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Online learning in schools is option, helping struggling students a priority in new order

Ana Ceballos, Colleen Wright, Jeffrey S. Solochek
·8 min read

Parents fearing they might have to send their children back to in-person classes despite their coronavirus concerns can relax.

The Department of Education on Monday released a new emergency order that keeps live, remote classes available as an option for the second semester of classes, along with the funding that allows school districts to provide it along with in-person instruction. Schools will be expected to continue face-to-face classes through the end of the school year, as the state previously required.

“The message is schools are open,” Gov. Ron DeSantis said during a news conference at a Kissimmee elementary school, his first in over a month. “We are not going to abandon your child. We are not going to abandon you. We are still offering parents to make a choice.”

DeSantis used the order to underscore his philosophy of reopening the state, which is nearing 1 million coronavirus cases, and said closing schools in March due to COVID-19 concern was the “biggest public health blunder in modern American history.” He then called those who continue to back school closures “flat earthers” and said Florida will have “no lockdowns, no fines and no school closures” in the future.

“People vote with their feet. People are coming here at a higher clip than they were a year ago, and I think part of the reason is because schools are open,” DeSantis said.

DeSantis and Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran said the new order largely mimics the same rules from the fall semester. It continues to allow full parental choice on the mode of instruction, but it includes tweaks on funding and how to help students who are falling behind.

The order requires schools to alert parents if their children are not “making adequate progress” in their online classes, and would have the children transition to in-person learning unless their parents opt out of that choice.

The reason for that, DeSantis said, is because “the data and the evidence are overwhelmingly clear, virtual learning is just not the same as being there in person.”

Miami-Dade County Superintendent Alberto Carvalho called the governor’s announcement “fair, balanced and needed.”

He agreed that the second semester order is in many ways an updated extension of the state’s first semester rules because it offers continuity of fiscal stability for schools as they provide the full slate of in-person and online courses.

“The lingering concern was the level of funding,” he said. “Ensuring that online leg is funded equitably to the schoolhouse model was critical.”

Learning shortfalls and funding

Under the new state order, schools must provide plans for how they will tackle students’ learning shortfalls. Several districts have reported high percentages of children in online courses receiving at least one failing grade.

Carvalho said on Nov. 18 that the district is tracking grade inflation. More students earned A’s this year compared to 2019-20, but there are more students receiving D’s and F’s, too.

Chronic absenteeism, defined as students absent more than 10 days, is also on the rise, especially for students in grades 6-12. The issue is more apparent in students who choose to attend school in-person.

The state order will require districts and charter schools to submit and receive approval of “intervention plans” in reading and math that target students’ expanded learning needs. Schools that do not expect to continue offering the “innovative” e-learning systems will not have to turn in a plan.

“Any plans for interventions that will continue into Summer 2021 for students with widening grade-level deficiencies must be identified in Spring Intervention Plans,” the order states.

In Florida, about 35% of students are using e-learning. In Miami-Dade County, 55% of the school district’s enrollment learns online rather than in-person, though that figure fluctuates as students in the nation’s fourth largest school district are moved in and out of quarantine.

Students who live in Miami-Dade’s low-income areas tend to gravitate toward the online learning option.

Carvalho also applauded the policy positions in the executive order that allows families to make their academic choices while empowering schools to take action to address students who are struggling.

“They’re not impositions for us because, frankly, we’ve been practicing them,” he said.

It’s one thing to be marked present in an online environment, Carvalho observed, and another to actively participate.

“The true metric is engagement,” he said, welcoming the provisions that require more interaction between teachers and parents in determining children’s educational needs.

Districts that experienced enrollment growth beyond their annual projections also would be fully funded, to answer a question that some superintendents raised about possibly not getting all the money they were due through the state formula. Most districts have been held harmless as their enrollment numbers fell short of expectations.

This order aims to deal with that scenario. The districts that have not seen gains would spread a $17 million money shortfall among them, an amount that Corcoran called “de minimis” and suggested could be covered with federal CARES Act grants.

In Miami-Dade, enrollment has been in free fall. The district’s enrollment is 8,700 students under its already lowered projection, which means the district could see a $64 million loss for 2021-22. The enrollment drop is mostly in the younger grades.

In response to declining enrollment, the district is ramping up its marketing and recruitment efforts.

No plan to close South Florida schools as COVID numbers rise in the schools, counties

Reassurances for parents

Before the Thanksgiving break, Corcoran said his goal was to create a system that provides continued flexibility, while also protecting students and seeking the best academic outcomes.

Officials in the department worked with school district leaders to develop an approach that meets those marks as best as possible, he said. Officers in the state’s superintendents association provided several ideas to the state, and said they believed their input would be incorporated into the final outcome.

Still, parents and local school officials have waited anxiously for details from the state to determine whether they could continue the strategies they implemented for the first semester, when they were allowed to create live e-learning options as long as they also provided face-to-face classes for any family that wanted those.

District officials made clear they wanted to keep their current models in place, to avoid further disruptions in an already chaotic year. With every passing day, though, they observed that making changes would become more difficult, as thousands of children statewide who remained in remote classes would have to be rescheduled for the next grading period that’s only a few weeks away.

Parents, too, have fretted over the possibilities since the fall, when rumors first started circulating that the state might no longer pay for the e-learning model, which is not part of Florida school laws. Many said they did not want to send their children back to classrooms while the coronavirus, which is on the upswing, was still a threat. Yet they also did not prefer the virtual model that is permitted under state law, allowing independent-work online courses with no connection to their school.

In fact, the live remote system emerged amid many criticisms that the less directed springtime virtual effort fell flat for teachers and children alike.

They pushed the state not to abandon the choice that they had made and found best for their circumstances. They figured the state’s clear support for school options would favor their effort.

Corcoran repeatedly stated that he anticipated providing full parental choice, but that the details had to be worked out. The latest order is that attempt.

Dealing with COVID

Coronavirus cases have been rising in South Florida, and schools in Miami, Broward and Monroe counties have not been immune.

Monroe County schools have reported 65 positive cases among students and employees between Sept. 6 and Nov. 21, to a weekly COVID-19 school report released by the Florida Department of Health.

In Broward County, 653 cases have been reported since reopening in early October — 80% of which were reported within the last 30 days, according to the district’s public dashboard. In total, 359 schools in the county have had positive cases among students or employees, according to the state’s school report.

The Miami-Dade County School Board recently passed a measure that would disclose how many students are in quarantine on its public dashboard. Board members, acting on concerns from the public, recently passed several measures aimed at making the school district’s COVID-19-related protocols more transparent.

According to the district’s public dashboard, 1,176 positive COVID-19 cases among students and staff have been logged since schools reopened Oct. 5. Of those cases, 768 were logged in the past month. Students make up more of those cases.

There are 259,000 students and about 19,000 teachers in Miami-Dade County Public Schools, excluding charter schools. The district’s dashboard does not reflect cases in charter schools.

Several parents and teachers have complained that days and weeks have passed before cases at their schools showed up on the dashboard. The school district has said that student cases must be confirmed by the Florida Department of Health, while the dashboard reflects self-reported employee cases.

The School Board did not discuss the possibility of closing schools at its Nov. 18 board meeting. The criteria laid out to reopen schools says the sustained COVID-19 positivity rate should be less than 10%, trending toward 5%, for 14 days.

The district’s medical and public health experts’ task force, which created the criteria for reopening schools, will reconvene at 1 p.m. on Dec. 7.

The positivity rate for new cases in Miami-Dade increased from 7.04% to 8.29% on Sunday. The 14-day percent positivity rate for the county is 8.01%