How Florida’s Public Schools Have Been Affected By COVID-19

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Education has been a prominent issue in Florida in 2020, with Gov. Ron DeSantis making teacher pay a priority during the legislative session that ended in early March.

In the weeks since, the COVID-19 global pandemic has disrupted the school system statewide and nationally, with much about what happens next still unclear.

Here’s what we know for now.

Standardized Tests Are Canceled

The Florida Department of Education issued a statement on March 17 saying that Florida’s Standardized Assessments were canceled due to the coronavirus, and schools will not receive a letter grade for 2019-2020.

This is the first time that schools will not receive grades since their implementation 20 years ago, said Cheryl Etters, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Education.

“The cancellation of tests is a good move by the governor given the unprecedented moments in our school system,” Florida Education Association President Fedrick Ingram said.

He said this decision reflects one of the tenants for which the teacher’s union has long advocated. Students will now be evaluated based on their portfolios and work in class.

“We don’t always agree with the DOE or the governor because of political reasons, but we find ourselves on the same page with the testing not being administered to students this year,” Ingram said.

Parents have the choice to keep their child in the same grade for the 2020-2021 school year or allow them to move to the next grade, DeSantis said in a press conference on March 17.

High school seniors are still expected to graduate, though potentially not during in-person ceremonies — following the lead of most state universities.

Struggling Schools Get Another Year

Public schools with failing grades will get another year to improve.

Florida schools that consistently score poorly on FSAs are usually given one year to improve. If they cannot, they are placed under the state’s Turnaround Plan.

Schools under this plan face several options: district management, becoming a charter school, external operator control or even closure. Once a plan is approved, it is implemented for two years. Additional planning years or implementing years can be granted by request.

According to state data, many of the schools under the Turnaround Plan show high percentages of economic disadvantage. With one more year to improve, these schools can finish the year without high stakes testing looming over them. Obstacles introduced by at-home learning will not threaten poor scores and possible closures.

These students already face challenges due to poverty and a lack of resources at school and home, Ingram said. In fact, Florida spends less per student than most other states, ranking 45 out of the 50 states, according to U.S. Census data.

Florida is one of 15 states that spend less than $10,000 per pupil, well below the national average of $12,201, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Educators worry that schools already lacking resources will especially struggle as their students carry out the rest of the year online.

“Any leeway we can extend to turnaround schools is great,” Ingram said. “This will help students who would’ve had a difficult time passing the tests in normal circumstances.”

According to Marion County school board member Nancy Thrower, schools that are already under external operators will continue their designated programs for one more year. Marion County has two such schools.

External operators often come with costly contracts, but Thrower says the additional year will be treated as an extension of this school year.

Teachers Might Lose Out

Teachers work all year to improve school grades, and they are assigned grades, too.

Ashley Pirtle, fifth-grade math and science teacher at Keys Gate Charter School in Homestead, said she is disappointed that she will not receive a score this year based on her teaching if schools do not reopen. She wanted to improve her score of a three — “effective” — from last year when she taught at Boulware Springs Charter School in Gainesville.

Teachers in Florida are classified according to four levels of effectiveness: highly effective, effective, needs improvement or unsatisfactory. Teachers are paid a bonus if they score high, and only teachers classified as highly effective or effective are kept at schools in turnaround status.

“Getting a good score can put you on a pedestal with other teachers who’ll brag about you,” Pirtle said. “They’ll send students to get help from you since you score well. But it also makes you feel good and like you’re doing what you’re supposed to at your job.”

Schools Stay Closed and Move Online

The quick transition to online learning will leave out many vulnerable students, including those who are homeless or with disabilities, according to Karla Hernandez-Mats, president of United Teachers of Dade.

Hernandez-Mats said she worries about educators’ ability to tailor virtual learning to more than 10,000 homeless children in Miami-Dade County and many economically disadvantaged kids from immigrant families. She said parents who cannot speak English may not be able to help their child with schoolwork at home.

“We know these types of situations affect minority children at a greater level,” Hernandez-Mats said. “This situation could end up widening the achievement gap.”

Pirtle said her fifth-grade students in Homestead are adjusting well to online learning.

“They live for technology,” Pirtle said. “They realized they can join the Zoom conference early so they can see each other and talk before class starts.”

Pirtle said the video conferences can glitch because of its high volume of users. But she thinks it is the best resource to continue face-to-face learning. Despite this, there are concerns developing nationally about how secure Zoom conferences are, especially when it comes to virtual classrooms.

Not all teachers, however, are teaching classes live.

Jirah Ligon, eighth-grade reading and language arts teacher at Westwood Middle School in Gainesville, uses Google Classroom and uploads YouTube videos of her lessons.

“At first they were confused, but now they seem to be moving along just fine,” Ligon said.

Ligon said students who did not have their own devices were able to check them out from the school before they were sent home.

She said students have texted her saying they are depressed, bored and want to return to school to see their friends and teachers. Parents are also stressed as they juggle having their kids at home while they work.

Joe DeSensi, president of Educational Directions LLC, said schools will have to figure out what the rest of the school year will look like during the next month.

School administrators have a playbook for all kinds of natural disasters, but not this, DeSensi said.

“We’re going to have to play more catch up than usual, not just to make up some of the education that they lost, but also the life experience they lost by not being with their classmates.”

Florida Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran has announced that schools will remain closed until early May as of now due to COVID-19.

About Maya Punjwani

Maya is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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