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Florida seniors get leeway for Bright Futures scholarships

A new emergency order addresses required test scores, volunteer hours.

When COVID-19 closed Florida’s schools, many graduating seniors had a practical concern.

They no longer had opportunities to complete the volunteer service hours, or to improve their SAT or ACT test scores, to meet the eligibility requirements for a Bright Futures scholarship.

After months of receiving calls and complaints, the Florida Department of Education issued an emergency order late Wednesday aiming to address the teens’ concerns.

Related: Teens fret over Bright Futures rules as college deadlines loom

The order, signed by education commissioner Richard Corcoran, suspends the volunteer hours mandate. Instead, a student may submit a statement from a school counselor or other authorized administrator stating that the student intended to complete the service during 2019-20 but could not.

That document will be accepted as evidence of completion, according to the order.

The state also extends the deadline for earning a qualifying ACT or SAT score to July 31, instead of June 30. Currently, the College Board has no scheduled SAT administrations until August, while the ACT has tests set for June 13 and July 18.

Several of the ACT test sites have canceled for June, limiting access. Those that remain open are implementing social distancing guidelines.

“We’re in communication with College Board and ACT to make tests accessible for Florida seniors,” department spokeswoman Taryn Fenske said. “We’re hoping to get them to do more.”

The ACT has responded more favorably, Fenske added, by working with the department to get more sites open. It also has been prioritizing current seniors for the available seats, she said.

The College Board has not added any exams for June or July.

“We hope this order gives them the incentive to support seniors working on taking the test,” Fenske said.

Thousands of students and parents have signed an online petition calling for some type of action regarding Bright Futures. Many had hoped to earn a scholarship, which covers up to 100 percent of tuition and many fees at in-state institutions, so they could afford to attend.

At least one mom, whose daughter was counting on the scholarship, called the state’s solution “a joke” because it did not include any real SAT help. Her daughter had been preparing to boost her score on that test, not the ACT.

Corcoran said in April that he was working on a resolution, but noted that it would require the support of several different groups because it involves lottery trust fund money. Changes could not be made by simple action, unlike other moves such as canceling state testing.

He had anticipated an announcement earlier, but a spokeswoman said the department had to work through issues before it could act.

Also Wednesday, the department issued an emergency order canceling all summer Voluntary Prekindergarten (VPK) assessments and cutting back the required hours to 200 from 300.