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School gets religion exemption for free meals, staff shortages, book reviews, homework and more

Around the state: Students at a private school in Tampa will continue to get free meals after receiving a religious exemption from a federal law requiring schools to follow regulations against gender identity and sexual orientation discrimination, districts around the state continue to struggle with hiring “challenges” as most open school doors Wednesday, a Pinellas committee of media specialists is recommending five books be removed from circulation because of content concerns, Hernando school board members approve a tentative $478.7 million budget, the cost for securing Marion County schools has gone up 20 percent in the past three years, and Pasco school officials say homework will no longer be included in students’ final grades. Here are details about those stories and others from the state’s districts, private schools, and colleges and universities:

Miami-Dade, Broward: Miami-Dade school officials have hired 550 new teachers but still have 224 openings, according to district data. The district has 17,385 teachers now on staff. In Broward, there are 221 teaching positions still unfilled. The district has about 15,000 teachers. Classes begin in Broward on Aug. 16, and in Miami-Dade on Aug. 17. WFOR.

Hillsborough: State officials have told a private religious school in Tampa that it can use a religious exemption to avoid following new federal laws prohibiting discrimination over sexual orientation and gender identity and continue to receive federal school lunch funding. Lawyers representing the Grant Park Christian Academy in a lawsuit against President Joe Biden and Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried said federal officials have confirmed the school’s exemption, and that Fried’s general counsel said the school will receive the funds. The lawsuit charged that students at the school were at risk of losing out on free meals because “their school will not violate their religious beliefs.” The lawsuit touched off a political spat between Fried and Gov. Ron DeSantis. Tampa Bay Times. Politico Florida.

Orange: School bus drivers for some of the district’s 22 high schools will be asked to drive second routes every day because of the driver shortage. That means many students will arrive at school a half-hour or so before the starting bell, and not get on a bus to be taken home until 30 minutes after dismissal. “Schools are planning for kids to have snacks, homework help or tutoring during that 20 minutes or so that they will remain in school,” said Superintendent Maria Vazquez. Once more drivers are hired, the route plan will be revised to the “more traditional runs,” said transportation director Bill Wen. WFTV.

Palm Beach: Doe to what it calls a “challenging hiting market,” district officials said some schools will start the academic year with a certified nursing assistant instead of a registered nurse. Those schools will get visits from RNs at least one every five days. Schools that have averaged 13 or more student trips to the nurse each day, have students who are diabetic or have life-threatening allergies will get priority for having an RN on campus. Palm Beach Post. Schools open Wednesday for the 164,709 students, 12,786 classroom teachers and 22,891 district employees. Here are some facts and figures about the district, the 10th largest in the United States. Palm Beach Post.

Duval, north Florida: Duval Superintendent Diana Greene talks about the challenges the district faces in the new school year, which begins Monday. With ongoing staffing shortages in classrooms and transportation, she’s asking parents to be patient. WJXT. WTLV. North Florida school districts are still trying to hire teachers. Duval has 389 unfilled jobs, Alachua 101, St. Johns 49, Nassau 38, Baker and Flagler 30 each, Putnam 28, Columbia 15, Bradford 13, and Union 1. WJXT.

Pinellas: After reviewing nearly 100 books, a school district committee of library media specialists is recommending that five books be removed from circulation and five others be restricted for checkout. Final decisions will be made by school principals. Recommended for removal are two books by Ellen Hopkins, Tricks and Perfect; Morris Micklewhite & the Tangerine Dress by Christine Baldacchino; It’s Perfectly Normal by Robie Harris and Michael Emberley; and L8r, G8r by Lauren Myracle. WFLA. Students at Lakewood High School in St. Petersburg who are interested in fitness careers now have access to an exercise lab at the school. The lab is part of the school’s Athletic Lifestyle Management Academy, which started four years ago, and was made possible in partnership with Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital and Valor Fitness. WTVT.

Lee, southwest Florida: Lee and Collier school officials outline their COVID protocols for the school year that begins Wednesday. One change is that contact tracing will no longer be done, incident reports will no longer have to be filled out, and the district will discontinue its incident reporting log. Fort Myers News-Press. Naples Daily News.

Pasco: District officials said homework will still be given to students this school year, but will not be considered in a student’s final grade. But, said district spokesman Steve Hegarty, that doesn’t mean it can be safely ignored. “If you are on the football team you’be got to practice,” he said. “You’ve got to learn the plays and work together as a team. You need to get in shape. However, what you do in practice does not determine whether you get a W on Friday night. But you really ought to practice. You really should do your homework to get better at long division or whatever the case may be. And it also gives your teacher an idea of what you need to work on.” WFTS. Teachers at Sanders Memorial Elementary School in Land O’Lakes said the state’s new Parental Rights in Education law is annoying, but will have little effect on them day-to-day because they already know how to act professionally. Tampa Bay Times.

Brevard: More than 170 teaching jobs, 80 non-classroom teaching positions and 225 support positions remain unfilled just two days before schools open. Here are other things to know about the new school year. Florida Today. WKMG. Superintendent Mark Mullins previews the school year. WFTV. Rachad Wilson, the principal of Cocoa High School, was chosen this summer as the district’s chief operating officer. Other personnel changes include new principals for five schools and the appointment of nearly three-dozen assistant principals. Florida Today.

Osceola: The district is continuing to look overseas to fill teaching openings. This year, it has 30 teachers from Asia, including 18 new ones, and also has hired about 30 teachers from South America. District officials are working with the Educational Partners International agency, which sponsors foreign K-12 teachers to be placed in Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia. “We’re really just trying to be creative because there is still such a need for teachers to fill our classrooms, and with the growth that we have here in our school district, we really see the need so strong,” said Superintendent Debra Pace. WKMG.

Seminole: School officials said Monday that they will require consent from a parent to administer first aid such as ice packs, bandages, anti-itch creams or taking a student’s temperature. If parents don’t sign a form, they’ll be notified every time their child goes to a school clinic for care. WKMG. Some parents said they are having trouble accessing their children’s school bus route information from a new app the district is using. “We’re aware some of you are currently experiencing issues with our new Traversa Bus Route app,” the district said in an e-mail to parents. “Please know the vendor is working to correct the problem, which they believe is mostly impacting new iPhone users.” WOFL.

Lake: School security has been upgraded for this school year with the purchase of a new alert system that adds a panic button to the lanyards of every school employee. When the button for imminent threat is pressed, law enforcement and all employees are immediately notified with texts, strobes, announcements and computer screen takeovers. If the local situation button is pressed, the school’s emergency response team addresses such issues as medical emergencies and disruptive students. Daily Commercial.

St. Johns: About one-fourth of the 121 portable classrooms being placed on district campuses still haven’t been installed, district officials said Monday. At least one school, Switzerland Point Middle School, is telling parents the portables won’t be in place until Aug. 18. Schools open Wednesday. WJAX.

Marion: The average annual cost of contracts with three law-enforcement agencies to provide offiders for school security has gone up 20 percent since 2019. The cost for the new three-year contracts with the sheriff’s office and Ocala and Belleview police will average $4,345,687 a year, up from the $3,623,617 in the 2019 contract. The increase was attributed to the rising costs of fuel and equipment. Ocala Star-Banner.

Escambia, northwest Florida: Like most other Florida school districts, officials across northwest Florida continue to look for teachers. Escambia has about 60 openings, Oklaoosa 50 and Santa Rosa 30, and more support jobs remain open. “We’re going to be a little short, but we’re going to manage,” said Kelly Krostag, Escambia’s director of human resources. Pensacola News Journal. WEAR. Incumbent Linda Sanborn is being challenged by Wayne Patterson for her District 1 seat on the Santa Rosa County School Board. Sanborn, a retired teacher who co-owns the Adventures Unlimited Outdoor Center in Milton, wants to continue improving school security, the hiring and retaining of teachers, and communication between parents and the board. Patterson, who is retired from the U.S. Air Force and works in the Florida Department of Transportation’s Road Ranger program, wants to rebuild trust between the school board and parents, and supports strengthening school security by joining the state’s guardian program. Sanborn also answered questions about why she’s running for office, her top priorities, closing the learning gap caused by the pandemic, and more. Pensacola News Journal.

Bay: The first day of school can be chaotic no matter how much planning went into it, so district officials are offering tips for parents to make it as smooth as possible. “The first day of school is very busy. Lots of things are going on in the office and it’s really rough when kids show up that the school isn’t expecting and they are trying to do all they can to work with the students who are there plus then get new students registered,” said district spokeswoman Sharon Michalik. “It’s really important that all new students get registered (by today); that way they’ll be able to start school on Wednesday. … If they register on Wednesday, chances are there’ll be a one- or two-day delay before they can start school.” Panama City News Herald. Walsingham Academy in Panama City Beach is adding a 3rd grade this year, and the school is expecting about 100 additional students. The public school has plans to add 4th and 5th grades in the next couple of years. WMBB.

Hernando: School board members recently approved a tentative $478.7 million budget, an increase of about 27 percent over last year’s spending of $361.7 million. The final public hearing on the spending plan is Sept. 7. Suncoast News. District officials said that there are 127 teaching jobs, 36 noninstructional jobs and seven bus maintenance workers still to be filled. They also said that 50 new buses that were supposed to arrive before the end of the year haven’t even been built yet, delaying delivery until March or April. Suncoast News.

Martin: Superintendent John Millay talks about school security, the district’s efforts to promote inclusion and tolerance, and more in a start-of-the-school-year interview. WPEC.

Citrus: Nearly 16,000 students will be on hand Wednesday for the first day of school. As of Aug. 1, there are 7,008 elementary, 3,549 middle school and 4,416 high school students enrolled. The district hired 117 new teachers, and has filled most of its openings, according to officials. Citrus County Chronicle.

Colleges and universities: A faculty survey at the University of Florida shows that nearly of the 623 who responded still have concerns about academic freedom, and 63 percent said they would leave for a comparable job if personal circumstances weren’t keeping them at the school. Tampa Bay Times. The University of South Florida in St. Petersburg is the first school in the state to initiate a STEM instruction program for underrepresented students in Pinellas County schools. It’s scheduled to begin by the fall of 2023, with plans to expand the program into its campuses in Tampa and Sarasota-Manatee. St. Pete Catalyst.

Florida’s ranking for kids: Florida’s education rating is improved in the latest Annie E. Casey Foundation’s annual Kids Count Data Book report, but economic problems dragged the state’s overall ranking down to 35th among the states. Florida was 13th in education, 32nd for “family and community,” 35th in health issues and 42nd in children’s economic well-being, which is a measurement that includes the number of children living in poverty and whose parents lack secure employment. The rankings are based on data collected between Jan. 1, 2016, and Dec. 31, 2020. News Service of Florida. WLRN.

Schools and monkeypox: School officials said they are getting little guidance from the state about how to respond to an outbreak of monkeypox on campuses. Nearly 1,000 cases have been reported around the state. When asked for advice, Florida Department of Health spokesman Jeremy Redfern tweeted: “We are now getting requests for monkeypox guidance from school boards. Guys… c’mon. @FLSurgeonGen and @HealthyFla isn’t going to let you put masks on kids for a disease that is almost exclusively spreading among adult men through sexual contact.” The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services declared the virus a public health emergency earlier this month. Gov. DeSantis has said he won’t declare a statewide emergency, and called concern over monkeypox overblown. Florida Phoenix. WJXT. Education Week.

Opinions on schools: The entire teaching profession must be reimagined to attract the talent necessary to allow teachers to teach and to provide the structure necessary for students to thrive. One promising idea is to pay student teachers. Matthew Ladner, reimaginED. For the better part of two decades, Florida has set the standard for school choice in America. As a former beneficiary of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, and a firm believer in the Florida paradise, I wish that we still held the title of best school choice state. Alas, Florida is poised to lose the crown to Arizona, which has approved a universal-eligibility savings account legislation that will bring educational options to more than 1.1 million Arizona students. Nathaniel Cunneen, Florida Politics. Keeping Sarasota students safe takes tireless teamwork. Carrie Seidman, Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

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BY NextSteps staff