Will Florida continue online classes next semester? Parents seek answers.

School districts are waiting to see what the state will do before making plans. The answer hinges on funding.

Tampa Bay Times | by Jeffrey S. Solochek |October 12, 2020

When Maria Balestriere enrolled her two children in Pasco County’s mySchool Online, she did so to ensure consistency.

“Our worry was, are these kids going to be in school for two weeks and then all of a sudden you’re quarantined?” said Balestriere, who lives in Wesley Chapel. “I really didn’t want the back and forth.”

Before long, she found the arrangement worked “really, really well.” Her daughter in particular is able to learn and focus with a teacher she likes. Neither of her children — one in fourth grade, the other in seventh — is clamoring to be in a regular classroom.

But Balestriere recognizes that a return to campus could be thrust upon her and thousands of other families that opted for real-time online classes from home in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

School districts across Florida won state permission to get full funding for the online model for the first semester only, and have no guarantees that they can afford to continue it past winter break.

It would take action by the Florida Department of Education to keep the financial supports in place, something it has yet to renew.

Parents across the state are watching closely.

“There’s a lot of parents who aren’t ready to go back to (classrooms), myself being one of them,” said Damaris Allen, who chairs the Hillsborough County school district’s Citizens Advisory Committee.

About half of Hillsborough students chose to stay home for classes. The numbers have fluctuated since then. Some districts have higher participation, and others lower.

Some parents worry that districts will end their e-learning systems, disrupting student learning and potentially prompting an exodus to other virtual models or private schools that offer online options. Independent virtual courses would remain, but that model hasn’t been as popular with families who prefer more regular interaction with teachers and daily expectations.

The fact that many school boards have yet to talk about next steps has begun cause some anxiety.

“As a parent, I want to be able to plan what I will do,” Allen said.

Pinellas County mom Laura McCrary raised the issue on a Facebook group of district parents that she moderates.

Responses came quickly, with many saying they didn’t want to send their children back into schools without the existence of a safe vaccine that’s easily accessible.

Some said if e-learning ceased, they’d look to home schooling. Others suggested that the school district would do well to bolster its independent virtual program, with plenty of training on how to deal with children with special needs.

“I have a plan for my son if it’s not safe to return second semester,” McCrary said via Facebook chat. “Sadly, our public schools won’t be getting my son’s funding.”

School district officials are hearing the commentary. Some, including in Collier and Alachua counties, have told parents to expect e-learning to go away because the state hasn’t committed to it.

But others are angling to keep the system in place.

Pasco County superintendent Kurt Browning said he had no intention of shutting down mySchool Online, noting “we still have a public health crisis going on.”

In Pinellas County, meanwhile, superintendent Mike Grego couched his position by saying the district would keep its program as long as the state’s emergency order allows it.

That’s the rub for districts. Education commissioner Richard Corcoran’s summertime school reopening order allowed districts to receive full funding for students who attend classes remotely for the first semester.

The financial setup won’t continue “unless extended by a subsequent order.”

Browning said he has encouraged the commissioner to allow schools to continue through the end of the academic year, and make any needed adjustments afterward. He and other school district officials said they have heard hints that the state is looking to protect K-12 money and hold districts harmless.

When asked about the possibility of extending the procedures that permit e-learning, Corcoran said through spokeswoman Taryn Fenske that he’s not ready to make a final decision.

The department wants to review attendance and enrollment information from the official student headcount, which took place this past week, Fenske said.

“We don’t want to make any rash decisions,” she said. “We want to see what’s happening and make sure we have a handle on everything.”

Balestriere, the Pasco County mom, said she’d be “okay” with sending her youngsters back to classrooms if the numbers show dramatic declines in e-learning interest.

“I know they can’t have one mySchool Online teacher with five students,” she said. “But if the need is still there … I do think they should just offer it through the end of this year.”

Allen, the Hillsborough County mom, said she was hopeful that the state government officials who tout school choice will allow that choice to continue. She added that, as lawmakers resume debate on these and related issues, “if our legislators aren’t willing to open in person, I have full expectations the same safety precautions will be available to our students and teachers.”

Photo: With the pandemic expected to continue into 2021, parents and school districts in Florida are waiting to see if the Florida Department of Education will extend funding for online learning into the second semester. [ Times (2010) ]

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