Legislative Report, Feb. 15-19, 2021
Posted on 02/22/2021

General Information

This report contains pertinent information presented and discussed during the fifth and final interim committee week of the 2021 legislative session. Both the House and Senate held meetings to discuss issues that may be addressed by the Legislature during the 2021 Legislative Session.

Senate Chamber

Monday, Feb. 15, the Senate Select Committee on Pandemic Preparedness and Response held its meeting where Department of Education Chief of Staff Alex Kelly gave a presentation on the education system’s response and recovery under COVID-19. He detailed many of the added costs districts are facing, as well as revenue losses (food service, rental of facilities, athletic events, etc.). 
Mr. Kelly also addressed and responded to questions about spring assessments.  As of now, the plan is to proceed normally (as much as that is possible). The 95% testing rate remains in place, and Mr. Kelly indicated that schools that earn it will be able to exit turnaround status, while schools that need additional help could enter turnaround status. However, he added that he expected a continuing application of grace and compassion as the department makes data-driven decisions to best serve all the stakeholders once the results are obtained.
The Senate Committee on Commerce and Tourism held its meeting where the following bills were considered:

            1)         SB 72 (Brandes) Civil Liabilities for Damages Relating to COVID-19 - This bill would provide some tort liability protections for businesses and government entities, including school districts, related to potential COVID-19 claims. The bill was temporarily postponed due to a scheduling conflict with the sponsor but is expected to be added to a future agenda.
            2)         SB 598 (Perry) Back-to-school Sales Tax Holiday - This is the annual bill that provides a tax holiday for parents’ back-to-school shopping. The proposed dates are July 30-August 8, 2021. This bill passed unanimously and its next stop is the Senate Committee on Finance and Tax.
Tuesday, Feb. 16,  the Senate Committee on Children, Families, and Elder Affairs held its meeting and considered the following bill:
            1)         SB 590 (Harrell) Involuntary Examinations on Minors - This bill addresses the involuntary examination of minors (Baker Act).  Although most Baker Act cases are initiated by law enforcement or an authorized, licensed professional and not anyone employed by a school, the bill would require a school to notify a parent before a child is removed from school unless the principal believes that delaying the removal would harm the student. It also requires DCF to start collecting data about school-initiated commitments, and it directs school boards to adopt a policy requiring superintendents to report these numbers to the DOE annually.  In addition, it requires all safe schools officers to undergo mental health crisis intervention training. Finally, it requires districts to enter into agreements locally with a crisis response service whereby the crisis unit must be consulted before an involuntary examination can be initiated. The bill passed unanimously and moves to the Senate Committee on Education next.
In addition, the Senate Committee on Education met and gave a presentation on the alignment between postsecondary education and labor market demand was made by Adrienne Johnston, Director of the Division of Workforce Services from the Department of Economic Opportunity, Henry Mack, Chancellor of the Division of Career and Adult Education, Department of Education, and Marshall Criser, Chancellor of the State University System of Florida. The following bills were also heard:
1.         SB 280 (Baxley) Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation Training in Public Schools - This bill would require basic first aid instruction and CPR training to be incorporated into 9th and 11th grade instruction.  The bill passed with unanimous support and the history, language, and amendments can be found here. The bill will now move on to the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Education.
2.         SB 538 (Polsky) Use of Epinephrine Auto-injectors on K-20 Campuses - This bill would require, not just authorize, all public schools to buy a supply of EpiPens to have on hand on all campuses.  The bill passed unanimously and moves to the Senate Committee on Health Policy next.
3.         SB 760 (Burgess) Florida High School Athletic Association - This bill would allow schools to join an athletic association by sport without losing any status within the association. The primary issue offered to the committee involved beach volleyball, which the FHSAA did not recognize previously.  According to supporters of the bill, schools that do not join the FHSAA for all sports are not eligible to play for any championships.  So, now that the FHSAA is including beach volleyball, the 80-100 schools which participate in a different conference for that sport will be forced to join the FHSAA or find themselves ineligible to play for any FHSAA championships. The bill passed unanimously and now heads to Senate Committee on Community Affairs.
Wednesday, Feb. 17, the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Education held its meeting during which time SB 48 (Diaz) Educational Scholarship Programs was heard. This bill consolidates the states’ K-12 voucher/scholarship programs, converts all existing K-12 scholarship/voucher programs to education savings accounts, and funds them through a line item in the FEFP. The bill passed 6-3 along party lines and now heads to the Senate Committee on Appropriations.

House Chamber

Monday, Feb. 15, the House Appropriations Committee held its meeting where Ben Watkins, the Director of Division of Bond Finance, gave a presentation on Debt, Bonding, and Reserves and Other Factors Influencing Bond Ratings.
Tuesday, Feb.16, the House Early Learning and Elementary Education Subcommittee held its meeting. Cari Miller, Vice Chancellor for Literacy Achievement, gave a presentation on teacher preparation and professional development relating to reading instruction and the implementation of evidence-based strategies in classrooms and at home. In addition the following bill was considered:
1)         HB 529 (Fine) Moments of Silence in Public Schools - This is the House version of the moment of silence bill (SB 282 - Baxley).  Similar to the debates in the Senate, there were concerns about discipline for students who may not wish to engage in a 1-2 minute moment of silence and possible peer pressure or bullying of students whose beliefs or methods of expression differ from the majority.  The bill passed 12-6, along party lines and will now move on to the House Secondary Education and Career Development Subcommittee.
The House Education and Employment Committee held its meeting. Casey Penn, Chief Bureau of One Stop and Program Support from the Department of Economic Opportunity, gave a presentation on oversight and accountability of Florida’s Workforce System.
In addition, the House Judiciary Committee met and considered the following bill:
            HB 7 (McClure) Civil Liabilities for Damages Related to COVID-19 - This is the House COVID-19 liability bill which would protect districts, among other employers, from tort claims related to COVID-19 in most situations. The bill passed 14-7, along party lines. This was the third and final committee stop for HB 7. It will now move on to the full House.
Wednesday, Feb. 17, the House Secondary Education & Career Development Subcommittee met. Tina Young, Senior Legislative Analyst for OPPAGA, gave a presentation on Florida’s school choice landscape, including information about student enrollment throughout the state for various programs like IB, AICE, dual enrollment, and AP courses. In addition there was a panel discussion that included staff members from various districts on preparing students for college and career. OCPS’ own Andrew Jenkins, Senior Director of OTC, was a participant in the panel and gave an overview of various programs and strategies used by OCPS to get students interested in OTC programs.
Thursday, Feb. 18, the House PreK-12 Appropriations Subcommittee held its meeting and considered a variety of member project bills. In addition, an overview presentation of the FEFP was given.
Also, a panel discussion on the Fiscal Year 2020-21 FEFP and the federal assistance related to the COVID-19 pandemic for elementary and secondary schools was held. The panel was made up of five superintendents from around the state. Mr. Bill Husfelt (Bay), Mr. Will Hartley (Bradford), Dr. Mark Mullins (Brevard), Mr. Alberto Carvalho (Miami-Dade), and Dr. Donald Fennoy (Palm Beach) each addressed efforts they have made to locate students since the start of the year and the immense costs associated with running a district under COVID-19. Chair Fine repeatedly referred to the 87,000 “phantom” or “missing” students and stated that districts were overpaid $700 million to teach no one even before receiving the CARES money, but the superintendents detailed why the financial hold harmless language included in the Commissioner’s emergency orders was so vital to the successful reopening and ongoing operation of our schools this year.
Committee members asked numerous questions, and the superintendents gave detailed explanations to dispute the notion that districts are awash in federal funds with no idea how to spend the funding.  In all five cases, the districts are expected to spend down the ESSER I funds by the end of the school year if they have not done so already, and they discussed the numerous other expenses that were not covered by ESSER I.  Finally, they also mentioned how important the ESSER II funds will be in addressing the expected student learning losses due to COVID.  This is expected to take multiple years to correct, and those ESSER II funds will help districts add instructional hours and opportunities, as well as other programs to bring our students back up to level (particularly those students who are not at all or only partially engaged this year).
The Legislature will not be meeting the week of Feb. 22. They will reconvene when session starts.  Session dates are March 2, 2021-April 30, 2021.