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Coronavirus in Florida

Education leaders encourage institutional change amid COVID-19 pandemic

The pandemic may prompt Florida colleges and universities to turn the page.

Some education leaders are regarding the disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic not as an obstacle, but as an opportunity to rethink and re-invent Florida’s antiquated education system.

In a virtual education event held Wednesday by The Southern Group, education leaders from across the state probed the sudden death of brick-and-mortar classrooms and welcomed the coming to life of digital learning environments.

“If we miss this opportunity, if we waste this crisis by not really thinking deeply and differently about what we do and how we do it then shame on us,” Tallahassee Community College President Jim Murdaugh said. “We will have let down our students.”

From online classes and tutoring to standardized testing, Murdaugh encouraged leaders to “rethink everything” and “challenge their assumptions.”

“Life is an open book test,” Murdaugh said. “Why are we so concerned about the way we go about assessments? Should we rethink assessments? Should we rethink our business practices? Should we rethink everything?”

The shift is also welcomed as a means to address the education system’s social shortcomings.

“This disruption is also illuminating a lot of vulnerability, said Nicole Washington, former higher education advisor to former Gov. Rick Scott. “There are pipe leaks in the pipeline. We know that attainment gaps and achievement gaps are disproportionally affecting certain folks.”

Leaders also discussed short and long-term strategies to better meet the unique needs of a diverse student body and remedy their insecurities.

“This crisis has not affected everybody equally,” said Division of Florida Colleges Chancellor Kathy Hebda. “Many of the students in our system and other systems across the state are the same students that are having to also deal with being furloughed and teaching their children at home online and being the main breadwinner for their families and having their education now called into question.”

While leaders continue to brainstorm about the future of Florida’s education system, their eyes remain locked on Tallahassee, where Gov. Ron DeSantis has been slow to announce how the state will proceed fiscally in the coming weeks and months.

Hebda described the future of the state and university budgets as uncertain. She added, however, that she maintains a sense of optimism after hearing from Sen. Kelli Stargel of Lakeland.

Stargel spoke to leaders early Tuesday.

“We’re not going to have the funds in the past that we’ve had for higher education unfortunately or for K-12,” Stargel said. “My hope is that we can maintain what we’ve done, but we’re really just not going to know until we better understand where we are financially as a state.”

Washington concluded the long-awaited time for change is now, regardless of what the Governor will soon unveil.

“What this pandemic has set up is the future of education that many of us have been talking about for a while, “Washington said. “It’s here and it’s now and fell overnight in our laps.”

Written By

Jason Delgado covers news out of the state capitol for Florida Politics. After a term with the U.S. Army, Jason attended the University of Central Florida where he studies Political Science, American Policy and National Security. His past bylines include WMFE-NPR and POLITICO Florida. Throw him a line at jason@floridapolitics.com or on Twitter at @JasonDelgadoFL.

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