Gov. Ron DeSantis appeared at Lakewood Elementary School Wednesday morning to promote $1,000 bonus checks that will start hitting the bank accounts of all full-time teachers and principals statewide.
The bonus checks, part of an initiative to improve teacher compensation, cost $216 million in federal COVID-19 relief dollars allocated in the 2021-22 state budget. It’s part of an initiative to improve teacher pay, which in 2020 included $500 million to increase salaries for new and veteran teachers, with an additional $50 million added in 2021.
The bonuses are intended to show appreciation to educators for working throughout the pandemic.
“We understand it’s not something you’re going to necessarily get rich off of, just like law enforcement, but it does help to be able to provide some better incentives,” DeSantis said. “We think that that’s something that is really important. We’re going to continue supporting that.”
The bonus roll-out comes as the school year starts back up again across the state and will be directed to the state’s 175,000 full time teachers and 3,600 principals. The Legislature also approved a similar bonus initiative for first responders, including paramedics, fire rescue and law enforcement.
During his presentation at the St. Petersburg elementary school, DeSantis touched on the struggles school districts faced last year, juggling reopening amid the pandemic. School districts, including Pinellas County, grappled with the requirement to open in-person schools with the concern of spreading COVID-19 at a time when vaccinations weren’t available.
“We really believe that what was done last year, by having the kids in-person, is going to have probably as lasting of an impact as you can have, because the alternative of them not being able to access in person learning — I think we’ve seen through other parts of the country — would have just been totally catastrophic,” he said.
Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran, joining DeSantis Wednesday, continued to emphasize the importance of face-to-face instruction. Corcoran faced heavy criticism from teachers unions last year for reopening in-person schools.
“Despite what the rhetoric was, despite the noise, they came because they wanted to be with their students, and they wanted to impart that great education,” Corcoran said about the previous school year. “We could all go back to work because our kids were in school, and they were in that great environment. And so really, when you look at it from a state standpoint, the economy, everything — COVID attacked us and our teachers fought back.”
This year, the Governor and his administration are facing a different battle with schools amid the ongoing pandemic — masks.
Florida Surgeon General Scott Rivkees signed a rule Friday requiring schools to let parents or guardians “opt-out the student from wearing a face-covering or mask,” along with guidelines for COVID-19 symptoms, positives and exposures.
The State Board of Education also released a proposed emergency rule after Gov. Ron DeSantis ordered a prohibition on mask mandates in schools last week. DeSantis is facing pushback from parents of children with disabilities, who are suing over the required opt-out option.
“We believe this is a decision for the parent to make just given the uncertainty about what it means, particularly for a lot of the young kids to be in that,” DeSantis said.
During the conference, DeSantis, along with Pinellas County Superintendent Michael Grego, also applauded Lakewood Elementary, which boosted its school grade from an F in 2019 to an A in 2021.
Grego also announced that all employees with the Pinellas County School District will be receiving the $1,000 bonus, made possible by the state teacher bonus initiative.