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Florida makes it official: Remote learning will continue next semester

The state will require plans to help students who struggle in their online courses, though.

Families fearing they might have to send their children back to in-person classes despite their coronavirus concerns can rest easier.

The Department of Education on Monday released a new emergency order for second semester that keeps live remote classes available as an option, along with the funding that allows school districts to provide the model. Schools would be expected to continue face-to-face classes, as the state previously required.

“The message is schools are open,” Gov. Ron DeSantis said during a news conference at a Kissimmee elementary school. “We are not going to abandon your child. We are not going to abandon you. We are still offering parents to make a choice.”

At the same time, the state made clear that schools must provide plans for how they will tackle learning shortfalls that students face at home. Several districts have reported high percentages of children in online courses earning at least one failing grade.

The order requires schools to alert parents if their children are not “making adequate progress” in their online classes, and would have the children transition to in-person learning unless their parents opt out of that choice.

The reason for that, DeSantis said, is plain: “The data and the evidence are overwhelmingly clear, virtual learning is just not the same as being person.” He also called closing schools “the biggest public health blunder” made during the pandemic, but said he wanted to ensure that parents continued to have choices.

The approaches could include changing a student’s assignment, or providing academic interventions aimed at getting them back on track.

To that end, districts and charter schools will be required to submit and receive approval of “intervention plans” in reading and math that target students’ expanded learning needs. Schools that do not expect to continue offering the “innovative” e-learning systems will not have to turn in a plan.

“Any plans for interventions that will continue into Summer 2021 for students with widening grade-level deficiencies must be identified in Spring Intervention Plans,” the order states.

Districts that experienced enrollment growth beyond their annual projections also would be fully funded, to answer a question that some superintendents raised about possibly not getting all the money they were due through the state formula. Many districts have been held harmless as their numbers fell short of expectations, but 24 have seen their student counts rise without full funding.

Related: Florida schools will offer online classes next semester, Corcoran says

The new order aims to deal with that scenario. The districts that have not seen gains would spread a $17 million shortfall among them, an amount that education commissioner Richard Corcoran called minimal and suggested could be covered with federal CARES Act grants.

Before the Thanksgiving break, Corcoran said his goal was to create a system that provides continued flexibility, while also protecting students and seeking the best academic outcomes.

Officials in the department worked with school district leaders to develop an approach that meets those marks as best as possible, he said. Officers in the state’s superintendents association provided several ideas to the state, and said they believed their input would be incorporated into the final outcome.

Still, they waited anxiously for details from the state to determine whether they could continue the strategies they implemented for the first semester, when they were allowed to create live distance e-learning options as long as they also provided face-to-face classes for any family that wanted those.

District officials made clear they wanted to keep their current models in place, to avoid further disruptions in an already chaotic year. With every passing day, they observed that making changes would become more difficult, as thousands of children statewide who remained in remote classes would have to be rescheduled for the next grading period that’s only a few weeks away.

Related: Florida schools ordered to reopen in August, if conditions allow

About 35 percent of students across Florida are using e-learning, a percentage reflected locally in Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco county schools.

Superintendents praised the state’s action.

“Our governor and our state are providing stability to our school districts,” Pinellas superintendent Mike Grego said during the news conference, which he attended as president of the state superintendents association.

He applauded the financial action, which could have found Pinellas schools in a deficit if not protected, and also the focus on children who are struggling.

“We need to be honest with how their scholars are doing,” Grego said. “If they’re not doing well, we need to establish an educational plan for their students.”

Hillsborough County superintendent Addison Davis said he was grateful to have notice from the state to guide second semester planning. He, too, found positives in the continued monitoring of student progress and the extension of choices, noting that forcing children back into schools unwillingly would have sent the wrong message.

The Hillsborough district plans to continue surveying families about their intentions, so schools can create master course schedules and assign staff appropriately. If families don’t respond, he said, they will default to their first semester option.

If he had a complaint, Davis said, it was the absence of a suspension of school and district grades for the year. During a pandemic like this one, he said, many people simply don’t prioritize such accountability measures.

“I will not stop pushing to hopefully get that to the finish line,” Davis said.

Parents, too, have fretted over the possibilities since the fall, when rumors first started circulating that the state might no longer pay for the e-learning model, which is not part of Florida school funding laws. Many said they did not want to send their children back to classrooms while the coronavirus, which is on the upswing, was still a threat. Yet they also did not prefer the virtual model that is permitted under state law, allowing independent-work online courses with no connection to their school.

In fact, the live remote system emerged amid many criticisms that the less directed springtime virtual effort fell flat for teachers and children alike.

Parents pushed the state not to abandon the choice that they had made and found best for their circumstances. They figured the state’s clear support for school options would favor their effort.

Hillsborough parent activist Damaris Allen said she was not surprised by the state’s action, given all the interest. She was glad the issue was put to rest in a way that doesn’t hurt schools financially and allows families to keep doing what they think is best.

Next up, she said, the state needs to further discuss spring testing and accountability. Allen suggested perhaps this isn’t the best year to tie high stakes to test results, but so far Corcoran has signaled those exams will take place.

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