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Florida schools ordered to reopen in August, if conditions allow

That doesn't mean students have to go, though. The state will fund other 'innovative' education options.

On the same day President Trump tweeted that “SCHOOLS MUST OPEN IN THE FALL!!!,” Florida education department officials made clear that parents must have that option available to them if health conditions allow.

“If local conditions say you are able to do that, then, yes, you are required to provide that,” chancellor Jacob Oliva told district leaders during a Monday afternoon conference call.

But that choice won’t be best for every family, Oliva said, noting that only about one third of parents responding to a survey indicated a strong desire to return to in-person classes five days a week. Many want other models of education available, such as live online lessons and other possibilities that districts are still devising to meet needs and desires.

“We’ve heard very loud and clear that we need to provide flexibility for those options,” Oliva said.

On Monday, Florida education commissioner Richard Corcoran issued an emergency order aimed at ensuring that districts and charter schools get funding for those approaches that aren’t generally contemplated in law.

The state’s education finance plan is based heavily on the number of students sitting in classrooms during a week in October. It also depends on the number of hours children have attended over the course of each semester.

Some of the innovative online systems that districts are promoting wouldn’t necessarily qualify for money.

Corcoran’s order waives the October count requirement, allowing districts to calculate their attendance using all the various models of instruction available. Their allocations will be based on pre-coronavirus enrollment projections, with each district receiving the amount set aside in the general appropriations act that Gov. Ron DeSantis recently approved.

“We will make sure the department will not reduce the distribution of these funds,” Oliva said during the 45-minute online call.

To be eligible for the money, though, any district that intends to provide classes outside the traditional in-person and virtual must submit a detailed plan to the Department of Education for approval.

Those plans, which do not yet have a deadline, must include specifics about how the schools will provide appropriate services to students with special education needs, such as disabilities and language deficits. Schools must provide the full array of supports required in law, Oliva said.

The plans also must spell out how districts will track student attendance, participation and progress, with data to be submitted to the state for analysis.

The state wants to ensure that students are getting the education they deserve, and making strides to overcome any learning losses incurred over the spring remote learning period and the summer break, Oliva said.

“We need to make sure students have access to high quality content,” he said, and that schools aren’t just “sending home packets on Monday to be returned on Friday.”

School districts and charter schools would have to get their plans approved to get the funding for their innovations, as would private schools that receive state scholarship funding. Charter schools need not have identical plans to those of the districts where they are located.

District administrators, hearing the details for the first time, had several questions about the order.

Some wanted to know if they will get more money than what’s in the budget if their enrollment rises. The state didn’t have that answer yet.

Others asked if the schools must still follow constitutional class-size requirements. The order did not waive those mandates.

Yet others asked if there might be an instance where they decide not to open schools for face-to-face classes. Oliva said that decision would rest with district officials in consultation with health experts, on a case by case basis.

But lacking any proof of need, he stressed, the schools must be open five days a week, once classes resume.

The emergency order is in force for the first semester of the 2020-21 year, and will be reevaluated for the second semester.

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