broward: Controversial district spokeswoman Kathy Koch is resigning, effective May 2. She gave no reason for leaving, but Superintendent Vickie Cartwright said Koch is resigning of her own choice. Koch was hired in 2018 by former superintendent Robert Runcie. She was allowed to continue running her own private business, and shifted the focus of her department from public information to public relations. She was recently investigated for organizing a rally for Runcie, who had been indicted for perjury, and for doing private work on district time. Sun Sentinel. In an interview, the newly appointed Cartwright said she was preparing to make sweeping changes in the district, including “reshaping some of the culture within our district. It’s going to take some time, but it’s a priority, and we’ve already started on it,” she said. Sun Sentinel. A walkout by students at Western High School in Davie to protest the Parental Rights in Education bill got combative Friday when protesting students were confronted by other students carrying a Trump 2020 banner. Some pushing and punching was reported, but no one was hurt or arrested. Sun Sentinel. A 7-year-old boy who took a gun to Dillard Elementary School on Friday won’t be charged with a crime, law enforcement officials said. Officers were tipped off to the gun by other students. Sun Sentinel. WPLG. WSVN.

Duval: The extra half-penny added to the sales tax for schools generated $110 million in 2021, according to the first report from the district’s sales-surtax oversight committee. Original revenue projections from the tax were $88 million. The money will be used to build 27 new schools, improve security and technology districtwide, major repairs and renovations, and remove school portables across the district. Florida Times-Union. WJXT. The school transportation company that buses Duval students is asking students’ parents to become drivers. School Transportation of America wants to hire 100 drivers, and is offering signing bonuses of up to $3,000, paid training and $16 an hour to start. WJXT.

Polk: More than $11 million was spent on health care for almost 3,000 school employees who contracted COVID-19, district officials have announced. The district’s health program is self-funded. Expenses eclipsed health program revenues by $5.1 million in 2021, but the district used federal coronavirus aid to offset the losses. The district is applying for more federal aid to cover anticipated costs. At least 13 district employees have died since the beginning of the pandemic two years ago. Lakeland Ledger.

Palm Beach: Contact tracing of COVID-19 cases in the school district will end March 22 and face masks that were strongly encouraged for students, employees and visitors will be made optional, district officials announced Friday. Parents will continue to be notified when someone in their child’s class tests positive. WPTV. Palm Beach County School District.

Lee: Six district teachers received Golden Apple awards from the Foundation for Lee County Public Schools. The winners are: Taylor Ashby, a world history and global studies at North Fort Myers High; Kaleigh Stewart, a 9th- and 10th-grade English teacher at North Fort Myers High; Stephanie Osterhouse, a 1st-grade teacher at Skyline Elementary; Ryan Arciero, an English teacher at Fort Myers High; Phillip Savage, a math teacher at Dunbar High; and Steven McGinley, a civics teacher at Harns Marsh Middle. Fort Myers News-Press. A recent state audit disclosed that four of 120 school buses had incomplete safety inspections. One of the buses had 28 broken seat belts. Transportation director Roger Lloyd said the problems are being fixed. WINK.

Brevard: A teacher at Theodore Roosevelt Elementary School was arrested last week and accused of hitting an autistic student in the face. Police said a video shows Candice Bartell, 53, striking the student on the nose. She told police it was a “playful tap” that she does to show affection when a student is happy or excited. She’s been placed on paid leave while the district investigates. Florida Today. WKMG.

Osceola: Taylor Kuwik, a 1st-grade teacher at St. Cloud Elementary School, has been named the school district’s teacher of the year. She now competes with top teachers from other districts for the state’s teacher of the year award. Finalists will be named in May and the top teacher will be announced in July. Orlando Sentinel.

Seminole: A high school senior has launched a campaign to change the district’s student dress code, which she said targets girls. Julia Squitteri of Hagerty High began with an online petition that gathered nearly 4,000 signatures, then followed up by collecting written testimony from students, meeting with school board officials, starting the online Ruth Project to educate a wider audience on gender inequality, and speaking at the most recent school board meeting. The district has a committee studying the issues she’s raised and could recommend changes as soon as this summer. Orlando Sentinel.

Manatee: School Superintendent Cynthia Saunders was formally reprimanded by the state Education Practices Commission last week for allegedly ordering district employees to improperly record student withdrawals from 2014 to 2016, when she was the executive director of secondary education. That action inflated high school graduation rates. Under the terms of the settlement, Saunders admitted no wrongdoing but agreed not to contest the ruling, She was fined $2,000, ordered to pass two college ethics courses in the next two years, and placed on probation for the next two years. WWSB.

St. Johns: District officials announced last week that they were dropping the last of their COVID-19 protocols. All schools will be reopened to visitors and volunteers, and audience capacity has been updated from 75 percent to 100 percent at performances and sporting events. “We’ve been very careful but it’s time, and we look forward to seeing the last quarter of this nine weeks look much more like we intend all quarters of school operation to be,” said Superintendent Tim Forson. St. Augustine Record.

Leon: A 19-year-old special-needs student was killed last week in an off-campus accident involving a school district bus and his motorized wheelchair. Police said the student was in his wheelchair while it was being lifted into a district bus. When the lift was 4 feet off the ground, the student fell off the wheelchair. He was in the transitions program at the district’s Adult & Community Education School. Tallahassee Democrat. WTXL. WCTV.

Alachua: Rishi Gadikota, a junior at Buchholz High School, has been named the school district’s Sunshine State scholar for 2022. Scholars are the top juniors in science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics from each district in the state. WGFL. A Lincoln Middle School team recently won the regional title of the National Science Bowl, and now competes in the national finals this spring. They will be held virtually on May 7. Gainesville Sun.

Colleges and universities: Esther Byrd, a legal assistant and law office manager in Neptune Beach, and Dr. Grazie Poso Christie, a radiologist in Miami, have been appointed by Gov. DeSantis to the Florida Board of Education. Byrd gained attention during her husband’s 2020 campaign for state representative with her defense of the extreme right-wing groups Proud Boys and QAnon. After the attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, she said the rioters were “peacefully protesting” the certification of the 2020 presidential election results, and she made refences to the “coming civil wars.” Florida Politics. WJXT. Office of the Governor. The University of South Florida is suing the man who admitted stealing at least $12.8 million from a nonprofit organization that provides staffing and other support for the university’s health care enterprise. Tampa Bay Times.

Opinions on schools: If there’s anything we learned from this legislative session in Florida, it’s the undeniable reality that racism is alive, and unfortunately thriving, in the highest corridors of the Sunshine State. Fabiola Santiago, Miami Herald. Make no mistake: as an educator, civil-rights attorney and a happily married gay man, I can firmly state that H.B. 1557 is an appropriate measure geared at removing the culture wars from the classroom, restoring parental authority and protecting the emotional development of students. Joseph R. Murray II, Orlando Sentinel.

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BY NextSteps staff