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Highlands graduation rate near bottom in the state

SEBRING — The School Board of Highlands County’s graduation rate of 83.3% for 2019-20 ranks at 64th among Florida’s 67 district’s with only three small north Florida counties – Franklin, Gadsden and Taylor – having a lower graduation rate.

The district’s graduation rate has been improving in recent years, but still lags the statewide rate, which improved from 86.9% in 2018-19 to 90.0% in 2019-20.

Florida’s high school graduation rate increased by 3.1 percentage points over the last year and has increased significantly during the past 16 years, according to the Florida Department of Education.

The Highlands District graduation rate was 83.3% for 2019-20, which is an increase of 2.1 percentage points from the 2018-19 rate of 81.2%

Avon Park High improved significantly from 77.9% in 2018-19 to a graduation rate of 85.2% in 2019-20.

Lake Placid High increased slightly from 87% in 2018-19 to 87.9% in 2019-20.

Sebring High’s graduation rate slipped slightly from 82.5% in 2018-19 to 81.6% in 2019-20.

The Highlands Virtual School graduation rate for 2019-20 was 93.1%.

Highlands Superintendent Brenda Longshore said the graduation rate was calculated totally different this year due to not having the state exams.

This year’s graduation rates were determined by student grade point averages, course failures and the number of dropouts, she said.

“At this point I am going back through all of our students who did not graduate and see if they didn’t graduate due to failing courses or not having the appropriate grade point average with credit or dropping out from school,” Longshore said.

There were decisions made by districts on providing support for students. She believes Highlands has done a good job in trying to support students the very best that it could, however, there were a number of district students who didn’t fulfill the graduation requirements, she said.

Avon Park High School did make a pretty good increase from 77.9% to 85.2%. While Longshore said overall it was nice to see an increase, there were greater increases from other districts across the state.

Four of the other Heartland area counties made huge gains in their graduation rates except Glades County, which was already above the statewide rate and then slipped just below that state rate in 2019-20.

Polk County’s graduation rate improved from 81.2% to 86.5%.

The Florida Department of Education advised that when comparing the 2019-20 graduation rate to prior years, it is important to note that due to a COVID-related DOE emergency order, students in the 2019-20 graduating class were exempt from statewide, standardized assessment requirements with about 7.1% of the 2019-20 graduating class graduated with this exemption.

Federal regulations require each state to calculate a four-year adjusted cohort graduation rate, which includes standard diplomas, but excludes GEDs, both regular and adult, and special diplomas.

The U.S. Department of Education adopted this calculation method in an effort to develop uniform, accurate and comparable graduation rates across all states.

COVID cases remain lower

Highlands County had another relatively low number of new COVID-19 cases, according to numbers released by the Florida Department of Health on Monday. There were 32 new cases, bringing the overall total to 5,557 cases. It was the third straight day of seeing fewer than 40 new cases.

There were 279 tests processed for the day, resulting in a positivity rate for new cases of 11.47%.

There were three additional deaths, which brings the total number to 220, while hospitalizations were at 474. According to the Florida Agency for Health Care Administration, there were 63 hospitalized on Monday with a primary diagnosis of COVID-19, which is two fewer than Sunday. ACHA showed 19 hospital beds available in Highlands County, which is 7.01% of all beds and there were five ICU beds available, which is 17.24% of all ICU beds in the county.

Columbia County showed all 98 hospital beds taken, while Hardee County had one available bed out of its 25.

Highlands County reported just three vaccines given on Sunday, with two of the three being the second shot in the series. It was a slow day for vaccines overall in the state, with just 10,483 shots given, the lowest number since Jan. 3.

There were an additional 11,576 virus cases in the state, which is the lowest number seen since the 11,256 cases reported on Jan. 4. It was also the lowest testing day since Jan. 3. There have now been 1,488,586 cases reported in Florida.

While new cases and testing were down, the number of deaths was 163, with 159 resident deaths, raising the total to 23,071. There were four more non-resident deaths, bringing that total to 353 for a combined 23,424 deaths.

In the Heartland, DeSoto County saw 12 new cases and reported one more death. The county has seen a total of 3,111 cases and had 61 deaths.

Glades County had an additional four cases, bringing its total to 811, while the county death toll remained at 11.

Hardee County had 15 additional cases to raise its total to 2,277 and its death toll held steady at 21, while Okeechobee County saw 25 new cases, giving it a total of 2,804, and the death toll stayed at 54.

To the north, Polk County had an additional 458 cases for a total of 42,880. There was one additional death to raise the county total to 835.

It was a better day in the United States as far as COVID-19 is concerned. The number of new cases and deaths were below seven-day averages, while testing was higher than it has been over the last seven days.

The COVID Tracking Project reported 222,918 new cases in its Sunday evening report, with 1,935,115 tests processed, which accounts for a positivity rate of 11.5%. There were 1,999 new deaths reported and hospitalizations were at 129,229.

The California Department of Public Health reported 39,839 new cases and 264 deaths on Monday. The number of new cases is consistent with the state’s 14-day rolling average of 39,630, while the deaths were well below the 14-day average of 405.

The United States has seen a total of 22.52 million cases and had 374,749 deaths, according to the Johns Hopkins University Center for Systems Science and Engineering.

Globally, there have been 90.7 million cases and the death toll is approaching the 2 million mark, with 1.94 reported deaths.

Registration changes streamline vaccinations

SEBRING — Registration started up again Monday for seniors 65 and older to get their first round of COVID-19 vaccinations from the county.

County staff hope the new system will simplify and clarify the process and ensure people complete the registration process fully. It also reminds people to watch their phone and/or email closely afterward for county officials to confirm an appointment for noon to 4 p.m. on either a Tuesday, Thursday or Saturday.

“People have said that it is way easier,” said Highlands County Public Information Officer Gloria Rybinski, who said a previous snag was that people didn’t know they had to scroll down and click another button to complete registration. “Now you just have to click ‘next’ and ‘next’ and ‘next’.”

She and Assistant County Public Information Officer Karen Clogston released orientation information over the weekend, including a YouTube.com registration tutorial video.

The COVID-19 vaccine requires a second dose, given 28 days after the first. In that meantime, people must still wash their hands, social distance and wear a face mask — especially when social distancing is difficult to do — to slow the spread of the virus.

{strong style=”font-size: 1.17em;”}Register{/strong}

Vaccinations are still only by appointment at the county’s point of distribution (POD) at Lakeshore Mall, 901 U.S. 27 North in Sebring. People can get registered online at bit.ly/HCvaccine or by phone at 863-402-6780, starting at 8 a.m. Monday — but not on site.

The online portal and the hotline will stay open everyday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. for people to get on the appointment waiting list. Call volume is high, and officials ask people to be patient:

1. You must either go online or call to register your name, date of birth and contact information.

2. Your name then goes on a waiting list, not an actual appointment. You may see an option to put in a spouse or family member’s name to set appointments close to each other, but entering that name will not register that person.

3. Each person will need to register individually. If you have more than one in your household who qualifies for a vaccine at this time, make sure to register both separately.

4. Appointments will get confirmed and scheduled each week based on the number of vaccine doses the county receives from the Florida Department of Health. If the county receives 100 doses from the state, for example, staff will contact the next 100 people on the waiting list to set an appointment that week.

5. Once staff contacts you with an appointment time and date, you have 24 hours to confirm that appointment. If staff does not hear back from you in that 24-hour period, they will move your name to the following week’s appointment list.

6. Appointment times and dates are limited and county staff cannot change appointments times and dates in a given week.

Those who register for a vaccination appointment will need to provide photo identification at the site as proof that they are 65 or older. They do not, however, need proof of insurance.

Already registered

Those who got a registration number on Jan. 4 but did not get an appointment that week should call 863-402-6780 to set up that appointment. Emergency Manager LaTosha Reiss said the county gets limited shipments of the vaccine every week, so appointments are also limited each week.

“Don’t worry if you don’t get in on the first try, because there will be more appointment opportunities,” Reiss said.

Rybinski said, as of Monday, approximately 2,305 people had called in with registration numbers from Jan. 4 and will need to get worked into the next few weeks’ allotments. To date, more than 8,000 have registered using the new online portal, she said.

However, this week’s allotment, Rybinski said, is 500 doses.

{strong style=”font-size: 1.17em;”}Where to go{/strong}

Those with confirmed appointments should use the west entrance, at the backside of the mall, nearest the old Kmart location. Signs will direct them where to go. Each person must fill out a pre-vaccination form and must expect to spend an hour to get through all the stations at the POD, in addition to the wait time to get in.

Everyone is asked to wear a mask while on site for safety purposes. If you do not have one, staff will provide one to you. Also, before you leave your home, please make sure you put on clothing that lets you expose your upper arm easily for the shot.

How many done?

The Florida Department of Health for Highlands and DeSoto Counties reports that 1,873 doses have been given out in Highlands County so far. Last week, the county POD gave 270 on Tuesday, 290 on Thursday and 300 on Saturday, for a total of 860 at the POD.

On Dec. 23, 2020, Gov. Ron DeSantis issued Executive Order 20-135 to outline who would get the vaccine first in Florida: Those 65 and older, front line high-risk healthcare workers and long-term care facility residents and staff.

The Highlands County Health Department has vaccinated front line healthcare workers, like Highlands County Fire Rescue paramedics and EMTs, and hospitals have offered the vaccine to personnel with direct patient contact.

DeSantis has yet to offer guidance on what other demographics are next in line to receive the vaccine.

Avon Elementary principal recommend for HR director position


SEBRING — Superintendent Brenda Longshore has recommended Avon Elementary School Principal Carla Ball for the position of director of human resources.

Two applicants were interviewed for the position. The other applicant works with the DeSoto County School District.

Ball came to the district at the start of the 2011-12 school year as the assistant principal of Memorial Elementary School, coming from Ben Hill Griffin, Jr. Elementary in Frostproof where she was assistant principal.

She became principal of Memorial Elementary at the start of the 2011-12 school year and was principal of Lake Country Elementary School in the 2013-14 school year before being transferred to Avon Elementary were she succeeded Pam Burnham, who retired as principal of the school.

Ball was named the Highlands District’s Principal of the Year in October 2018.

At the time of the Principal of the Year announcement, Ball said, “I am starting my 21st year in education so they have all been a huge influence on me and I love my kids. I am very blessed to come to see 608 precious angels every single day.”

The director of human resources position was not included in Longshore’s reorganizational plan that was approved by the School Board in March 2017.

The Human Resources Department currently has a manager. Deputy Superintendent Andrew Lethbridge, who had previously served as human resources director, oversees the department.

The superintendent’s personnel recommendations are subject to approval by the School Board of Highlands County.

The district is currently advertising one administrative position, which is the assistant principal position at Lake Country Elementary School.