LAKELAND — This week, the governor, with the backing of Florida Department of Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran, issued another emergency order that extends eLearning and allows for the state to continue funding distance learning at Florida public schools.
The announcement came as a relief for school districts and those with compromised immune systems, who want to continue to learn or teach at home.
“Earlier this year, I directed Commissioner Corcoran to issue an emergency order to ensure every parent in the state of Florida had the option during the pandemic to decide whether their child learns in the classroom or learns remotely,” Gov. Ron DeSantis said in a press release. “This new order doubles down on our commitment to give parents that critical flexibility and takes further steps to reduce achievement gaps caused by remote learning.”
According to state officials, the order maintains a parent’s right to choose what educational option best fits the needs of their family. It also is supposed to guarantee “the full panoply of services for at-risk students,” although some parents have complained that their special needs children are not getting the services they need to learn.
Progress monitoring, or state testing, for all students, “while ensuring financial flexibility and stability for school districts and charter schools,” will also continue .
The emergency order requires interventions for students who might be falling behind, especially at-risk students, and rewards school districts and individual charter schools that have exceeded their projected enrollment.
“We have said from the start that we must show compassion and grace as we make important decisions to get students back in the classroom,” Corcoran said in a press release. “This emergency order delivers on our promise to be diligent and instill confidence in families, which allows students to continue to receive a world-class education. While nearly 65% of students are receiving face-to-face instruction, nearly 1.2 million students are still learning through distance learning.”
Polk County has seen more than 660 COVID outbreaks at its public and charter schools, including 16 schools with 10 or more cases. Those are mainly high schools, which are more crowded than elementary or middle schools. Frostproof Middle/Senior High has had 25 cases involving 20 students, one teacher, and four people whose status at the school is unknown.
Polk schools spokesman Jason Geary said all districts are required to submit a spring 2021 education plan to FDOE by Dec. 15.
“We are working on that plan and will provide details to PCPS families once they are available,” Geary said.
He said the majority of students at traditional public schools — 71%, or 61,041 — are physically in schools. Nearly 25,200, or 29% are attending their classes via computer, while about 2,650 opted for Polk County’s Virtual School, which offers online classes not tied to a student’s home school. Those numbers do not include charter schools, which are funded by the state but maintain their own records.
Polk schools’ current total enrollment, including charter schools, is 103,717 — about 2,600 fewer than last year at this time.
PCPS maintains strict rules about mask-wearing and social distancing. Students can be asked to leave school if they refuse to wear a mask and have no health risks associated with mask-wearing.
COVID at Polk County Schools, as of Nov. 28
AUBURNDALE SENIOR HIGH SCHOOL: 11 cases, 11 students
BARTOW SENIOR HIGH SCHOOL: 17 cases, 16 students, 1 unknown
DISCOVERY ACADEMY OF LAKE ALFRED: 13 cases, 8 students, 1 staff, 4 unknown
FROSTPROOF MIDDLE/SENIOR HIGH: 25 cases, 20 students, 1 teacher, 4 unknown
GEORGE W. JENKINS SENIOR HIGH: 13 cases, 12 students, 1 staff
HAINES CITY SENIOR HIGH SCHOOL: 15 cases, 11 students, 1 teacher, 3 unknown
HORIZONS ELEMENTARY SCHOOL: 10 cases, 5 students, 2 teachers, 1 staff, 2 unknown
KATHLEEN SENIOR HIGH SCHOOL: 10 cases, 7 students, 1 teacher, 2 unknown
LAKE GIBSON SENIOR HIGH SCHOOL: 17 cases, 16 students, 1 staff
LAKE REGION HIGH SCHOOL: 20 cases, 18 students, 1 teacher, 1 unknown
LAKELAND SENIOR HIGH SCHOOL: 13 cases, 10 students, 2 teachers, 1 unknown
MCKEEL ACADEMY OF TECHNOLOGY: 11 cases, 10 students, 1 unknown
MULBERRY MIDDLE SCHOOL: 11 cases, 7 students, 3 teachers, 1 unknown
RIDGE COMMUNITY HIGH SCHOOL: 14 cases, 11 students, 1 teacher, 2 unknown
SHELLEY S. BOONE MIDDLE SCHOOL: 13 cases, 12 students, 1 unknown
WINTER HAVEN SENIOR HIGH SCHOOL: 10 cases, 9 students, 1 unknown
COVID at Polk County colleges and universities, as of Nov. 28
SOUTHEASTERN UNIVERSITY: 67 cases, 54 students, 4 teachers, 3 staff, 6 unknown
FLORIDA SOUTHERN COLLEGE: 50 cases, 45 students, 1 teachers, 1 staff, 3 unknown
WEBBER INTERNATIONAL UNIVERSITY: 18 cases, 16 students, 1 staff, 1 unknown
Source: Florida Department of Health
Anita Carson is a sixth- and seventh-grade science teacher at Lake Alfred Polytechnic School and is in her ninth year of teaching.
“I am personally relieved about the governor’s announcement because I am an eLearning teacher and I have chosen eLearning because I am immune-compromised,” Carson said. “I take immune suppressants for an autoimmune disorder, which means if I do catch COVID-19 I will likely have a more severe infection than someone who does not have an autoimmune disorder and my chances of dying from COVID are higher than other people.”
But Carson added that she is saddened that Florida leaders have continued to push for school to go on as normal and to continue standardized testing.
“This year is not normal — kids, families and educational staff are all having to deal with major changes and stresses from the pandemic,” Carson said, adding that she told the School Board at the last meeting that if they forced her to return to the classroom, she would have to quit.
She pointed out that in the second nine-weeks, families were only allowed to switch their child’s learning option in one direction — from eLearning to face-to-face.
“With families losing jobs or gaining different jobs, their needs might change. Maybe an elderly relative has had to move in with the family and so they want to reduce the risk for that person,” Carson said. “I have a student I taught last year who has Lupus and their family has chosen to keep all of their children in eLearning to reduce the risk for their immune-compromised child. We also have many students living with grandparents who are in at-risk age ranges, some of those kids have already been through the trauma of losing a parent or both, so they are in eLearning.”
Carson said she had one child participate in a lesson from an unusual place so she wouldn’t miss out on learning that day.
“She was at the dentist, holding the phone up to watch and listen to the class while he worked on her teeth,” Carson said. “When she got home, she did the work correctly because she heard and saw what she needed to do. Not every kid is that dedicated, but I’m happy to say that a majority of my students are truly either thriving or are at least trying hard to make it work in eLearning. The ones who aren’t trying or showing up just means phone calls home once more to remind them that this really is school.”
Colleges and universities
Several local colleges and universities also have seen outbreaks. Southeastern University has had 67 cases, 54 of which have been students; Florida Southern College has had 50 cases, 45 of which have been students; and Webber International University has had 18 cases, 16 of which have been students.
SEU implemented strict measures for students after an October outbreak, including closing its food court for in-person dining, offering virtual-only chapel and spiritual gatherings, online-only student services and academic advising, banning spectators from indoor athletic events and urging students to avoid indoor social gatherings on or off campus. In-person classes, though, continued to be held, but with mandatory mask wearing and social distancing.
“Through contact tracing, we have determined that the vast majority of student cases involve those who attended small gatherings where masks were not worn and physical distancing was not in place,” SEU’s COVID recovery task force wrote in a sharply worded email to students. “We are also aware that some students are not following our guidelines on reporting symptoms, suspected illness and potential exposure. These careless and unacceptable activities have put our entire community at risk.”
Ledger reporter Kimberly C. Moore can be reached at [email protected] or 863-802-7514. Follow her on Twitter at @KMooreTheLedger.