(The Center Square) – Florida will continue to fund school districts’ online learning programs for parents who opt not to send their children to brick-and-mortar classrooms next semester, Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran said.
“We will have full parental choice,” Corcoran told the State Board of Education (BOE). “The governor will take nothing less than full parental choice.”
Corcoran wouldn’t guarantee Wednesday whether full parental choice includes full funding for school districts' virtual leaning programs, noting the Florida Department of Education (FDOE) is analyzing funding models “right now and working with the districts.”
Corcoran’s order from July that mandated all schools reopen in August with “the full panoply” of in-person services expires next month.
A revised order will be a “collaborative effort” and reflect “significant improvement based on our first 90, 100 days in school,” Corcoran told the BOE, suggesting it may be ready before Thanksgiving.
Under the July order, the state fully funded online students at the same rate it does for those attending in-person classes, a temporary pandemic-induced policy change that some parents, educators and doctors feared would not be extended in Corcoran’s revised rules.
Parents of about 40% of the state’s 2.8 million K-12 students have opted not to send their children into school, instead enrolling them in district-run online options in greater numbers than the FDOE's Virtual School program.
Nearly 22,000 COVID-19 cases related to Florida K-12 schools, colleges and universities since Sept. 6 were reported Saturday by the Florida Department of Health (FDOH).
The FDOH’s update from Nov. 8-14 reported 3,146 new COVID-19 cases in Florida schools – 2,397 K-12 students, 209 teachers, 109 staff and 314 “other” cases; and 749 cases among students, teachers and staff at colleges and universities.
The growing caseload in schools reflects the pandemic’s statewide intensification, with FDOH reporting 7,925 new COVID-19 cases Thursday, topping 905,000 cases in Florida since March.
The FDOH also reported 88 deaths Thursday, bringing the number of fatalities attributed to the disease in Florida since March to 17,949.
Corcoran told the Florida Association of District School Superintendents (FADSS) in October his revised order would give parents online options while offering incentives for districts that enroll more students in face-to-face classes.
“We’ve got to get those kids in the classrooms,” Corcoran said, calling online lessons “a tier-two education.”
During Wednesday’s BOE meeting, board member Michael Olenick pressed Corcoran to assure families they’ll not be expected to send their children to brick-and-mortar classrooms in January.
“I know people who have died from COVID. I know people who are sick from COVID,” Olenick said. “I think there is a fear with many students, faculty, parents. That fear is warranted.”
Olenick agreed “the brick-and-mortar experience” is ideally best, but amid a pandemic and in a state where “school choice is the mantra,” parents should have educational options for their children.
“That decision should be a parent’s decision,” he said.
Families will have “full parental choice,” Corcoran said. “I can assure you, Mike, from the top down, that absolutely will happen.”
The FADSS, Florida PTA and Florida Education Association (FEA), the state’s largest teachers union, have appealed to Corcoran and Gov. Ron DeSantis to extend full funding for online programs.
“School districts need to know they’ll have the funds to operate without severe cuts. Parents who want their children to learn at home need to know that they’ll still have that option after Jan. 8 – in their own districts, with teachers they know and trust,” FEA President Andrew Spar said in a written statement.