At the start of every school year, Cory Bernaert, a kindergarten teacher in the Manatee County district in Florida introduces himself and his partner in a welcome email to families and students. He’s open about his LGBTQ identity as a way to build rapport with his students and their families.
But with the passage of the state’s Parental Rights in Education law—also known by opponents as the “Don’t Say Gay” law—he knew this school year might be different.
Now there’s at least one notable change that’s gnawing at the back of his mind: the possibility of losing his license.
On Oct. 19, the Florida state board of education approved several rules to enforce the new law. Among these was an amendment that prohibits “classroom instruction to students in kindergarten through grade 3 on sexual orientation or gender identity,” or else teachers’ licenses will be revoked.
“Gender identity and sexual orientation are not standards for kindergarten to 3rd grade,” Bernaert said. “And every teacher knows that. However, LGBTQ+ members that are educators should not feel that talking about their home lives, or their family could be interpreted as instruction.”
The rule also purports to protect students by “expanding the definition of discrimination to include subjecting students to training or instruction that espouses, promotes, advances, inculcates, or compels” any banned concepts covered in the state’s separate law targeting “divisive concepts,” passed in April.
Bernaert and other educators have questions over what exactly constitutes intentional classroom instruction of gender identity and sexual orientation. Neither the amended rule nor the state law make it clear.
The Florida Department of Education did not respond to a query seeking clarity about what instruction of gender identity and sexual orientation in K-3 means. In a press release, board Chair Tom Grady said the new rules “will support the safety of students and ensure Florida continues to provide high-quality education to every child.”
For teachers, the changes create a learning environment where LGBTQ-identifying teachers may end up second-guessing whether they can truly be themselves in the workplace, lest discussions of their own identity get interpreted as violating the rule.
Enforcement raises concerns about due process
While Florida has health education standards for grades kindergarten through 3, none of those standards specifically reference gender identity and sexual orientation.
A lawsuit challenging the law filed by Equality Florida, a nonprofit LGBTQ advocacy group, was recently dismissed. While the plaintiffs have an opportunity to refile, the state can move forward with enforcing the newly approved rule, said Brandon Wolf, the press secretary for the nonprofit.
With the enforcement details unclear, some educators are choosing to remove rainbow buttons from their bags even though the law doesn’t specifically prohibit them. They are afraid of conversations that could arise from students’ questions, and whether those conversations could eventually cost them their job, said Clinton McCracken, president of the Orange County Classroom Teachers Association.
Districts are working to recruit and retain certified teachers and there are concerns over how such a rule could negatively impact those efforts, McCracken added. The latest state data showed there was a projected number of teacher vacancies of about 9,000 for the 2021-22 school year.
Part of the concern stems around how severe losing a license can be for teachers. It’s not just losing a job; it can be career-ending.
Michael Woods, a special education high school teacher in Palm Beach County schools, who is also a union representative, is concerned over how the new rule could get rid of due process for educators.
“If they decide that they want to make an example out of you or pull your license, you’re done,” he said.
And that all depends on how parents and districts interpretwhat classroom instruction on gender identity and sexual orientation entails.
Bernaert in Manatee County doesn’t plan to change anything in how runs his classroom. But he carries a new layer of hesitancy and a sense of unfairness.
“Now if you’re talking about your family, you have this concern of it being interpreted as intentionally talking about gender identity, versus your heterosexual colleagues that can talk about their families, and they don’t even have to worry about how that’s being interpreted,” he said.
“I want to instill in my students the importance of family, the importance of making memories while you’re at school, because it’s a place where you should feel safe, and you should feel important and you should feel valued,” Bernaert said. “And when my ability to be that sort of educator is kind of put on the line because of one simple thing that might be interpreted differently, that’s a major problem.”