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Corcoran Promises 'Parental Choice' For Distance Learners Will Continue, But Per-Student Funding Uncertain

Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran speaks during a state Board of Education meeting on November 18, 2020
Florida Channel
Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran speaks during a state Board of Education meeting on November 18, 2020

Florida’s education commissioner is promising parents will have the option to continue distance learning for the rest of the school year. But, after Wednesday’s state Board of Education meeting, it’s not yet certain that districts will receive full funding for online learners.

Corcoran says a new order, acting as an extension of the July mandate requiring schools offer in-person learning, will come before the end of this month. Facing questions from the state Board of Education, Corcoran assured them the new order will still allow parents who chose distance learning for their kids to continue to learn virtually.

“We will have full parental choice in the first emergency order, and our subsequent emergency order,” Corcoran said Wednesday. “The governor will take nothing less than full parental choice.”

But where there’s still a question mark is the issue of the state providing funding to districts for those distance learners.

Corcoran’s original order provided full per-student funding for students whose families chose to learn virtually. Asked directly on Wednesday, Corcoran wouldn’t say if that will continue in his forthcoming order.

“We’re going through that right now, and working with the districts,” Corcoran told reporters.

Board member Michael Olenick asked Corcoran to push the Florida Legislature to preserve a boost to teacher salaries approved last session.

“Now more than ever, during COVID, the teachers deserve that raise. Their job description has changed drastically over the last year,” Olenick told the commissioner.

Corcoran answered Olenick, saying Governor Ron DeSantis will make it a priority to “protect” teacher pay increases, as the legislature looks to tighten spending amid revenue shortfalls brought on by COVID-19.

Olenick has previously locked horns with the commissioner over handling of COVID-19 data. At this week’s meeting, he pressed Corcoran on keeping distance learning an option – and having online classes under districts’ control rather than shift that responsibility solely to the Florida Virtual School.

“We need to look at science, and I’m sorry, I do not subscribe to herd immunity as a science. We need to look at science and look at the fear that parents may have – and that’s real. And when we go forward and you look at extending your order, the key to me is that every parent needs to have the right to keep their children in a full, district-related remote option,” Olenick said. “And I stress district-related, that is imperative.”

COVID-19 cases have been on the rise in Florida in recent weeks, as they have in other parts of the country.

Wakulla Superintendent Robert Pearce addressed Corcoran and the state board of education during its Wednesday meeting. He says teachers in his district are feeling the stress – and it has pushed some away from the profession.

“The fear of the actual virus is very prevalent, depending upon who you’re talking about, and teachers have expressed that,” Pearce told the board. “They have concern. We’ve had teachers retire early, that didn’t want to, and some teachers leave and go to other professions.”

But, just as many districts around the state are seeing more students return to brick-and-mortar campuses, Pearce says in-person learning numbers are going up in Wakulla.

“We began the year, we’ve got 5,300 students roughly. 1,253 went distance, we’re now at about 650. So, they’ve been coming back in. We anticipate that we will probably creep somewhere between (400 or 500) at the Christmas break,” the superintendent explained.

As many students will continue learning online, Corcoran says in the coming legislative session, closing the “digital divide” will be a priority. That means making sure students have access to devices and adequate internet connection.

Ryan Dailey is a reporter/producer for WFSU/Florida Public Radio. After graduating from Florida State University, Ryan went into print journalism working for the Tallahassee Democrat for five years. At the Democrat, he worked as a copy editor, general assignment and K-12 education reporter.