Florida submits plan for federal COVID relief money for schools

Florida submitted its plan to draw down its remaining $2.3 billion in federal school relief money late Wednesday, proposing to boost reading and math programs and help students who want to learn a trade. The plan also acknowledges the challenges of the pandemic, encouraging mask use and devoting money for online learning.

The 342-page plan was submitted two days after the U.S. Department of Education asked why Florida was the only state in the nation that hadn’t submitted its proposal for the third phase of coronavirus relief money.

The plan was developed using data from statewide assessments taken last spring. Test results were available in July and then educators, parents and others were surveyed to identify areas of need.

Narrowing the achievement gap in reading and math between students from lower-income families and other students is a high priority. The state Department of Education proposes hiring up to 2,000 additional reading coaches, making summer school available for students who need the most help and improving assessments to identify student progress.

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The plan also calls for spending on supplies to help keep schools safer, such as personal protective equipment, hand sanitizer, cloth masks and bleach wipes.

And while it acknowledges that Florida doesn't mandate student face masks, the plan says schools should explore ways to use them. That guidance to schools was already in place before they submitted the plan.

"At a minimum, schools should be supportive of students, teachers and staff who voluntarily wear cloth face coverings," it says.

The plan proposes spending $35 million to increase capacity for vocational training programs in the state's college system to enable students to receive industry certifications and college credits, and $11 million more would fund equipment for K-12 and post-secondary vocational programs.

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It also proposes $8 million so that 200,000 students can take the SAT and ACT at no cost.

The plan also calls for preparation for future school closures due to emergencies that require out-of-classroom instruction. It would increase the capacity for the existing virtual school program and provide all teachers training on virtual instruction.

It would provide $8 million to help schools develop plans for distance learning.

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"The Instructional Continuity Plan can be deployed for periods of time ranging from a day or week, to a month, a semester or even longer if necessary," it said.

Monday's letter from the U.S. Department of Education pointed out that states were required to submit these plans by June. Florida was the last state or U.S. territory to submit such a plan, and the issue became a political flashpoint, with Democrats criticizing Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration for being late. However, Florida Department of Education spokesman Jared Ochs argued in an email Wednesday that the state did not miss a deadline.

"The Florida Department of Education communicated well in advance with the U.S. DOE via a written notice on May 14, 2021, 24 days prior to the June 7, 2021 deadline, that it would not be able to submit the state plan in June and would require additional time," Ochs said.

The state can spend school aid from the American Rescue Plan through September 2024.

The News Service of Florida contributed to this report.