Laura McInnis' classroom is meticulously planned for her new fifth-grade students. At the back of her room sit two tall bookshelves lined with color-coded books, sorted by reading level. Posters, messages and encouraging words cover the walls.
She's ready for tide of students.
McInnis, 36, reported Aug. 3 for her ninth year as a teacher — the fifth in fifth grade — at Ballard Elementary in Bradenton. She and hundreds of other teachers in Manatee and Sarasota counties are entering the first school year since 2019 without COVID-19 restrictions, with students arriving Aug. 10.
Though schools do not have COVID-19 restrictions, the virus is still an issue, with yet another variant causing continued infections. In addition, the many districts across the country face a shortage of teachers, and Florida is coursing with heated debate over education and cultural issues. New laws approved by the Florida Legislature and propelled by Gov. Ron DeSantis, such as the Parental Rights in Education Act, dubbed "Don't Say Gay" by critics, and the Stop Woke Act, loom over the start of school. School Board meetings throughout the summer contained impassioned rebukes of Critical Race Theory and alleged explicit materials in libraries.
What you need to know about COVID guidelines ahead of the school year
Despite the outside noise, McInnis said the focus continues to be on the students, even when it feels hard to be a teacher in Florida.
"When it comes down to the nitty-gritty, I don't feel a difference because the students are my 100% priority," she said. "Whatever's going on everywhere else — when we're here, we just do what we need and take care of our kids the best we can."
Loosened COVID-19 restrictions
Loosened COVID-19 restrictions this year mean parents can be more involved again, McInnis said. Dividers that previously sat between students at desks are gone, and kids can interact more easily in the classroom.
Ariane Wilson, a 55-year-old kindergarten teacher at Freedom Elementary in Manatee County, said she's excited to see how her students build social skills this year. Her classroom was arranged with desks in clusters to give each student a group, unencumbered by dividers.
While she's never felt unsupported or vilified amid shifting political rhetoric, Wilson said she's heard from other teachers who feel they have been. COVID-19-related restrictions on parental access to classrooms could have played a role in increased mistrust, she said.
"When COVID was going on we were like heroes," she said. "Now it's kind of like reversed, where we're almost a little bit the villains, for lack of a better word."
The Parental Rights in Education Act directly impacts kindergarten classes, but Wilson said she's never faced a scenario where she's had to discuss sexual orientation or gender identity in the classroom.
Kids at that age don't think anything of it, and accept people as they are, she said.
McInnis, however, has faced those conversations in her fifth-grade class. Last year, six students came out as LGBTQ+, she said. Despite questions surrounding how teachers should have conversations surrounding sexual orientation and gender identity at all age levels, she said she won't change her approach.
"I am not going to shut down or turn away from students that open up to me," McInnis said. "Because that's part of being a teacher is being able to listen and accept."
The Parental Rights in Education Act goes into effect
With the Parental Rights in Education Act going into effect for this school year, Rev. Lillie Brock said some of the LGBTQ+ students she's spoken to feel they won't be able to go to their teachers for help this year.
Brock, an LGBTQ+ pastor at Church of the Trinity MCC in Sarasota, has a filing cabinet with hundreds of pages of notes from her conversations with LGBTQ+ youth who have sought her out for help over the last 15 years.
Despite assertions that the law only references K-3 instruction, Brock said it has an impact on LGBTQ+ youth of all ages.
"It clearly targets a particular group of kids," she said. "It also targets a particular group of teachers by accusing them of being groomers if they're trying to be helpful to those targeted kids."
Kids of all ages seek teachers for guidance on their gender identity and sexual orientation, she said.
Jessica Gomez, a school counselor at Tatum Ridge Elementary, said she hasn't had students directly come out to her, but added, kids are smart and they consume media like everyone else.
Gomez and other school counselors spend time in classrooms working with students on social-emotional learning and mental health. With curriculum changes coming from the state, she said it isn't yet clear to counselors what can and can't be used.
The district had not met with counselors about curriculum as of Friday, Gomez said. In the meantime, she said she's going to try to operate in a "middle ground" until things are clearer.
"Change is scary, and it is also scary to think that important material is not going to be able to be utilized for students," Gomez said. "Social-emotional learning is huge. It's important, we are in a world where we have this really high focus on mental health, and improving that mental well-being."
With COVID-19 restrictions lifted, she said she's excited to reconnect with kids and get them plugged back into the materials they need. Before, some students would be in and out of classes, and community stakeholders were unable to come in and help, she said.
Nationwide teacher shortage
Another issue heading into the 2022-23 school year is a nationwide teacher shortage, and the Sarasota and Manatee county districts have not been immune.
Sarasota County, which employed 2,830 teachers as of July 26, had 77 instructional vacancies as of Aug. 1. Manatee County, which employs about 2,700 teachers, had 84 vacancies as of last Thursday.
Yet enrollment in both districts is increasing. Sarasota County projects a student population of 46,602 this year, a 1,112-student increase. Manatee County expects 52,000 students, up from 1,047 last year.
The state took a step to alleviate the shortage by allowing veterans without college degrees to receive a temporary teaching certification. The move was met with criticism from education officials, including the local teachers' union.
But Sarasota Schools had not hired any veterans with temporary teaching certifications last week as it worked to fill the district's instructional vacancies, according to a district spokesperson. It was unclear if Manatee Schools had hired veterans with temporary teaching certifications.
Barry Dubin, president of the Sarasota Classified/Teachers Association, said hiring veterans is a Catch-22 for districts. If a district passes on a veteran for a position, it could appear as if they don't support vets, and if the district passes on a qualified educator for a veteran, it could look like they aren't supporting teachers, he said.
"I sure wouldn't want them to do something like this with my doctor," Dubin said. "Are we going to just waive the bar (exam) for five years for veterans to practice law and see how they do? I mean, it just doesn't make any sense. It's really demeaning to the teaching."
Taylor Crowe, 26, filled a Manatee County teaching vacancy when she moved to Ballard Elementary from Ohio this year. Teaching first grade, she said Florida's weather and school system drew her south.
The new Manatee County teacher's classroom started as a blank slate. With just a few days until the first day of school, Crowe was laminating and cutting materials for her first-graders.
She had help funding her school supplies, she said, noting parents and local grants had helped her and her colleagues
She said she likes to set her classroom up in a way where a student can access whatever they need on their own and be independent. After the COVID restrictions and virtual learning, some students she's worked with haven't been in a typical classroom environment before, Crowe said.
"My goal for every year is to try to hit every kid individually, like their personal goals, and really help them thrive," she said.
This article originally appeared on Sarasota Herald-Tribune: Sarasota, Manatee teachers prepare for school year amid outside noise