students wearing medical masks and talking

In an effort to offset COVID-19’s impacts on Florida’s education system, a Senate committee Tuesday gave bipartisan support to a proposal that would shield public-school students from testing accountability this year and protect colleges and universities from lawsuits.

The Senate Education Committee unanimously approved the measure related to testing and letting parents choose to retain students in their current grade levels.

The bill would prohibit state standardized assessments from being used “for calculating student performance measurement and evaluating personnel,” an issue proposed by Sen. Perry Thurston, D-Fort Lauderdale.

The proposal also would prohibit schools from being penalized with lower school grades based on test scores, which in some cases can force low-performing schools to implement turnaround plans or be taken over by charter-school operators. It would, however, allow schools that raise their grades to exit turnaround plans.

“We’re trying to make sure that we treat everybody fairly,” Senate Education Chairman Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, told reporters. “We still want to have assessments, we still want to have the tests, but we don’t want to have consequences, as we heard over and over from the school boards.”

Another proposal by Sen. Lori Berman, D-Delray Beach, was tacked on to the bill to allow parents of students in kindergarten through fifth grade to request that their children be retained in their current grade levels in the 2021-2022 year.

Parents would have to submit requests based on “academic reasons” to school principals. Under the bill, students’ teachers, parents and principals would then be required to have a “collaborative discussion” about retaining the children.

State Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran issued an executive order that canceled statewide assessments during the 2019-2020 school year. He also has faced calls to cancel testing accountability or nix exams for the current school year.

The bill is also aimed at shielding colleges and universities from lawsuits about decisions to shutter campuses last spring during the pandemic, forcing students to learn online. Class-action lawsuits have been filed seeking to recover money that students paid with the expectation of on-campus learning.

“This liability (protection) is about tuition and fees. Any type of written contracts, or dorms, meal plans and stuff, I think that’s still fair game. But in terms of tuition and fees, if they were provided the online instruction, I think it’s fair to say that they received the benefits,” Gruters said.

Under the proposal, legal protections for colleges and universities would be applied retroactively to any lawsuit filed after March 1, 2020 --- the date COVID-19 was declared a public health emergency in Florida. Some Democratic lawmakers took issue with providing what they characterized as overbroad protections for colleges and universities.

Gruters maintained that institutions should not be penalized for making decisions forced on them by the pandemic.

“Obviously, with the pandemic you never know what’s going to happen and I think the schools adjusted the best they could and provided online learning. Just because a student did not get maybe that experience of being on campus that they normally would receive doesn't mean that they didn’t get the education that they were given,” Gruters said.

Sandra Harris, a lobbyist for Nova Southeastern University, supported the lawsuit protections and said nine private colleges and several public institutions face class-action lawsuits.

“If we had required students to go to campus to finish their semester we would have been faced with lawsuits. If we had just suspended educating our students, we would have been faced with lawsuits,” Harris said.

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