Sarasota Herald-Tribune | by Zac Anderson | May 26, 2021
As one of the most difficult school years Floridians have experienced comes to a close, Gov. Ron DeSantis toured the state Wednesday to tout $1,000 bonus payments for teachers and principals who juggled the challenges of educating students during the pandemic.
The governor also sought to put the pandemic in the rearview mirror when it comes to schools, saying he expects districts to revert to normal operations during the next school year.
“Next school year is going to be a normal school year and students are going to be back in the classroom,” DeSantis said during an event at Sarasota School of Arts & Sciences, adding: “it’s going to look like January of 2020.”
DeSantis has said he does not think students should be required to wear masks in school.
Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran sent a letter to school superintendents in April saying they shouldn’t make masks mandatory at schools next year.
“We ask that districts, which currently are implementing a mandated face covering policy, revise their policy to be voluntary,” Corcoran wrote in the letter.
In a brief interview after Wednesday’s event in Sarasota, Corcoran described the letter as “strongly recommending” that masks in schools should be voluntary, but not ordering the repeal of school mask mandates.
“I think all the districts will do it on their own,” Corcoran said when asked if the Department of Education will order districts to make masks voluntary.
DeSantis said he soon will be signing the 2021-22 state budget that includes the bonuses for education professionals, first responders and correctional officers.
“We’re proud that we got the bonuses through,” DeSantis said during an event in Baker County. “We understand it was a unique set of circumstances that many of our schools had to do.”
DeSantis held a press conference at Baker County Middle School in Macclenny near Jacksonville and another later in the day at Sarasota School of Arts & Sciences.
“This has been one year that I’m sure none of us will forget,” said Sarasota School of Arts & Sciences sixth grade teacher Marissa Dobbert.
Wednesday was Baker County Middle School’s last day of instruction. The Baker County School District was one of the earliest in Florida to open and had in-person instruction for all 180 days of the school year.
Baker Middle School Principal Tom Hill said it was an “extremely arduous journey.” He credited the “heroic efforts” of teachers and other school employees, and noted that the school is ending the year with no students in quarantine.
Corcoran announced in July that he was ordering schools to open for in-person instruction the next month, a decision that was met with significant criticism at a time when COVID-19 cases were spiking to record highs in Florida.
Schools scrambled to get safety measures in place, while also working to ensure families that weren’t comfortable sending their kids back to the classroom could take advantage of remote learning.
Some teachers ended up with hybrid classrooms that included in-person and online learners, a challenging experience.
Within months, though, there was a bipartisan push across the country to reopen schools and Florida looked less like an outlier than a leader.
DeSantis accused school reopening critics and the media of “fear mongering” and attacked “idiot experts” who questioned the wisdom of Florida’s approach last summer.
“We really believed we had to cut through all the storms and all the nonsense and stand with our parents and stand with our students,” he said Wednesday.
In addition to funding the bonus payments, Florida lawmaker included another $550 million in next year’s budget to fulfill the governor’s promise of raising minimum teacher salaries to $47,500.
The proposed 2021-22 K-12 education budget includes an average for school districts of $7,795 per student, an increase of $39, one of the lowest increases in recent years.
DeSantis is combing through the $100 billion proposed budget as he weighs what items to veto.
The budget is bolstered by $6.6 billion in federal pandemic relief money, something DeSantis didn’t mention Wednesday but the Sarasota County Democratic Party was eager to point out in a tweet noting no Republicans voted for the relief bill.
“Don’t let @GovRonDeSantis & the @FloridaGOP take credit for this,” tweeted the Sarasota Democrats. “The funding for these teacher bonuses came directly from (Biden’s) American Rescue Plan.”
Featured image: Governor Ron DeSantis high-fives students as he enters the Sarasota School of Arts & Sciences gymnasium for an Wednesday afternoon press conference in Sarasota, Florida, on May 26, 2021. THOMAS BENDER/SARASOTA HERALD-TRIBUNE