PALM HARBOR, Fla. — Florida's top education official on Wednesday hinted that distance learning related to the COVID-19 pandemic may not be in place next school year.
During a news conference in Pinellas County about teacher bonuses, Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran was asked whether the state will continue funding online learning for the 2021-22 academic year.
"The goal is to get everyone back in the classroom," Corcoran said.
"So will funding be taken away from online, or is that still being talked about?" a Tampa-area reporter followed up.
"Well we've always, even pre-pandemic, we always funded online," Corcoran said. "So, we would just go back to the traditional funding levels for face-to-face and online."
And that may force countless children back into classrooms just months from now.
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Under the "traditional funding" model before the COVID-19 pandemic, the Florida Department of Education would set aside financial resources -- also called "full-time equivalent credits" -- for students enrolled in the Florida Virtual School, or a "full-time virtual instruction program" that's "approved by the Department of Education... the Florida Virtual School, a franchise of the Florida Virtual School, or a Florida College System institution."
However, when the COVID-19 pandemic swiftly forced millions of Florida students out of classrooms in March of 2020, the state had to pivot and reroute some of that funding for "innovative learning modalities," more commonly known as distance or remote education.
Under an executive order issued by Corcoran on Nov. 30, "school districts and charter schools are authorized to continue the innovative learning modality in the Spring semester."
The order added that "school boards and charter school governing boards with an approved reopening plan are authorized to report approved innovative learning students for full full-time equivalent credit."
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Corcoran's order provides funding for pandemic-related distance learning until the end of the 2021 summer semester.
It's unclear if the Florida Department of Education will continue funding remote education beyond that, or require all students to return to brick-and-mortar schools.
"We were the fastest to open up, we've been open the longest, and we have more students in face-to-face instruction than any other state in the union," Corcoran said.
Since Florida schools reopened in August, educators throughout the Sunshine State have been forced to deal with the struggles of simultaneous teaching, instructing students both in-class and remotely at the same time.
"As teachers, we need to continue the race that we signed up for. We signed up to do this," said Sarah Painter, the Pinellas County Teacher of the Year, during Wednesday's news conference. "We cannot control the weather, we can't control our circumstances, but we can continue to push through, find joy."
Earlier this week, the Palm Beach County Classrooms Teachers Association released a survey which found that 93.1% of teachers polled said simultaneous teaching should be eliminated for the 2021/22 school year and replaced by "pure virtual-only classes and pure physical-only classes."
DeSantis on Wednesday praised Florida for being "only one of a handful" of states where all parents have ability to send their children to school for in-person instruction.
"From the very beginning last summer, we had so many people who work in our school districts, and our charter, in private, the whole education, they wanted to get back," DeSantis said. "We had people every step of the way that wanted to put kids first."
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President Joe Biden has set a goal to have a majority of elementary and middle schools reopened for full-time, in-person learning within his first 100 days in office.
WPTV has reached out to local school districts for information about where they stand on planning for distance learning for the fall semester.
A spokeswoman for St. Lucie Public Schools said Superintendent Wayne Gent "will be reviewing the matter" in light of Corcoran's comments.
"However, [Gent] is heavily leaning toward returning to in person learning while continuing our full-time virtual option offered through Mosaic Digital Academy which was established in 2012," said Lydia Martin, the chief communications officer for St. Lucie Public Schools, in a written statement to WPTV.
The Martin County School Board is set to begin having discussions about the 2021/21school year in the coming weeks, according to Jennifer DeShazo, the director of public information and community relations for the Martin County School District.
"The District will continue to rely heavily on data and guidance from educational and health officials as decisions are made," DeShazo said in a statement. "We remain committed to protecting the health and safety of children and staff as we focus on our mission of educating all students for success."
The Okeechobee County School District, which offers face-to-face and online options for students -- but not simultaneous teaching -- said it plans to have the same options available at the start of the 2021/21 academic year.
"I believe the virtual option is here to stay and Okeechobee County Schools will keep it active for those who excel in that model," said Dylan Tedders, the assistant superintendent for administrative services for the Okeechobee County School District, in a written statement.
The School District of Palm Beach County and School District of Indian River County have not responded yet.