PALM HARBOR — Gov. Ron DeSantis on Wednesday proposed $1,000 bonuses for Florida classroom teachers and principals, describing them as a reward for educators who have kept the state’s schools open during the pandemic.
He announced the $216 million plan during an event at Palm Harbor University High School that also served as a victory lap for his administration’s decision to offer in-person classes five days a week while other states kept schools closed.
“Having the doors open has been a huge, huge success,” DeSantis said. Directing his remarks to teachers who made countless adjustments, including simultaneous instruction of virtual and in-person students, he said, ”you have put students first over the course of the coronavirus pandemic.”
Money for the bonuses would come from the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund, which is part of the federal government’s coronavirus relief program. DeSantis said he hopes to get approval during the current legislative session, “because we would like to get those checks out as soon as possible.”
Those checks would go to approximately 3,600 principals and 180,000 full-time classroom teachers.
The president of Pinellas County’s teachers’ union, Nancy Velardi, denounced the move as political. She noted that, just like the state’s move last year to set a minimum classroom teacher salary of $47,500, the new bonus plan circumvents local school districts, which bargain such matters with their unions.
And, she added, it does not appear to do anything for counselors and support employees who also work closely with children in the schools.
“I have already asked the leadership of our district if part of the (federal) money should be used for a thank you bonus,” Velardi said. “The governor should not be determining what the amount is, or who gets it.”
In Tallahassee, the Florida Education Association raised a similar objection. “Recommending a $1,000 bonus for some school employees continues the governor’s strategy of picking winners and losers in our schools,” said Andrew Spar, president of the statewide teachers union. “It takes a village to educate Florida’s children.”
Union leaders were not at the noon event in Palm Harbor. Several teachers were, including Teacher of the Year Sarah Painter of Eisenhower Elementary School. Superintendent Mike Grego accompanied DeSantis, as did state Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran.
DeSantis and Corcoran recounted the controversy last summer over whether it was safe to open schoolhouse doors in the midst of the pandemic.
“Some people were fearful,” DeSantis said. “You had this, you had that.”
As it turns out, he said, the benefits of opening were overwhelmingly positive. Parents were able to return to the workplace, the economy rebounded, and state leaders predict Florida children will not experience the level of learning loss that will take place elsewhere in the nation.
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“We obviously believe in lifting people up, getting people back to work, letting them do the best for their families,” DeSantis said. “We have had people move here from these other states just because we have the schools open.”
The first-term governor is up for re-election in 2022, but has not yet made his plans clear. His popularity is high among Republican voters, in part because Florida weathered the pandemic more successfully than many other states.
“The places that have locked kids out of school for a year now, I think that’s going to be the most consequential decision that any of the states or localities have made,” DeSantis said. “And I think the negative effects are not even calculable at this point.”
Velardi acknowledged that the health effects of reopening the schools were not nearly as bad as some had feared. But, she said, “we did still have over 1,100 employees who did get COVID. Some were very sick, some were luckily not as sick. We have 2,650 students who have had COVID. It’s not like we got away scot-free.”
In public schools throughout the Tampa Bay area, there have been more than 13,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases among students and staff since classes began in August. However, school district leaders frequently say that nearly all transmission of the virus occurs in the home and community, and not in the schools.