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Anxiety high as families await Florida’s second semester school plan

Superintendents have offered suggestions as the state Education Department moves toward a mid-November announcement.

Florida’s superintendents are calling for consistency as schools head toward the second semester of classes with no set direction in place.

The state has yet to say whether it will continue the funding that allows school districts to accommodate tens of thousands of students who want to learn from home during the pandemic. That funding was approved in an emergency order over the summer. But it expires in December, and the uncertainty is making parents and local school officials nervous.

"We recommend to maintain the funding stability that they’ve exercised in the fall, and also the choices that we’ve extended to families,” said Pinellas County school superintendent Mike Grego, who also serves as president of the state superintendents association.

The association sent a three-page letter outlining its position to the Florida Department of Education, as officials ponder their next emergency order to guide school operations after everyone returns from winter break. An announcement is expected in mid-November.

With the governor and education commissioner commenting frequently about the importance of in-person lessons, many have raised concerns that the state might end the funding provisions that allowed districts to offer live remote classes.

Through social media groups, they’re encouraging one another to press the department for an extension of e-learning. Their arguments touch on a philosophy that the state’s Republican leadership might have a difficult time ignoring.

It’s their choice.

Related: Will Florida continue online classes next semester? Parents seek answers.

Chris Garrido sends his two sons to Lutz Preparatory Academy, a charter school in northwest Hillsborough County.

He expressed frustration and disappointment when he received an email from the school stating that its unofficial sources were reporting that the state was unlikely to extend the first semester rules. If that happens, the email continued, children might not have the option of remaining at home for classes, regardless of their coronavirus concerns.

Those who don’t return could wind up losing their spot at the charter school, which has a lengthy list of others waiting to get in.

“It just seems like such a bad time to be taking away an option that has provided so many families with comfort and safety,” Garrido said, mentioning reports that virus cases remain on the rise nationwide. E-learning “has been less than ideal for us," he said. “But it’s still better than sending them back” to campus.

Parents had several reasons for preferring to keep their children in e-learning.

PJ Rosen said her child, an 11th-grader at Gaither High, chose to stay home after experiencing the pandemic in New York City. A major shift at the semester break could disrupt Jessie’s education, Rosen said, with new teachers, class expectations and other changes.

“Here’s the thing,” she said. “I’m not going to jeopardize our health, the health of our family, when there is an option, even if it is subpar. ... We’re hoping the e-learning sticks.”

Christina Hendry, whose son is a senior at Robinson High, noted that some form of remote teaching likely will have to remain, anyway, in case students or staff need to quarantine.

“What benefit would be achieved to discontinue e-learning?” Hendry said via email.

The superintendents made clear in their letter that they wanted second semester plans to focus on meeting student academic needs, wherever they sit.

It recommended that e-learning be extended through the end of the school year, and assured the state that districts would work to provide remediation and other support for students who might be struggling in the home setting.

“This would preserve parental choice and allow students to receive continuity for both face-to-face instruction and virtual instruction for those families who need to remain remote due to COVID-19 issues,” the letter said.

Pasco County superintendent Kurt Browning told his School Board this week that the district is preparing for second semester with the online option intact. The pandemic still exists, he said, and the district wants to provide the safest opportunities for students and staff.

Board member Cynthia Armstrong reiterated the importance of providing choices, as has been a state priority for years.

“Some parents really believe they need to be online,” Armstrong said. “If they don’t get it here they will go elsewhere.”

Department of Education officials have taken steps to tamp down rumors that they plan to force everyone back into classrooms. Spokeswoman Taryn Fenske called that idea, which has circulated in some circles, a “false narrative,” stressing that the department supports choices and virtual options will remain.

She did not specify, though, whether she was referring to e-learning or independent virtual classes, a less preferred model for remote instruction that is separate from the schools that people want to be associated with.

Sen. Bill Montford, chief executive of the state superintendents association, said he didn’t think that decision had been made yet. But he agreed with Grego that the department has welcomed the group’s recommendations, noting several of its ideas were incorporated into the first semester order.

“It is my sense that there will be a sincere effort to try to hold the school districts as harmless as possible,” Montford said. He added, “The Legislature for the last several years have gone full speed ahead in giving parents choices. It would be rather ironic if we took one away from them.”

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