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Polk County schools prepared for teacher absences Monday

The Florida Department of Education said the 1,600 teachers heading to the rally could be fired or fined.

LAKELAND, Fla. — Dozens of Polk County educators are headed to Tallahassee Monday to rally for better pay and school funding.

A Polk County School Board member wants teachers to know what could happen to them if they miss work because of the rally at the state’s capitol.

Billy Townsend sent 10News a letter he got from Matthew Mears, the Office of General Counsel for the Florida Department of Education, saying teachers could be fired or fined up to $20,000 if they missed work Monday.

Townsend put a copy of the letter on his Facebook page Friday to give teachers the heads-up. He said in the post that he will support his people—the employees of Polk County Schools with whatever they decide to do.

The letter came after thousands of teachers, parents and school employees across the state planned a “Take on Tallahassee” rally at the state’s capitol Monday. The rally is calling for better teacher pay and school funding.

Superintendent  Jacqueline M. Byrd sent this statement as a response on Saturday:

"My primary obligations are to my students and teachers.

My absolute top concern is to keep students safe and ensure they receive a quality education. I have been working with local officials for months, and was aware and prepared for the 600 absences reported earlier this month, so I could facilitate people participating in the political process but also fulfill my duty — protecting our students.  

However, as the rally drew closer, anticipated absences more than doubled, which left just days to plan for an additional 1,000 staff absences. I reached out to state leaders to request guidance on our plan to bring well-qualified and caring substitutes, and non-school based employees of our district, into schools to ensure a safe learning environment.

The FDOE provided guidance and made the decision to issue an opinion on the situation. The FDOE issued its opinion with the intention it be shared with my employees.  It was imperative that I share the email with staff to ensure they are well informed. I, along with FDOE, must ensure students are protected and that all teachers are aware of the laws of Florida.

The letter from FDOE’s General Counsel was not a threat from me to fire staff.

It is my duty as superintendent to inform parents, teachers, and students of the status of our educational environment and ensure each and every Polk County student receives the best education every day. Earlier, Stephanie Yocum, president of the Polk Education Association, sent an email asking for those who have not RSVP’d to ride the bus to instead report to work. I support her request.  

We thank all of our staff for the tremendous work they do for our students throughout the year. I also want to thank the substitutes, district staff members, and additional law enforcement officers who will be working in classrooms on Monday. We appreciate your flexibility and your willingness to step up when our students need you.

While this has been a challenging week for Polk County Public Schools, we are working together to give our best on Monday — and every day." 

Polk County Public Schools said they were prepared to cover for about 600 teachers Monday for the rally. But, they said after winter break the number of teachers asking for the day off jumped to more than twice that. 

School officials said they are expecting 1,600 teachers to be absent Monday. They have more than 650 substitutes and 450 district staff members, who will be working alongside school-based staff members, to conduct school on Monday. In some high schools, we are using a modified schedule to reduce our need for teachers that day.

RELATED: Florida teachers head to Tallahassee to rally for better pay

RELATED: DeSantis wants Florida to lead the nation in education programs by 2030

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