November 24, 2020

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Central Florida schools push learning option that lets them can keep student funding

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Central Florida public school districts are giving parents choices on how their children learn this...

Central Florida public school districts are giving parents choices on how their children learn this fall, and many schools are pushing programs that would keep students in their home district.

The reason? Money. Public schools receive full funding for students who take classes on campus or through their own online learning model, but lose out on funds for kids enrolled in the Florida Virtual School — which could mean teacher layoffs.

Principals in Orange County have sent messages to parents through phone calls and social media posts expressing funding concerns and “highly recommending” the district’s new virtual program, OCPS [email protected], over the other virtual school option.

West Orange High School principal Matt Turner wrote in a newsletter to parents that he was “lobbying heavily” for families to pick on-campus learning if they’re comfortable or [email protected], which will have live, online lessons that follow a traditional school schedule.

“I just wanted to make my stance abundantly clear as I believe we are a family here at WOHS and would hate to lose even one staff member due to underfunding based on students that have chosen options that take their funding elsewhere,” Turner wrote.

Parents of students in Orange and Seminole County school districts must decide by Friday between sending their kids back to campus next month, enrolling them in online lessons or, in some cases, a hybrid of the two. The reopening plans were approved this week by the Florida Department of Education.

The Florida Virtual School operates as its own statewide school district with exclusively online classes, which it offers for a fee to a number of counties. Students who choose Florida Virtual School would effectively leave their home district and bring the funding attached to their classroom seat with them.

Orange County Public Schools, which posted on its Facebook page that it “strongly” encourages selecting the [email protected], declined to answer questions Tuesday about potential funding losses or the push for its model over the virtual school.

But on Friday, Orange Superintendent Barbara Jenkins outlined a grim possible scenario during a school board meeting to approve the reopening plan. As an example, Jenkins said the district faces losing $80 million in public funding if 30% of parents choose the Florida Virtual School option because the district would receive less money for each student compared with those enrolled on campus. That equates to a loss of 1,141 teaching positions, she said.

“It impacts us financially for the number of teachers we can employ because of that discounted funding,” Jenkins said.

Seminole County Public Schools Superintendent Walt Griffin echoed the possibility of a financial hit, noting students enrolled in the online model Seminole Connect would be funded the same as if they were on campus.

“We absolutely are encouraging families to select [Seminole Connect] if they have any concerns related to the health and safety of their students,” he said. “My biggest concern is an overall attendance drop.”

The issue of reopening Florida schools in the wake of a spike in coronavirus cases this summer has prompted intense debates. Teachers have staged protests in Central Florida, arguing that requiring them to be in classrooms puts their lives and families at risk.

Gov. Ron DeSantis ordered schools closed on March 17, when the state reported 314 total coronavirus cases. As of Tuesday, the state has reported a total of 369,834 positive COVID-19 cases since the pandemic began and 5,206 deaths.

The governor has said repeatedly that in-person classes need to be an option for students. On Monday, he said accommodations need to be made for teachers or others with underlying conditions that put them more at risk for COVID-19.

Two lawsuits have been filed against DeSantis and state officials to delay the start of the fall semester. Orange County’s start date is Aug. 21, Seminole County begins Aug. 17, and Lake and Osceola plan to open on Aug. 24.

The Lake School Board added a fourth option for families when school reopens in August, allowing students to study online with teachers from their own or a nearby school.

The new alternative is in addition to three others — going to campus school buildings full time for face-to-face learning, taking all classes online through virtual school or a hybrid with English language arts and math in person and other courses online.

The district will extend the deadline for families to make their choice, pushing it from Friday to July 29. A new form with all choices is expected soon on the district’s website.

The Lake district, like Orange, is also seeking a waiver from the state requiring that on campus classes start next month.

The looming deadline for parents to choose an option has been met with lots of questions about logistics. Seminole school officials provided answers for parents of elementary grade students Tuesday on Facebook Live.

Parents submitted nearly 2,000 comments, many of them pleading for clarity on the different options and if they would be locked into an on-campus decision if the pandemic worsens.

Marian Cummings, Seminole’s executive director for elementary education, said if parents are concerned during the first week of school about having their children in classrooms, they can ask if there’s room to switch online, otherwise they wouldn’t be able to change until the end of the quarter or semester.

“I would encourage parents to think carefully about their choices,“ she said.

[email protected]

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©2020 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.)

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