Masks should be voluntary in Florida schools this fall, education commissioner says

A roundup of Florida education news from around the state.
Richard Corcoran, Education Commissioner of Florida,  during a roundtable discussion at Winthrop College Prep Academy,  12802 U.S. Hwy. 301, on Aug. 10, 2020 in Riverview.
Richard Corcoran, Education Commissioner of Florida, during a roundtable discussion at Winthrop College Prep Academy, 12802 U.S. Hwy. 301, on Aug. 10, 2020 in Riverview. [ DIRK SHADD | Times (2020) ]
Published April 15, 2021|Updated April 15, 2021

The controversy continued to roil in Tallahassee, with several hot-button school policy issues getting attention from lawmakers and the DeSantis administration, and more anticipated as the close of session nears. Get the latest on transgender student-athletes, school masks and more in today’s roundup.

First, masks. As a growing number of school districts face parental pressure to drop their mask mandates, Florida education commissioner Richard Corcoran weighed in with a letter to superintendents urging them to make facial coverings optional for the fall, the Miami Herald reports. He suggested the masks do not impact the spread of coronavirus. Read the letter here. More from the Herald-Tribune, Orlando Sentinel.

Pasco County superintendent Kurt Browning recently said he’s waiting to see whether the governor extends Florida’s state of emergency before moving on masks. The district’s lawyer later explained that districts have the authority to set such policies without the state’s permission. But because most established mask mandates on the prerequisite that an emergency existed, their boards would need to review the situation closely and determine whether to keep their rules in place after the state has ended its emergency declaration. “A board would have to find its own emergency,” said Dennis Alfonso, board attorney for Pasco and Hernando counties. • That’s why Corcoran is asking districts to revise their policies, rather than requiring it — just as he stated that districts had options in dealing with state testing consequences in his emergency order last week. Still, after seeing how the state dealt with districts that didn’t want to fully reopen last August, local leaders understand that ignoring the suggestions might come with its own set of consequences.

Indian River County schools will take their time in deciding what to do about masks. After receiving public input, the School Board instructed its superintendent to devise a plan to phase out face coverings safely, TC Palm reports.

Moms for Liberty, a conservative group that has been urging some districts to lift their mask requirements, applauded the commissioner’s letter. “Moms across the state have been desperately pleading their case on behalf of their children, to largely unsympathetic school boards for months. This announcement demonstrates bold leadership and is a step in the right direction, but there is still much work to be done to secure our blessings of liberty,” said Tina Descovich, the group’s co-founder and a former Brevard County School Board member.

But it was not welcomed by everyone. Social media lit up with criticism, too, after the letter became public.

The change could impact everyone in schools, as many districts are moving to bring everyone back in the fall. Brevard County schools joined the growing list doing away with the e-learning model for the fall, Florida Today reports. • St. Lucie County schools also announced their return to the traditional model after this semester ends, TC Palm reports. • Duval County schools found that students in remote learning received more D’s and F’s than their in-person peers, WJXT reports.

Tallahassee action

The Florida House voted to bar transgender student-athletes from participating in women’s school sports. Florida is one of 30 states considering such action.

Who’s applying to become president at a Florida college or university? You won’t be able to find out until the finalists are listed, if the state House gets its way, the News Service of Florida reports.

Lawmakers have debated ending restraint and seclusion of students with disabilities for more than a decade. The full House again approved a measure, while the Senate version sits in committee, Florida Politics reports.

Today in Tallahassee ... The Senate Appropriations Committee has several education-related bills on its agenda when it meets at 9 a.m. • The House Education and Employment Committee will consider legislation on free book delivery to students, charter school authorization and school board member term limits, among others, when it gathers at 9 a.m. • The full House goes into session at 2 p.m., where it has several education bills on its special order calendar including ones to revise Baker Act provisions and to create a do-not-hire educator list.

Coronavirus concerns

Let them in. Citrus County schools will start allowing more people to attend campus activities, including sporting events and graduation ceremonies, the Citrus County Chronicle reports.

Students still have choices. Lake County families need to tell the district their school plans for the fall, WKMG reports.

Getting vaccinated is becoming easier. Alachua County schools will offer clinics for students, the Gainesville Sun reports.

It’s not prom, but ... Collier County high schools are planning senior celebrations to replace the more usual year-end events, the Naples Daily News reports.

No more paper report cards. The Broward County school district has offered digital report cards for a while. Because of the pandemic, this year they’ll be the only kind available, the Miami Herald reports.

In the schools

Miami-Dade County schools have some conflicting data points. School Board members raised concerns after seeing high graduation rates don’t match up with low student passing rates on state exams, the Miami Herald reports. “While I understand the desire to have positive PR and to paint a good picture, I think it’s very important to ... paint an honest picture of this county,” board member Lucia Baez-Geller said.

Hernando County school enrollment is rising. Officials are seeking solutions to ease the impact, Hernando Today reports.

Who’s in charge? The Manatee County school district unveiled several principal changes for the coming year, the Bradenton Herald reports.

Bay County schools are still trying to come back from Hurricane Michael. They received an additional $16 million from FEMA to help cover expenses, the Panama City News Herald reports.

Sarasota High School is planning a dress code crackdown. Some students say the rules are sexist, the Herald-Tribune reports.

From the police blotter ... A Charlotte County high school student was arrested on arson charges related to a school bathroom fire, the Charlotte Sun reports.

Don’t miss a story. Yesterday’s roundup is just a click away.

Before you go ... WWE star Titus O’Neil brought his philanthropy to Pasco County, working through his foundation to help create “innovation labs” for students to participate in activities between and after classes at two middle schools. The school district captured the unveiling.