Shannon Fest has a modest goal for her 15-year-old daughter this semester: to make it through a full day of school.
Two months after a gunman killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High, going to class is still a struggle for freshman Lauren Fest. She arrives late every morning and skips lunch because the crowds and loud noises trigger her anxiety attacks. The reminders of what happened — the empty desks in class, the shuttered freshman building where the shooting took place — are inescapable. She goes to therapy both at school and after class. And at night, Lauren still can't sleep in her own room.
Standardized tests and graduation requirements are the last thing on her mind.
So when Shannon Fest learned that her daughter still has to take a state algebra exam to stay on track for graduation, she was shocked.
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"These kids, they can't think and learn when they're frightened and when they don't feel safe," Fest said. "Right now they can't be held accountable for learning that hasn't occurred, for instruction that hasn't happened."
"We're all in survival mode," she added.
State lawmakers exempted Stoneman Douglas students from some standardized tests to give them time to recover from the trauma. Provisions in a massive education bill Gov. Rick Scott signed into law in March stipulate that students at the high school aren't required to take any standardized tests this year, and that seniors are exempt from standardized testing graduation requirements.
"It's not only the students grieving and trying to recover and all of that other stuff," said Miami Republican Rep. Manny Diaz Jr., chair of the House PreK-12 Appropriations Committee, explaining the thinking behind the bill. "I think it's also the secondary distractions that are just kind of a product of the whole situation."
But the bill doesn't exempt students in lower grades from the graduation requirements, which means they still need to pass Algebra I and English Language Arts exams, typically taken in ninth and tenth grade, in order to stay on track. While Stoneman Douglas students can wait until next year to take the tests, some families worry it will be hard to pass them after all the class time they've missed. Between the shooting and school closures during Hurricane Irma, Stoneman Douglas students have missed several weeks of class this year.
Many students still have trouble focusing when they are at school. Some teachers have taken time off to heal.
Laurie Bishara, whose daughter, Gwyneth, is a tenth grader at the school, said that through no fault of their own, teachers and students aren't in the right state of mind to teach and learn. "For these children to be held accountable for information that was supposed to be taught throughout the year is just impossible unless they taught it to themselves," she said. In class, her daughter keeps one eye on her surroundings at all times. "She's only wearing sneakers to school in case she has to run," Bishara said.
Students now face the difficult decision of sitting for the exams this semester, when the material is still fresh in their minds, or waiting until next year when they've had more time to heal, but also more time to forget what they've learned.
The testing requirements affect roughly 1,500 students at the school, about half of the student body. In an effort to give students more time to prepare for the tests, the Florida Department of Education has established alternative testing dates over the summer and during the next school year and sent the school a list of alternative exams that also satisfy the graduation requirements.
Some parents and students are asking state officials to give students a pass, however.
"The ninth and tenth graders still have this test over their heads that they have to take," said Angie Gallo, legislative chair for the Florida PTA, which has been urging officials in Tallahassee to find a solution. "Not taking this test isn't going to make them not successful, but stressing them out and hurting them again — I just don't see the point," she said.
The Broward school district is also asking the state to exempt Stoneman Douglas students from the testing requirements. If state officials can't find a solution this year, school district officials wrote in a memo to Stoneman Douglas principal Ty Thompson, Broward plans to ask state lawmakers for help during the 2019 legislative session. In the meantime, Broward's chief academic officer, Daniel Gohl, told Thompson he doesn't recommend students take the tests this semester. "The priority should be on healing, mental health, and the establishment of a learning environment," he said.
Shannon Fest started an online petition, which has so far gotten more than 2,700 signatures, calling on Scott to sign an executive order exempting the students from the testing requirements. Scott's office said the governor does not have the legal authority to do so. Only the Florida Legislature can change the graduation requirements in state laws.
Diaz said the Legislature could discuss the issue next session if there are "pending problems," but added that he wasn't sure there would be support for waiving the testing requirements for graduation. Instead, he said, it might make more sense for Stoneman Douglas or the Broward school district to provide students with extra academic support, like an Algebra I refresher, before they take the test.
"I understand the parents' perspective," he said. "I think it's something we need to monitor going forward."
But after everything they've been through, Stoneman Douglas students say waiving the testing requirement would give them one less thing to worry about.
"I think that we've all suffered enough, more than any kid should have to this year, and I think that having to study for a test that either lets you graduate high school or not is very unfair," said Alexa Kitaygorodsky, a ninth grader who was in the freshman building when the shooting happened. "It's just putting more pressure on us when we're all going through something that teenagers should never have to go through."