Emily Bloch
| Florida Times-Union

When Jessica Dawson and her family moved to Jacksonville this summer — in the middle of a pandemic — her daughter was forced to make adjustments. 

A social butterfly who can’t socialize, Ava, 12, is enrolled at Lakeshore Middle School but taking her classes virtually through the school district’s online option, Duval HomeRoom. It’s been hard, but her mom says it’s worth it compared to the risks in-person classes could pose for the family. 

“She’s alive,” Dawson said. “Her happiness is incredibly important to us, but my first job as her mother is to keep her safe.”

But as the end of the second quarter approaches, Dawson is getting antsy. She, along with families across Duval County and the rest of Florida, are worried virtual school offerings could change without them getting a say. 

December will mark the expiration of the Florida Department of Education’s executive order that allowed for school districts to offer virtual-learning models but still receive the same level of state funding for students not physically in a classroom. Now, as the executive order’s time runs out — and with COVID-19 cases on the rise again in Florida — stakeholders are concerned that if it doesn’t get extended, distance learning programs, like Duval Schools’ online learning option, will be cut short. 

“Every parent has the right to keep their children safe, even if the people who are supposed to care about that seem to have lost their minds,” she said. “I’m trying to look at this year as a throwaway year. If everyone is behind, no one is. And if we’re forced back to brick-and-mortar I’ll yank her — and the funding that goes with her — out of Duval County’s school system with zero qualms.”

What’s at stake

Currently, Duval County Public Schools offers an in-person learning option, Duval HomeRoom, the virtual option where students can stay enrolled in their current school and a full-time virtual school called Duval Virtual Instruction Academy. 

Duval HomeRoom, which has decreased in enrollment by about 31 percent since the beginning of the school year, initially launched in March when the coronavirus pandemic forced schools to shut down.  

Over the summer, Department of Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran’s executive order to reopen schools and offer “innovative learning environments” for students not physically in a classroom prompted the district to offer a remote learning option that would let students keep their spot at their enrolled school. But the funding for those students is only protected until the end of fall semester. 

State officials have not said one way or another if the executive order will be extended or not, leaving school districts across the state in limbo. But from the get-go, Duval HomeRoom was presented as a year-long option. 

“At the moment, we remain committed to providing the online option for students contingent upon any further directives, executive orders or other measures or impacts coming from the state,” Duval County Public Schools spokesman Tracy Pierce said. 

Still, Corcoran’s been anything but secretive over his desire to get students back into brick-and-mortar buildings. 

At a Department of Education meeting last month, Corcoran told Florida school superintendents, “we’ve got to get those kids in the classrooms,” adding that by Thanksgiving he expects to announce state plans for how public schools should operate and be funded. Those comments raised eyebrows following numerous press conferences between him and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis emphasizing the need for families to have options regarding online versus in-person schooling. 

Cases worsening

As noted by the Orlando Sentinel, nearly 40 percent of Florida’s students are studying online in the state. Simultaneously, COVID-19 cases in Florida are continuing to increase, with the highest number of COVID-19 hospitalizations and new cases reported in months. 

Statewide, the positivity rate for all Florida cases loomed around 9 percent throughout the week of Nov. 9. According to the Sun-Sentinel, Florida officials used misleading measures of positive cases to justify the re-opening of schools, with outside agencies publishing data that suggests the state’s rate and the severity of the pandemic is dramatically higher than reports say. 

In Duval County Public Schools, 27,533 students are currently enrolled in Duval HomeRoom, down from the roughly 40,200 students participating at the start of the school year. The district said that 80,370 students are enrolled in brick-and-mortar school as of Nov. 10. 

At the same time, Duval County and the rest of the state is witnessing a surge in COVID-19 cases, with Jacksonville adding hundreds of new cases just this week. 

No call yet

In Daytona Beach, Volusia County Public School officials are not optimistic about the future of Volusia Live — the district’s equivalent to Duval HomeRoom — the Daytona Beach News-Journal reported. 

Still, the Florida Department of Education hasn’t made a call yet, with a spokeswoman adding that the department plans to review attendance and enrollment data before making official decisions. 

Duval Schools along with the rest of Florida’s school districts submitted enrollment data to the Department of Education last month. The Department says it’s working with school districts to review that data and from there will have a “clearer picture of what enrollment looks like and how it could impact the Spring 2021 semester.” 

The Times-Union requested the data submitted by Duval County Public Schools but has not received it as of publication time. 

“There’s no way virtual funding will simply disappear into thin air,” Cheryl Etters with the Florida Department of Education told the Times-Union. “The reality is Florida is going to continue to grow, students are coming back every day — stories have been run every day about students returning to the classroom. Many students are struggling virtually and can’t continue that way. We’ll still need options for medically vulnerable students and staff, and we’ll always fight for what’s best for students’ total health and safety.” 

Educators want to keep options open 

On Oct. 30, the Florida Association of District School Superintendents sent a letter to Corcoran, asking him to add to and extend the executive order, in turn allowing for approved innovative learning models (like distance learning) to stay in place without impacting funding. 

In its letter, the Superintendents’ group said the executive order allowed schools to open successfully because it let schools use alternative teaching methods, like online school, without risking funding.

It’s worth noting that the executive order was heavily criticized at the time Corcoran issued it because even though on paper it said school districts could pursue innovative learning models, internal orders from the state barring health officials from working with school districts to actually implement those alternatives had school board members feeling stonewalled. 

“The order provided programmatic stability through the recognition of remote or innovative learning models. School districts were able to provide parental choice to families across the state of Florida because of the DOE Emergency Order,” the letter continued. “The innovative learning models allowed parents the option for their child to receive their instruction from home while maintaining connection with his or her local school.” 

Etters and the state Department of Education declined to say specifically if the order would be extended or not. This leaves school districts in limbo regarding schools’ third semesters of online learning. 

According to News4Jax, St. Johns, Clay and Nassau County school districts have not announced plans for spring so far, while Columbia County Schools, in Lake City, said it would not offer its virtual option in January. 

Weighing options

In Duval County, if Duval HomeRoom is no longer an option, students could enroll in the district’s full-time virtual school, Duval Virtual Instruction Academy, or Florida Virtual School, or switch to a private school or homeschooling. But both virtual alternatives are currently reporting that they’re at capacity. Additionally, pulling out from the school a student is currently enrolled in means losing any magnet or specialty program seats and likely being unable to complete those credits. 

Specifically, leaving a magnet or specialty program would mean potentially forfeiting credits and grades accrued in AICE or International Baccalaureate degree programs, which Duval and Florida virtual schools don’t offer. 

In private Facebook groups, parents discussed feeling “backed into a corner” with the lack of options they’d have if Duval HomeRoom goes away. 

Anessa Dunham is one of those parents. She has four sons who attend Duval County Public Schools ranging in grades from elementary to middle school. 

Her twin boys, Jordan and Jacob, 6, participate in Duval HomeRoom from the bedroom and dining room, respectively while Dunham supervises.  

It’s not easy, she says, but with family members who have pre-existing conditions, she said she doesn’t want to see Duval HomeRoom go away. 

“With the virus numbers increasing at a faster pace than when this started in the spring [and no vaccination prospects until at least 2021], I would prefer for the safety of my whole family to stay in Duval HomeRoom and to not return to a brick-and-mortar setting,” Dunham said. “Even if it takes until next school year.” 

Emily Bloch is an education reporter for The Florida Times-Union. Follow her on Twitter or email her.

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