Osceola Schools Superintendent

Osceola students must show decent grades, good attendance to continue online learning

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Orlando Sentinel | by Leslie Postal | December 2, 2020

Osceola County students who have been studying online will need to return to campus in January if they earned Ds and Fs, had poor attendance or posted low test scores during the first semester.

The new rule, which the school district announced late Tuesday, has some wiggle room, though that isn’t being advertised.

Superintendent Debra Pace said that under a new state education order announced Monday, the district cannot require children to attend face-to-face classes if their parents object because of the coronavirus pandemic.

But the district will strongly encourage it because too many students studying online are disengaged and struggling academically, and administrators are convinced in-person schooling is safe.

“These kids don’t have another year to make up third grade or 12th grade or kindergarten. This is it,” Pace told the Osceola County School Board on Tuesday. “Too many times they log in, they have their little avatar up, and they’re off to play basketball or Game Boy or whatever, do the laundry,” she said. “That means they’re not learning.”

Osceola parents have until Dec. 9 to pick an education option for their children for the second semester of the 2020-21 school year.

“Students who were digital learners for the first semester will be required to have earned letter grades of A, B, or C in all classes, have a 90% attendance record, and be at grade-level proficiency on standardized assessments to be allowed to stay in digital learning for second semester,” the district’s new rule says.

The school board unanimously approved it as part of a new “READY. SET. RESTART!” plan for second semester.

Some parents reacted angrily when the district posted the plan on its Facebook page.

“So today we are the third state to reach 1 million cases and you decide to segregate the kids who have lower grades from the high achieving students by throwing them under the bus,” one mother wrote. “My son has great attendance and one D in Science right now and if he doesn’t get that grade up you feel he not worthy of continuing his studies in the safety of our home. What are you guys thinking?”

Another parent wrote, “I understand that some kids are suffering academically, but we are not living through normal times. I think it should be left up to parents to decide what is best during these times.”

If parents don’t want their children on campus full time, despite poor grades or attendance, the district may suggest Saturday school, after-school tutoring or extra online help during lunch, among other options, Pace said.

Just under 50% of Osceola’s 69,000 students are doing school online this semester. Like its Central Florida neighbors, Osceola started the school year in August, offering both online and in-person classes and allowing parents to choose what option was best for their children.

Students in the district’s Digital Learning program — where students log in from home and take all their classes virtually — have worse attendance records and more Ds and Fs than counterparts attending school in person, Pace said.

Gov. Ron DeSantis announced the new education order, which allows school districts to offer online options for the rest of the school year, from Osceola’s Boggy Creek Elementary School.

Less than 5% of the first-quarter grades issued to Boggy Creek’s in-person students were Ds and Fs, district data shows, but for those in Digital Learning the Ds and Fs amounted to nearly 14% of the grades. Similar patterns were reported at most district schools.

Orange County Public Schools are encouraging parents to consider face-to-face classes if their children aren’t doing well online and also asking them to make a decision by Dec. 9, according to a message sent from some schools to parents Wednesday.

After the first marking period, the Lake County school district began a “large push” to have students return to campus, because of worries about academic performance, officials said. It has told parents they can make the switch any time.

The Volusia County school district told 3,665 online students with a D or F on their first report card to return to face-to-face classes.

“We did say it was required, but we also worked with families where there were health issues or other circumstances that made virtual learning the best/only option, and those students were allowed to remain in Volusia Live,” the online program, said spokeswoman Cindi Lane in an email. Those students were then provided online tutoring and other “extra resources,” she added.

The Seminole County school district last month asked parents of online students what they wanted for their children next semester. About 66% said they’d keep their children studying virtually from home.

The new state order requires schools to alert families if youngsters studying online are falling behind and encourage them to switch to in-person lessons. At Boggy Creek, DeSantis said that across the state, online learning hasn’t proved as effective as traditional schooling.

“The virtual learning is just not the same as being in person,” he said. “The medium is just not the same as being in the classroom.”

As in other districts, Osceola parents can also opt for the Florida Virtual School or its Osceola franchise. The virtual schools offer more flexibility than the district’s Digital Learning program, as students can do the work largely at their own pace. But it also offers fewer classes, particularly for high school students.

The number of cornoavirus cases in Osceola, and across the state, remains a concern, Pace said. But schools — with required face masks and an emphasis on hand washing and social distancing when possible — have been shown to be safe and not a source of virus spread, she said, Tuesday, echoing the message the governor shared a day earlier.

“We are not seeing spread through a classroom, through a football team, through a staff group since really school started,” she added.

Having more back in face-to-face classes could pose more challenges, Pace admitted, but it is still best for most students academically.

Photo: Osceola County Superintendent Debra Pace speaks during a press conference with governor Ron DeSantis, regarding education and COVID-19 at Boggy Creek Elementary School, on Monday, November 30, 2020. (Ricardo Ramirez Buxeda/ Orlando Sentinel) (Ricardo Ramirez Buxeda/Orlando Sentinel)