Florida parents could let children repeat grade after COVID disruption under Senate bill

Under the bill, parents with children enrolled in elementary and middle schools would have until June 30 to request to their district superintendents that their child repeat a grade next year.
State Rep. Lori Berman, D-Delray Beach.
State Rep. Lori Berman, D-Delray Beach. [ AILEEN PERILLA | AP ]
Published Feb. 3, 2021|Updated Feb. 3, 2021

TALLAHASSEE — A proposal is quickly moving through Florida’s Senate that would allow parents to have their children repeat a grade to recover from learning losses experienced during the pandemic, a choice that state law currently leaves up to school officials.

The abrupt switch to remote learning last spring, and spontaneous quarantines at many schools throughout the year have contributed to many children falling behind.

Academic setbacks have become such a concern that Gov. Ron DeSantis and Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran often say they are a key reason why schools must remain open during the pandemic.

“We know that the COVID slide is real and troubling,” said Sen. Lori Berman, a Boynton Beach Democrat sponsoring the proposal (SB 200) in the Senate. “This would give parents the opportunity to hold their child back for one year only.”

Under the bill, parents with children enrolled in elementary and middle schools would have until June 30 to request to their district superintendents that their child repeat a grade next year. The request would be sent to district superintendents, who under the proposal would be required to approve all timely petitions. Superintendents would have discretion over requests that were filed late.

Students who are held back would not be allowed to be promoted midyear under the measure. They would be forced to stay in the same grade until the end of the school year.

DeSantis, a strong supporter of parental “choice,” backed the idea last spring, when he first announced schools would shut down because of the pandemic. In a televised address at the time, he said, “parents may, at their discretion, choose to keep their child in the same grade for the 2020-2021 school year,” if they are concerned about learning losses.

But the governor never formalized his pledge in an emergency or executive order. Instead, final decisions had to be made in consultation with parents, school leaders and teachers “based on the students’ classroom performance and progress monitoring data,” according to guidance from the Florida Department of Education.

Berman told the Times/Herald that she talked to Corcoran before the Senate Education Committee took up and approved the measure on Wednesday.

Corcoran expressed concern about the impact the bill could have on student athletes and high school students, she said.

In response, Berman narrowed the scope of the measure ahead of the meeting, removing high schoolers from the bill.

“One of the reasons why we amended the bill was so that we didn’t run into a lot of the issues in high school with sport eligibility and attending prom,” Berman said, alluding to potential scenarios in which parents may want to have their kid repeat a year because they feel the pandemic robbed them of their quintessential high school experiences.

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When asked if the amended bill has the backing of Corcoran, she said “maybe not 100%, but I am hopeful.” This could be due to pending concerns related to student athletes.

Students who turn 19 in July and August are eligible to participate in high school sports beginning in the 2021-22 school year, according to the Florida High School Athletic Association’s rules approved last week.

Sen. Travis Hutson, a St. Augustine Republican, on Wednesday said he would like to see a “special waiver” for student athletes included in the bill. Such a waiver, he said, would ensure decisions made by a parent in 2021 will not impact a student’s age eligibility for sports down the road.

The waiver may be beneficial to a “handful of kids,” Hutson said. Berman said she is willing to add language to the bill to address concerns about sport eligibility, as well as a provision that would educate parents on their decision.

“This is pretty serious if a parent makes the decision to hold their child back,” Berman said. “Maybe we can give parents some information so that they can make this decision.”

Berman’s bill has two more committee hearings in the Senate. A companion bill is expected to be filed soon in the House by state Rep. Kelly Skidmore, a Democrat from Boca Raton.