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First person: The book bans leaving Florida school bookshelves empty

A bookshelf packed with children's books. (Catherine McQueen/Getty Images)
A bookshelf packed with children's books. (Catherine McQueen/Getty Images)

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Hear our full hour on the DeSantis agenda and public education in Florida here.

In July 2022, Florida Governor DeSantis signed Florida House Bill 1467. It requires all schoolbooks to be reviewed by a district employee holding an educational media specialist certificate, to ensure the books are grade level appropriate and free of pornography.

Shortly after the bill went into effect, videos started popping up on social media of empty school bookshelves.

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: Here’s what Governor DeSantis said when asked by a local reporter about the controversy created by those videos.

DeSANTIS: What they’re trying to do is they’re trying to act like somehow, you know, we don’t want books. In some of the narratives that you hear. You hear people talk about felony charges. Understand, nothing that we’ve done since I’ve been governor has done anything. Now, there is a longstanding Florida law that prohibits an adult from giving a school child pornography. But don’t we think that that’s inappropriate to do?

CHAKRABARTI: Well, Brian Covey is one of the people who posted videos on Twitter showing those empty bookshelves. He began substitute teaching in 2022 and was a permanent substitute math teacher until last month when he was fired for posting those videos. Brian Covey is also a parent to two elementary aged kids in Duval County.

BRIAN COVEY: The way I found out that the books were 100% removed from Duval County was I went and picked up my kids for a 5 p.m. event in the school where they had a book fair going on in the library. They had food trucks. This is during a state sponsored literacy week. So when I went to pick up my kids, my daughter said, Did you hear what happened at school today?

And I said, No, what happened? And he said, they took away all the books. And it kind of hit me because it was out of the blue. And I didn’t really know how to respond to that. What do you mean? All the books? And my son went on to explain that they took away all the books, including the books that students were currently reading.

This includes the Sunshine State Books, which is a state sponsored program, my son’s school, if they read so much, they get an ice cream party at the end of the year. When we went to the classrooms, I noticed that the classroom bookshelves had construction paper, kind of like if you were trying to keep paint off at the table, it was taped over. All of the books in the classroom. And for me, it was just kind of a signaling that just seemed so out of this world and didn’t seem like it was a reality … I couldn’t explain to my kids.

So that night I got into the social media void and I tweeted out they removed every single book from my children’s classroom. I read about the consequences of this when I was in school.

So I was talking to a colleague as I was checking in for school that morning, and she said, You should see what we did to the media center upstairs. I saw the empty bookshelves. I took that 17 second video and I put a visualization to what was happening in the schools. And I had no reception at the school I was working.

So I came back to my phone with like 500,000 or a million views and it had become a topic of conversation. And I talked to the teachers that I knew. They said that they were basically just having to grin and bear it and trying to keep it normalcy for their students. And that they were crying and supporting each other after hours, just trying to understand how we’ve gotten to a point where education is removing books from the classroom.

When they implemented it, the district only had 52 media specialists to review 1.6 million titles. So this is a Herculean task for them to do for an unfunded project, and they were tracking it in Excel.

So the first 7,000 books had to be done through a review process. That meant reading the book, filling out a questionnaire, finding two reviews online, and then submitting it through the Excel spreadsheet. On Valentine’s Day. Governor DeSantis was asked about my viral video, and he decided to call it a false narrative.

I walked across the hall and shot the same video of the bookshelves, and at the end of those empty bookshelves were now the books that were available to check out in the library. And it was very sparse. And this was three weeks after they had removed 100% of the books.

The next day, the school board actually came out and said that they had an approved book list of 7,000 books, which means that 99.5% of books three weeks after 100% removal were still inaccessible to students across the district. This is a law that was written vague on purpose and the implementation, I would not wish to be a blueprint on any student or parents.

It just blows my mind that politics has gotten so cruel to where my kids’ education is even off the table.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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