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Florida Online Learning Pilots to Start Monday

March 18th, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

Four Florida School districts, Duval, Sumpter, Collier and Union will be the first to pilot new remote learning plans as Florida School buildings remain closed through the middle of April.

Instead of picking kids up on the corner, bus drivers among others will be delivering and picking up assignments for kids in kindergarten through fifth grade.

“Just like we are doing with food delivery. Now we are delivering assignments,” said Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran.

All learning for grades 6 through 12 will be done digitally.

It starts Monday in four counties.

The other 63 start in the weeks following spring break.

“Even though the campuses are closed, school is still going forward. It’s just going to be remotely,” said Corcoran.

All standardized testing is cancelled.

School grades will remain what they are for another year.

“And especially our high school seniors, to the extent that there are some graduation requirements that you hadn’t completed, that’s deemed as waived or not necessary,” said Corcoran.

And the Florida Education Association is applauding the quick work.

“This is the best way possible right now to do virtual schools. To do the remote learning, and teachers are ready to do that,” said FEA President Fedrick Ingram.

Parents or teachers with questions are being encouraged to contact their local superintendents.

Compassion is the word of the day.

“Let’s say, you get so many hypotheticals. My high school senior did this this and this, but he was hypothetically five hours short on community service hours. Then fine. Our default is compassion. If that an issue and not something we anticipated, we’re going to be compassionate and allow the child to get the five hours and go on,” said Corcoran.

Money now being used for in school services will be repurposed to provide digital devices and even internet service for students currently without.

The one thing the remote plan doesn’t address is how parents can supervise their children during the day.

One hope is a federal stimulus check that could provide funding for someone to take time off, or to hire someone.

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Courts Scale Back, Jails Face Overcrowding Due to COVID-19

March 18th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

Florida’s Department of Corrections announced it would be restricting new inmate intakes to its prisons amid the coronavirus scare and courts will significantly scale back operations.

Transfers of inmates from local jails to state prions Inmates will largely be on hold until at least March 30th.

The Southern Poverty Law Center has serious concerns of overcrowding.

“I think it’s going to create this bottleneck where the jails are being overcrowded, people are being forced to live in even more cramped and therefore more unsanitary conditions than typically exist in the jails creating, I mean, it’s like this petri dish effect,” said Sumayya Saleh with the SPLC.

President of the Florida Sheriff’s Association, Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said in a statement on the halting of prison intakes, “This is an evolving situation that is being assessed each and every day. Sheriffs will continue to work closely with DOC to ensure public safety and keep our inmate population safe.”

The Supreme Court also ordered jury selection and trials be halted through March 27th.

All other proceedings are encouraged to be conducted remotely.

“We have no idea how long this is going to last and how long these delays are going to be in place. People could theoretically be spending several extra months in jail in a very unsafe, unsanitary environment,” said Saleh.

The new strains on the criminal justice system come after lawmakers failed to pass multiple legislative proposals aimed at reducing prison populations.

One of those proposals was aimed at early release for elderly or sick inmates, a population now at high risk due to the coronavirus.

“Most of them were not sentenced to death, but this epidemic may very soon result into death sentences for people that is entirely preventable,” said Saleh.

Plans to address coronavirus challenges moving forward are still in development, but criminal justice advocates hope short of executive action, if a special session is called lawmakers will give some of the proposed criminal justice reforms a second look.

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Florida Votes Amid Coronavirus Crisis

March 17th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

Unlike other states that have chosen to delay primary elections due to the Coronavirus, Florida decided to go ahead on schedule.

The Secretary of State said there have been some hold ups in South Florida, but overall things are moving smoothly.

Nearly 800 poll workers stayed home in Palm Beach County, with only 100 to take their place.

One polling location opened late in Broward County as well.

Secretary of State Laurel Lee has been working with the counties, but the problem appears isolated.

“All other counties reported on time opening of all voting locations around the state,” said Lee.

In Leon County, 39 poll workers called out, but Supervisor Mark Earley said it didn’t affect the ability to vote.

“We build some redundancy in with our poll worker assignments so it really hasn’t impacted us a bit,” said Earley.

Sanitation has become a priority.

“We are in the Presidential Preference Primary so we are not expecting large crowds or long lines,” said Lee.

In Leon hand sanitizer is readily available and poll workers are wearing gloves.

Voters we spoke with say they were satisfied with the precautions.

“I saw that they cleaned a whole bunch before they even set up because they posted picture of it. So I think everybody is kind of doing their part here to make sure people feel safe,” said Tallahassee voter Elizabeth Vandervort.

“I didn’t feel worried at all and I’m out here doing my civic duty,” said another voter in Tallahassee Kathryn Travis.

While the supervisor in Leon said turnout has been somewhat slow, he doesn’t believe it’s all attributable to the Coronavirus.

“We’ve got an incumbent Republican President so the Republican Party voters I think aren’t quite as incentivized to come out and vote,” said Earley.

Before polls opened 2 million had already cast a ballot.

How election day turnout was impacted won’t be known until after 8 PM eastern time.

For the most up to date information on polling location changes or to learn how to designate someone to deliver a vote by mail ballot for you, visit your local supervisor of elections website.

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Governor Shuts Down Bars and Enacts New Restrictions of Restaurants

March 17th, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

Florida has its first nursing home death tied to the Coronavirus and Governor Ron DeSantis has used his emergency powers to close bars as of 5pm Tuesday and limit restaurants to 50 percent capacity.

Restaurants feared it could have been much more severe.

It was a sweeping use of executive power in a state that depends on tourism eating out and nightlife.

“We are going to encourage people, consistent with the President’s guidance, to utilize takeout and delivery services. We’re also going to be requiring that the restaurants screen all employees,” said DeSantis.

But the Governor has left the door open for local officials to take even stronger measures.

“This is the floor for Florida for the foreseeable future,” said DeSantis.

Some have already ordered restaurants to carry out only.

“For god sakes, please continue to patronize our restaurants. Use the take out measure, curbside, and use the apps,” said Carol Dover with the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association.

And bars did not fare as well as restaurants.

“Bars and nightclubs, effective at 5 pm today, they’re going to be suspended for 30 days,” said DeSantis.

Enforcing the bar closings will likely be left to local officials, although the Department of Business and Profession Regulation could sanction any that stay open, including revoking their license.

The ban does not apply to restaurants who are licensed to serve alcohol incidental to their food service.

At an eatery in the shadow of the Capitol booths were empty and an outside seating area virtually deserted.

“Not a lot of people walking on the sidewalk. We’ve had a couple people walk in and ask questions, so what we’re serving. We normally have a buffet which we shut down,” said Paul Roth, co-owner of the restaurant.

Because food service profit margins are so low, it’s virtually guaranteed that some restaurants won’t live to see the crisis end.

The Governor has activated a small business loan program.

It will provide small businesses with up to $50,000 interest free for a year.

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Teacher Pay Raise and Tax Cuts Take Hit From Coronavirus

March 16th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

Lawmakers have agreed on a record $93.2 billion budget for the upcoming year, but in light of the coronavirus pandemic lawmakers weren’t able to meet all of their goals.

The coronavirus sprang up late in the Legislative session and quickly became a priority.

$52 million has been set aside to fight the virus through July first.

Lawmakers also agreed to add an additional $300 million to reserves as a safety net.

Florida TaxWatch is skeptical it will be enough.

“Governor Bush set aside six and a half almost seven billion dollars on a budget that was a fraction of what it is today and because of the very severe recession that was eaten up in about two years,” said Florida TaxWatch President Dominic Calabro.

Much of the money going into reserves came from reducing proposed tax cuts.

Originally lawmakers had hoped to slash $200 million, but settled for just $48 million creating only back to school and disaster preparedness sales tax holidays.

“We missed providing tax relief to small businesses that are going to be devastated by this pandemic,” said Calabro.

Lawmakers also had to settle on teacher pay raises, landing on $400 million to raise starting salaries and $100 million for veteran teachers.

“This was a downpayment. They recognize that they need to make a multi-year commitment to making progress on teacher salaries,” said Kevin Watson with the Florida Education Association.

The virus also has lawmakers taking their own precautions…

They will forgo the traditional Sine Die ceremony after they vote on the budget Thursday.

Legislative leaders will also be addressing the media via phone instead of in person.

But they could be back for a special session.

“This is evolving. This is not over,” said Calabro.

TaxWatch hopes if lawmakers do return for a special session, they’ll consider imposing internet sales tax on out of state online vendors, and consider tax cuts for small businesses.

Calabro says collecting the sales tax would increase revenues by at least $500 million a year.

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State EOC at Level 1

March 14th, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

Florida now has 70 Covid-19 cases and the number is expected to rise in the coming weeks, but the Governor said today self isolation and avoiding large crowds is working. As Mike Vasilinda tells us, the state has also raised the activation level of the Emergency Operations center to its highest level.

There are roughly a hundred people here at the state Emergency Operations center working around the clock preparing just as they would if a hurricane were coming, and the viral hurricane approaching Florida is getting stronger.

No one is getting into the state Emergency Operations Center now without first answering questions: where have you been, how the feel.

“We’ve had seventy Florida residents test positive for Covid-19. Six of those were diagnosed and isolated outside of Florida. Seven have not been Florida residents, fatalities have been three. One of the Florida residents passed away  in another state” the Governor told reporters.

All but three of the 70 cases are travel related. Those three are all in Broward County and being investigated. Travel from New York is blamed for some cases and the Governor now wants some domestic travel curtailed

“I think the administration needs to look at domestic flights from certain areas where you have outbreaks.”

The ban on visits to nursing homes has been extended to 30 days says Mary Mathew,

The Secretary of Agency for Health Care Administration which oversees Florida’s elderly housing facilities. “We can’t let this infection into a facility for our elderly.”

And the Governor says it could get worse before it gets better.

“Dr. Fauci has said nationwide, you’re looking at six to eight weeks where we’re really going to have to dig in here. But I think its dynamic, and I think the more success you have up front, probably the less time it will end up being in this.”

And despite all this preparation, the Governor says the chances of low risk populations being infected is very low.

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Coronavirus Testing Increases

March 13th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

State lawmakers are adding at least an addition $100 million to the state reserve to be used to fight the Coronavirus, bringing total up to $300 million.

The Governor’s briefing Friday was held in a Department of Health warehouse where supplies and testing kits were on display.

The warehouse just outside the shadow of the state Capitol contains hundreds pallets of supplies ranging from cots, tables, meals ready to eat, water, ventilators and much more.

The Governor said the state now has enough kits to test a quarter million people.

“All the cases in Florida, the overwhelming are all linked to international travel. Some of the other investigations are ongoing, but you don’t have to have traveled. If you have the symptoms and a doctor recommends it, then you can receive a test,” said Governor Ron DeSantis.

Fifteen hundred more kits, each of which tests 250 people, are expected soon.

“We knew we were going to have more cases this week. There is going to be more cases next week. I mean, that’s what happening,” said DeSantis.

Right now, Florida is able to process about 1,000 tests a day.

It is enlisting at least 50 private labs, which will take testing capacity to 6,000 a day.

Also Friday, the Florida Senate confirmed Scott Rivkees as the state’s Surgeon General.

That confirmation was once in doubt.

The Senate held up the confirmation to see how the Governor’s appointee was performing.

Some Democrats still objected, but one member put it bluntly.

“This is not the time to change teams,” said Senator Jason Pizzo.

Rivkees said the state is attacking the virus aggressively.

“This is a massive response that is involving thousands of individuals. The most common symptom is a fever followed by a dry cough, followed by fatigue,” said Rivkees.

And the Governor also said that National Guard members who are also medical professionals are expected to be activated in the coming days to assist with testing.

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Last Chance For University Presidential Applicant Public Records Exemption

March 13th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

Nearly all week protestors have greeted senators as they’ve entered the chamber.

They’re hoping to keep the application process for president of any of Florida’s 12 state universities in the sunshine.

“We just feel as though it’s the Sunshine Act and the people should be involved in the appointing of the president and there’s no reason for it to be done in secrecy,” said Shawn McDonnell President of the West Central Florida Labor Council.

Under the legislation, Presidential applicants would be shielded from the public record.

Top contenders’ names would be made public 21 days before a final decision is made.

“If we’re not allowed to be part of that process and know who these folks are, that leaves opportunity for closed door, backdoor deals and it’s not fair to the population that they serve,” said Wendy Carey with the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association.

Senate sponsor Manny Diaz argues many very qualified sitting presidents don’t apply in Florida because of the current law, fearing they could loose the job they have.

“And we’ve seen the opposite happen to us. We lost the president at FSU to Penn State because they don’t have the same rules and so people are free to apply and not have to worry about the repercussions,” said Diaz.

But protestors argue the current system is working.

“At the beginning of session the Governor and everyone was celebrating that Florida is now number one ranked in US News and World Report for higher education. We accomplished that with leaders who were completely hired in the sunshine,” said Rich Templin with the Florida AFL-CIO.

The legislation will have to pass on a two thirds vote, which means at least four democrats will need to vote yes.

Lawmakers must send the legislation to the Governor before session ends Friday evening, or the bill will be dead for the year.

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Virtual Schools on the Table in Coronavirus Response

March 12th, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

Concerns about the Coronavirus have the states leadership looking at digital learning options for K-12 Schools.

Plans so far include a beefed up Florida Virtual School and a survey of computer ownership.

Florida’s colleges and universities will hold online classes only for at least two weeks following their spring breaks.

The Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran said he’s working on plans to do the same thing for public schools.

“We’ll have capacity here in the…it will grow day by day, but we’ll have capacity probably for a total of 400,000 over the 40,000 we have now for the virtual school. We’ve ordered 15 new servers,” said Corcoran.

But 400,000 seats is enough for less than 20 percent of the current students.

One option is assigning students certain hours of use outside the school day.

“In addition to that we have trainers of how to get on to the virtual system with he existing teachers. We’ll have training of an additional 10,000 teachers here in short order, hopefully in 15 or 20 days,” said Corcoran.

The education commissioner does not believe the expanded online capacity will be needed and said each district is working to decontaminate every school everyday.

Various school districts are across the state are surveying students to learn which ones have computers at home.

Rural districts are particularly concerned.

“How can they effect instruction at home? In rural areas, that’s simply…we are way behind the game,” said Chris Doolin with the Small County Coalition.

Also of concern is a $20 million budget shift from digital classrooms to what is called the base student allocation.

But Rep. Chris Latvala said the money could still be used for digital learning.

“So they can still use them how they wish,” said Latvala, adding he doesn’t foresee any issues arising.

The plan is still developing, just as the budget shift is still a work in progress, but the hope is it’s a lot of planning for nothing.

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Coronavirus Looms Over Florida Primary

March 12th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

The Coronavirus scare comes as Florida gears up for the Primary Election Tuesday.

The Secretary of State and election supervisors are working to ensure sanitary conditions at the polls, but how the virus may impact turnout has yet to be seen.

At a polling place in the state’s capital city, early voting had slowed down to a trickle Thursday.

“I’m seeing a little bit less turnout today than I’d expected, because it’s kind of late in the week of early voting,” said Leon County Election Supervisor Mark Earley.

Earley said the virus may be a factor, but he and other supervisors in coordination with the Secretary of State are taking every precaution.

“In many instances after every single voter. If they touch a pen we wipe it down with a disinfectant wipe. If they put their ballot on a privacy booth surface to vote, we clean the surface,” said Earley.

More than 1.4 million Floridians have either early voted or cast a ballot through the mail so far, compared to 1.8 million in 2016, but the biggest impact to turnout could be on Election Day itself.

Early voter Katie Britt Williams told us Coronavirus was a concern, but not enough to keep her from the polls.

“I’ve also heard really awesome feedback from people who have already gone that it’s really clean,” said Williams.

Because the virus poses the highest risk to the elderly the Governor ordered polling places within assisted living facilities be closed to outside voters.

“We obviously view that as problematic. Now supervisors have the authority to make those changes as they see fit,” said Governor Ron DeSantis.

Earley and other supervisors are already rolling out plans to accommodate.

“We’re going to provide alternative voting sites for those folks. We’re certainly encouraging them to go vote at an early voting site,” said Earley.

If your polling place is located in an assisted living facility or nursing home, contact your local supervisor of elections or check their website for information about alternative voting locations.

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Domestic Violence Coalition CEO Skips House Hearing

March 12th, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

The former CEO of the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence failed to appear to answer questions Thursday over the $7.5 million she took from the organization over the last three years.

The House is moving to hold her in contempt, a procedure that could eventually send her to jail until she answers questions.

The committee chairman said the committee will keep meeting through May, calling witnesses and looking at documents.

“I’m a firm believer that you can’t pass a law to make people who won’t follow the law, follow the law. But we can put guidelines in to make sure that we limit the availability of anybody to do this to us again,” said Rep. Tom Leek.

The committee was also told the US Attorney has convened a Federal Grand Jury to investigate the use of Federal money that flowed through the coalition.

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Moments of Silence Delayed in Senate

March 12th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

The Florida Senate delayed a vote on a bill that would require one to two minutes of silent reflection at the start of each school day.

The bill was passed through the House last week, but has faced more scrutiny as its made its way through the Senate.

Some senators have expressed concerns the moment of silence could be construed as an attempt to mandate prayer in schools, but sponsor Senator Dennis Baxley said the bill expressly prohibits teachers from telling students how to use the time.

“Matter of fact it asks them to speak to the parents or inform them that they need to have a discussion about how to utilize that moment of silence based on their culture, their lives, their religion or lack thereof. But just a moment of reflection can help every one of us, matter of fact kind of introduced it into my own personal life,” said Baxley.

It’s not clear if the Senate intends to bring the bill back up for a vote, but if it isn’t passed before the close of session Friday it will be the end of the line for the legislation this year.

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House Approves VISIT FLORIDA Funding Amid Corona Virus Fears

March 11th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

Florida lawmakers are on track to keep the state’s lead tourism marketing agency alive until at least 2023.

It was slated to go dark July first.

The move comes as concerns grow about the impacts the coronavirus may have on the state’s tourism industry.

Tourism ranks as the states largest industry, bringing in $86 billion annually and employing 1.5 million.

Last year Visit Florida had to slash 30 percent of its staff after having its budget cut by $26 million.

It’s future appeared uncertain this Legislative session, until cases of COVID-19 began appearing in the state.

“It is important to have some mitigating voice out there so that people around the world have a realistic understanding of what is a threat and what isn’t,” said Senate President Bill Galvano.

As the bill to keep the agency alive until 2023 hit the House Floor, that selling point was reiterated.

“We surely need to look to our tourism marketing to see how we’re going to navigate this coming crisis,” said Rep. Joe Geller.

And the agency whose survival once was threatened by the powerful House Speaker, received only two no votes in the chamber.

The Senate had hoped to keep visit Florida through 2028, but the 2023 comprise offered by the House is likely to be accepted by the chamber.

House sponsor Rep. Mel Ponder expects the agency will be able to breathe a sigh of relief for the next few years

And the agency will have its work cut out for it.

“Currently of course with the coronavirus we’ve got to take it seriously and I believe Visit Florida will help play a role in terms of getting the word out,” said Ponder.

Visit Florida has already begun preparing for the corona virus, redirecting $377,000 intended for marketing in China to regions closer to the state where air travel may not be necessary.

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House Speaker’s Healthcare Reform Bills Head to the Governor

March 11th, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

Advanced Registered Nurses will soon be able to practice basic health care on their own without a doctor’s supervision, and Pharmacists get expanded treatment options under two bills sent to the Governor Wednesday.

The hope is to make healthcare more affordable and available.

Florida has a problem when it comes to health care.

“Half of the state is in poverty and doesn’t have access to health care,” said Senator Kevin Rader.

Right now, Advanced Nurse Practitioners pay a doctor up to $50,000 a year for just signing off on what they are allowed to do.

That requirement will end with the Governor’s signature.

Opponents call it dangerous.

“That old adage, do no harm, is absolutely the key. I believe this bill goes way too far, and will do a significant amount of harm,” said Senator Gayle Harrell.

17 other states give pharmacists expanded scope of practice.

“And not one of them has repealed their laws,” said Senator Travis Hutson.

30 states give Advanced Nurse Practitioners the right to practice on their own.

There is no requirement in the legislation to go to either.

“And the Doctors can’t be everywhere all the time,” said Senator Aaron Bean.

The advanced nurses were all smiles asa their decade long battle ended.

“This means health care access to probably half the state has been improved,” said ARNP Susan Lynch.

And Pharmacists say everyone will benefit.

“We have an opportunity to find ways of getting patients access to a health care provider that they didn’t have before,” said Michael Jackson with the Florida Pharmacy Association.

The Governor has been skeptical about this bill in the past, but that was before Florida was facing the Coronavirus.

Rural areas with limited care are expected to be the first to benefit.

Both bills were the top priorities of the House Speaker, who has fought to reform health care since he was first elected in 2011.

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House Approves $2.15 Million for Clifford Williams

March 10th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

After serving 43 years in prison for a crime the state now says he didn’t commit, the Florida House has unanimously approved $2.15 million to compensate Clifford Williams for the time he served Tuesday.

Clifford Williams has been all smiles as his claims bill has moved through the Legislature.

It also received unanimous approval in the Senate.

Williams served 43 years behind bars, convicted of a murder the state now says he did not commit.

William’s family suffered alongside him.

“I was that little girl that had a father that I never though would ever come home,” said William’s daughter Tracy Williams-Magwood.

Lawmakers hope the $2.15 million will help right the wrong.

“Sir, hold your hands up. You’re hands are clean today,” said Rep. Kimberly Daniels.

Lawmakers closely involved with William’s bill said this is only the first step as they push for criminal justice reform to prevent others from having to go through what Williams went through.

Because Williams was previously convicted of a felony he’s had to ask the Legislature for compensation, but a bill moving through the process would allow future wrongfully incarcerated felons go to the courts for compensation.

“We know that God has all things in his power. So the 43 years that you served, let them not be in vain, but to help somebody else,” said Rep. Dianne Hart.

As for what Williams plans to do with the money, he said it will go to help his family.
“My grandchildren going to college and they need help,” said Williams.

He also intends to write a book about the time he served on death row.

But before any of that, the Governor will have to sign off on his compensation.

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