Obvious logistical questions emerged as schools were forced online during the COVID-19 pandemic, but education funding remains in limbo for the 2020-2021 school year.
The Legislature passed several education priorities during the Session that wrapped two months ago. But policy and funding changes have yet been signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis as he bides time to know where the state stands economically with the pandemic.
During a virtual conference held Wednesday by The Southern Group about education in the coronavirus age, Senate Education Appropriations Committee Chair Kelli Stargel assured listeners that education remains a state priority.
“I can give the talking points of the increases that we gave to early learning, the allocation that we did for teacher pay, the increases in the FEFP, the increases for digital classrooms, mental health,” the Lakeland Republican said. “But honestly, right now, I don’t know where any of those stand.”
With gutted tourism and depressed spending, the state is seeing less tax revenue. That’s on top of tax cuts dealt to corporations in crisis during the pandemic, all weighing down the budget the Legislature passed before knowing COVID-19’s full economic effect.
“We’ve had conversations. I’d like to say that we know exactly, clearly what our path is going to be, but honestly, we do not,” Stargel said. “We’re all just looking through multiple different scenarios of how we can change policy to benefit the common good of everybody.”
Private schools in particular face questions about reopening. According to a recent survey by Step Up, many private schools may stay closed next year.
“If those schools close, all of those students are going to have to look for another way of being educated, and I feel that many of them are going to come to the public school section, which is going to be challenging,” the Senator said.
State and federal funding mechanisms will need flexibility to account for whether schools are on campus, virtual or in a blended learning environment.
Policy changes also add stress to the education system. With schools forced to switch to remote learning, school districts in areas with poor internet access and that have integrated less technology into their curricula won’t be able to provide online learning. There, campuses will need to open.
With a constrained budget, including out of the Legislature, only the priorities get funded. That’s put technological advancements on the back burner until the COVID-19 crisis subsides.
“We’ve been three years trying to push districts and trying to push individuals and families to prioritize the infrastructure to support more of a digital learning,” Stargel said. “And it wasn’t a priority until it had to be.”