Florida taps into $474 million in federal aid to prepare schools for August classes

The Center Square – Florida’s 2.8 million K-12 students will return to on-site classes in more than 4,000 schools across the state in August, Gov. Ron DeSantis reaffirmed Thursday in unveiling the Florida Department of Education’s (DOE) school reopening plan.

While the plan spells out general guidelines and how the state will spend $474 million in federal COVID-19 education assistance, how individual schools go about reopening remains up to each of the state’s 67 county school boards, DeSantis said.

“Getting back on our feet in the school year is going to be really, really important for the well-being of our kids, but I also think it is important for a lot of parents who have had to juggle an awful lot,” DeSantis said.

Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran, who joined DeSantis in Melbourne for the announcement, said DOE will ensure schools have adequate sanitation supplies and personal protective equipment for teachers and staff.

Schools can be reopened safely because children and teenagers are “at extremely low-risk” to get sick from COVID-19 or spread the coronavirus, Corcoran said.

Florida’s public schools have been closed since March 13, when DeSantis called for an “extended spring break” that evolved into distance learning for the remainder of the school year.

The Florida Association of District School Superintendents (FADSS) submitted a COVID-19 Education Recovery Plan and K-12 Return to School Guidelines last month to the state Board of Education (BOE).

The Florida Education Association (FEA), the state’s largest K-12 teachers union, introduced a 17-page blueprint last week that spelled out its recommendations for how it thinks DOE and BOE should proceed.

Both would require schools to test students for COVID-19, isolate infected students, reconfigure classrooms to limit contact among students and impose similar measures to prevent students from crowding hallways and buses.

They included calls for incorporating distance learning into a hybrid schedule and asked DOE to allow school districts to change classroom hours and the length of the school year.

DeSantis said the state received $2 billion from the $2.2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act passed by Congress in March. Of that, state officials have discretion to allocate $474 million, he said.

The governor announced $223 million would be earmarked to expand community college vocational programs, reimburse child care centers that remained open during the shutdown and assist closed child care centers with reopening.

Another $64 million would be directed into a program aimed at improving the reading skills of Florida’s poorest performing elementary school students.

“Achievement gaps are expected to significantly widen across the nation due to COVID-19-related school closures and the shift to distance learning,” DeSantis said. “In Florida, we plan to work together to provide tools and strategies to close the achievement gap.”

The $64 million Summer Recovery program also provides $2 million for increased telehealth services.

Other distributions include $20 million toward PreK-3 progress monitoring, $20 million for school districts to identify additional supplemental materials, and $15 million to boost assorted reading programs, including $5 million for a Literacy Seal Team Six of reading coaches.

The best way to address the achievement gap is for schools to be open and fully functioning in August, Corcoran said.

“We want schools fully open in the fall because there is no better way to teach our kids,” he said. “The message should be loud and clear. We are saying with a strong recommendation to our great superintendents that we work with, we want schools fully open in the fall because there is no better way to educate our kids than have that great teacher in front of that child.”

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