TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — Joined by lawmakers and state leaders, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis spoke in Crawfordville to highlight the early reading initiatives and education standards changes that Florida was using to improve educational outcomes. The governor highlighted Riversink Elementary in Crawfordville’s success for almost a decade.

“I’m proud to say that for the past nine years, this school has been graded either A or B for nine years, so we’re really proud of that,” DeSantis said.

The event was held to “reinforce” the state’s commitment to child literacy as Florida celebrates “Celebrate Literacy Week.”

“The importance of early childhood literacy is really significant,” DeSantis said. “Early illiteracy is tied to a higher chance of dropping out of school, a higher likelihood of engaging in criminal activity, and lower lifetime earnings. So, nearly 90% who fail to earn a high school diploma were struggling with reading by Grade 3. So our view in Florida is this early literacy is absolutely critical, you really spend those early years up until about third grade, learning how to read. Then after third grade, you really read in order to learn as more things are presented to yourself and your education in the classroom, and in life generally.”

The governor said that if the state can get more students “up to speed” by third grade, when it comes to reading, the state will be in good shape for their education going forward. He said House Speaker Chris Sprowls did “great work” on educational issues last year, focused on the creation of the New Worlds Reading Initiative, which delivers free books to students K-5 who are reading below their grade level. Florida set a $177 million budget to make sure books were given to those students through the program.

“Today, we’re even happier to announce that more than 81,000 students are enrolled in the program and are receiving a new hard-copy book each month,” DeSantis said. “And these are high quality, age appropriate books.” He said the books were selected by the Commissioner of Education, and each book is accompanied by training materials to help the whole family, including parents, be engaged with reading to help improve student success.

The governor said education was important, and that improving the educational outcomes in the state would “bear fruit for years to come” and that the state was working to move away from standardized testing and move to progress monitoring, a policy goal announced last year. He also said he’d like to increase teacher salaries in 2022, as an addition to previous efforts to increase teacher salaries that began in 2019. DeSantis also said they would continue to support bonuses for teachers, referencing the $1,000 bonuses for teachers and principals delivered in 2021.

“We’ve also been able to increase minimum salaries for public school teachers by over $6,000 over the last two years,” DeSantis said. “And last year’s budget, in 2021, we got every principal and school teacher in Florida a $1,000 bonus. And we’re going to do it again, we’re going to continue to increase the teacher salaries and we’re going to continue to support bonuses for our principals and teachers, and of course we’re very proud that we had schools open in 2020 and 2021.”

DeSantis criticized school districts around the U.S. that had closed during the COVID-19 pandemic. He said students need to be in schools, and Florida’s students’ wellbeing was better because of their presence in the classroom. The governor said he was worried about schools in other parts of the country that were closed and how that was harming their students.

Highlighting the higher rank for education in Florida in recent years, and curriculum changes focused on prioritizing technical training, apprenticeships and civic learning, DeSantis said the changes and emphasis on American civics and early literacy would help students across Florida to get better jobs after graduation.

“Some of these guys are making $100,000 within a couple of years of graduating high school if they’re in these high demand fields, and we’ve put our money where our mouth is,” DeSantis said, talking about the investments by the state in job training programs.

House Speaker Chris Sprowls spoke next.

“The power of getting a new book, getting a child excited about reading, about learning about the characters inside the pages that they’re going to discover is the reason that the Florida House came out with the New Worlds Initiative at the beginning of the last legislative session,” Sprowls said. “Our principals and our teachers, in schools like this one (Riversink) have done such an amazing job in making sure our children can read. We’re proud to be fourth in the nation in fourth grade reading and making those strides, but what really makes a state like Florida not just good but great, is our ability to acknowledge when we can be even better.”

Sprowls said in his review of Florida’s education and literacy outcomes, which he did alongside Corcoran and DeSantis, “alarming things” were discovered. Citing statistics over reading levels in kindergarteners, class proficiency, and how many people who failed to graduate had trouble reading when they were young, the state would have to step in to fix that issue. He said that’s how the New Worlds Reading Initiative was created.

“It’s all designed, because if a child can learn to read, they can learn, and if they can learn, anything is possible,” Sprowls said. He thanked Rep. Dana Trabulsy and other lawmakers for sponsoring the bill in the past legislative session. He said 60% of struggling readers don’t own a book, so the reading initiative would “open up a whole new world” for them.

“I think it’s important to note that not only is this now the largest book delivery program in America, but also we’re not stopping there. We realize we have to engage parents and guardians who are living at home with these children, to make sure they’re getting to spend 15 minutes a night with them to make sure they’re reading on grade level,” Sprowls said. He said the Lastinger Center from the University of Florida would start sending text messages to engage parents in their children’s learning, to ensure the parents are getting the support they need to help their kids.

“No other state is taking a moonshot like the New Worlds Reading Initiative, and prioritizing the fact that we believe that every child has the opportunity to learn, to be successful, and to be on a pathway to prosperity,” Sprowls said. He said educational development was the most important opportunity in a child’s life, and thanked his fellow lawmakers for their support of the reading program.

The governor brought Commissioner Corcoran forward next to speak about state education programs. Corcoran started off by praising the governor’s efforts since his first day as governor to “conquer illiteracy” and consequences of not doing so.

“When we lose a kid in third grade, when we started digging into the stats, the chances that we lose that kid the last time we measure his success in 10th Grade, 86% are still lost,” Corcoran said. “So we know it’s gotta come back to the beginning.”

Corcoran said the science of reading has to be in the strategy for rewriting the state’s education standards. He said none of the “stuff” out there that’s proven to be ineffective and cost students the ability to read would not be in Florida. Corcoran said the component most lost was vocabulary, when students came up through the education system.

The commissioner said that students were able to read, but their comprehension suffered, so the books chosen for the New Worlds Reading Initiative were chosen to encourage understanding and to build up student vocabularies. He said it was to teach students the message that they should take risks and that when you do, “an entire ocean, an entire sea of life” would be delivered to the kids who learned through reading.

“That will put us, number one in all measurements, in whatever survey you want, we will be number one because our kids, through this program, will be the most literate in this country,” Corcoran said.

After Corcoran spoke, DeSantis addressed the overnight change by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to revoke the emergency use authorization of monoclonal antibody treatments for COVID-19. He said the decision was based upon a single, non-peer reviewed study conducted by a consultor for a competitor to Regeneron.

DeSantis said it caused many appointments to receive treatment, particularly for high-risk patients, to be canceled as a result of the removal of authorization, repeating critiques made following the decision. He said many of the patients who were receiving the treatments were also vaccinated, and that the federal government was using the study as an excuse to remove the option.

“This is something that they claim shouldn’t be used because we have omicron,” DeSantis said. “But in Florida, we have had people use it and we have had good results. It’s not 100%, we understand that, but you also don’t even know when someone goes in if someone has omicron or the delta. Yes, mostly in Florida, it’s going to be omicron at this point, but it’s really a reckless decision. To be able to take this option away from patients when we’ve had the sites set up, we’ve had this distributed to different medical groups or hospitals. And if somebody wants to try, it was very effective against the delta, when that program went in you saw a huge decline in hospitalizations.”

The governor said the state was proud to have filled a void that “shouldn’t have existed” for treatment. Anecdotally, the governor said people in the past month had had their symptoms resolved as a result of the treatment. He said now, thanks to a single non-peer reviewed study, people were being told that using or seeking out the monoclonal antibody treatments was illegal.

“So this is wrong what they’re doing and we have many people now who are concerned who were going to go in today or tomorrow, but are being told that it would be illegal for a provider to give it to them, all based off one observation, non-peer reviewed study,” DeSantis said. “This is all being done, I think, in a very haphazard fashion.”

In that line of critique, DeSantis also fired off on multiple federal policies concerning inflation and international conflicts with America’s adversaries, such as Russia and China, and the border crisis as issues that all contribute to the economic struggles. He said all of these issues are inhibiting the supply chain, and that the government was “pulling out the rug” on elderly patients who need the treatment even when vaccinated, and that Florida would fight back against the change of policy.

“We are going to expose what this actually means for people,” DeSantis said. “We have patients in Florida that have actually gotten these treatments over the last month, and have had their symptoms resolved. I mean, we see that. And again, maybe you do a clinical trial and see that it’s less effective than against delta, that may be the case. But we have patients who have benefitted, that’s just a fact. So, if there’s a chance to benefit, particularly for these high-risk people, we’re doing it.”

DeSantis also said they’d be giving people a chance to tell their stories, and that those who had received notifications that their treatment appointments were canceled deserve an answer for it. He said the supply of monoclonal antibody doses could get cut down, and criticized the Biden administration for not planning better for a new COVID surge.

The governor said there needs to be a more holistic approach to treatment, and that despite months and months of time to stockpile treatments, the politics at play made the federal government choose not to do so. Pointing to how Israel is having record cases of COVID-19 while also moving to a fourth vaccination dose proved that the current approach to solving the pandemic wasn’t working. He said that while the emergency use authorization was revoked for the monoclonal treatments, over their reduced effect on new variants, it was surprising that the authorizations weren’t removed for the vaccines even though they were developed for different variants as well.

“I think part of it is politics at play, I think part of it is they just don’t have enough treatments to go around, and I think it would look very bad to admit that,” DeSantis said. “You know they don’t have the same standard for remdesivir, which has been used in hospitals, I don’t think the data on that has been very promising at all, and yet you don’t see them revoking EUA on that, you don’t see them revoking EUA on other things.”

The governor said he thought the federal government “was going above and beyond” to revoke access to the monoclonal antibody treatments, and said the state would explore legal options to the FDA decision. Then, DeSantis referenced the FDA’s handling of issues, such as the prescription drug importation program he signed into law in 2019, and how the Biden administration told the FDA to go ahead with it, but that the federal agency had delayed contacting Florida for months.

“We could be saving tens of millions of dollars in the interim,” DeSantis said. “You can’t bring yourself to just go and review earlier than that? So, I think there’s a lot of problems in this bureaucracy as well, and it’s not serving the American people well.”