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Florida teacher fired for video of empty bookshelves after DeSantis complaint
A full-time substitute teacher was abruptly fired last week after Florida Governor Ron DeSantis complained about a video of empty bookshelves that the teacher posted to social media.
The teacher, Brian Covey, posted the video on Twitter three weeks earlier, on January 27. In an interview with Popular Information, Covey said administrators at Mandarin Middle School in Duval County were aware he posted the video, which attracted millions of views, but never indicated it was a problem. Covey had worked as a full-time substitute teacher since early October 2022. According to Covey, he had recently been praised in a staff meeting by the school principal for bringing order and stability to a previously unruly class of math students.
On February 14, a reporter asked DeSantis about images posted on social media of "bookshelves emptied" in Duval County. DeSantis responded that the video was a "fake narrative" and "not true." The next day, Covey tells Popular Information, he was fired in a 45-second phone call. In the brief call from the staffing agency that placed him in the position, Education Staffing Solutions (ESS), Covey was told that he violated the school's social media and cell phone policies and was the subject of several complaints.
The only written confirmation of his termination Covey received was this email:
A spokesperson for Duval County Public Schools (DCPS), Tracy Pierce, told Popular Information that Covey was terminated for "misrepresentation of the books available to students in the school’s library and the disruption this misrepresentation has caused." That conduct, “violated social media and cell phone policies of his employer,” ESS.
Pierce confirmed that the empty shelves in Covey’s video once housed “the fiction titles,” but those titles were removed pending review by a media specialist. (Other areas of the media center, he said, were not emptied.)
So Covey's video of empty bookshelves was not a "misrepresentation" or "false narrative" of the reality in Duval County schools. In response to several laws championed by DeSantis, DCPS has made more than 1.5 million books inaccessible to students.
What's really happening in Duval County Public Schools
Last March, DeSantis signed a "curriculum transparency" bill into law that, among other things, requires all library books to be chosen by a certified media specialist. The Florida Department of Education has interpreted this law to apply to both school libraries (known as "media centers") and classroom libraries. This is a particular challenge in Duval County, which only has 54 certified media specialists and over 200 public schools. Most middle and high schools, including Mandarin Middle School, do not have a certified media specialist on staff.
DCPS has placed a tremendous burden on its media specialists. The small group of media specialists are responsible for reviewing each book in the county's 1.6 million title collection. They must not only determine if the books violate Florida's child pornography statute — a label that right-wing activists have applied to Pulitzer Prize-winning novels — but also whether each book complies with the STOP Woke Act and the Parental Rights in Education Act, also known as the "Don't Say Gay" law. Making the wrong decision could cost the media specialists their job — or even a third-degree felony charge.
The STOP Woke Act, which limits discussion on racial issues, and the Parental Rights in Education Act, which limits discussion of LGBTQ people, formally apply only to "classroom instruction," not library books. But DCPS has chosen to apply the new laws to library books anyway.
DCPS has decided to pool its resources and use its 54 certified media specialists to establish a list of approved books that can be made accessible to students. According to a fact sheet released by DCPS on February 17, just 6,000 books have been approved for student use. That means 99.725% of the books in the DCPS system remain inaccessible to students.
Since media specialists are now dedicating their time reviewing books to comply with the new Florida laws, they don't have time for their normal duties. As a result, according to DCPS, "hours of media centers open to students, along with the availability of media specialists to support teachers, has been considerably reduced in some schools."
The "outlandish" reality
During DeSantis' February 14 press conference, he said that people who are complaining about the availability of books in Florida schools are "all politically motivated." Any headlines that "seem outlandish" are the result of the media conspiring with teachers to "create a narrative."
DeSantis claimed that, under the Florida laws he championed, only books that "99% of people realize [are] wrong" will be excluded from schools. That is not what is happening in Florida.
As Popular Information previously reported, The Best Man, a novel for children, has been reviewed and banned from schools in Duval County. The book, which was personally reviewed by Michelle DiBias, the Supervisor of Instructional Materials and Media Services for DCPS, is "about a boy's journey into the middle school years and the male role models in his life."
DiBias objected to The Best Man because "2 men marry and the young man is made the ring bearer." DiBias claimed that while that wedding is celebrated, other weddings "are looked down on by the narrator in the tone and expression." DiBias concluded that the book should be rejected because it violates Florida's pornography statutes. She wrote that the book "is portraying sexual excitement and is damaging to students."
The review conducted by DiBias is completely inconsistent with other reviews of the book. Common Sense Media, an independent non-profit that evaluates books and other entertainment for parents and schools, found that Best Man stood out for "positive messages" and "positive role models." It found the "content is tame overall" and gave the book its lowest rating for "sex, romance, and nudity" — meaning it found nothing objectionable.
It is outlandish that DeSantis and his political allies are redefining innocuous children's books that have LGBTQ characters as pornography. But it is also true.
A critical teaching shortage
Covey was filling a teacher vacancy for a challenging class — a critical need in the state of Florida. A recent survey by the Florida Education Association "tallied 5,294 vacancies in Florida public schools." That is up from 1,492 vacancies just five years ago. Last summer, Brown University's Annenberg Institute found "Florida had the worst shortage of any state."
In August, DeSantis announced he would tackle the problem by allowing military veterans to receive a teaching certification without obtaining a college degree. As of January, that program has resulted in the hiring of 10 teachers statewide.
Nevertheless, Covey, a successful full-time substitute, lost his job for posting a video about what was happening in Duval County schools and, apparently, irritating DeSantis. But Covey told Popular Information that he has no regrets.
"I didn't want to be the face and have the Governor calling me out and losing my job over this," Covey said. "But it was more important to me to stand to my principles and show my kids that when you see something that's not right, you should document it and say something."