Last Tuesday, toward the end of a 29-hour session that had begun the previous day, the board had voted in favor of a staggered reopening plan that would have had students returning to schools between October 14 and October 21. But three days later, Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran wrote a letter to the district pressuring it to open earlier. The October 14 start date, Corcoran wrote, directly contradicted the district’s original reopening plan, which suggested opening schools by October 5.
During his opening remarks before yesterday's meeting, board member and vice chair Steve Gallon III made it clear that Superintendent Alberto M. Carvalho had pushed through the original plan without the board's approval, a sentiment echoed by board chair Perla Tabares-Hantman.
“The record reflects that I have, from day one, had discontents with the reopening plan that was developed and presented to us,” Tabares-Hantman said. “The plan submitted to the commissioner is something the board had nothing to do with."
In Gallon's view, Corcoran's letter had left the board in an untenable position if it were to resist, because the state wields a financial cudgel that could leave the district with a budget shortfall of $54 million to $84 million.
The district's chief financial officer, Ron Steiger, appeared to agree, confirming that delaying in-person learning until October 14 could cost the district more than $20 million owing to class-size reduction and transportation funds alone.
Steiger added that if the district failed to heed Corcoran’s admonition, the state could choose to fund the district at a lower rate for each student whose family opted for remote rather than in-person learning. The difference — $7,900 per student for in-person attendance versus the $5,300 the state pays Florida Virtual School per student for remote learning — could lead to a loss of more than $300 million.
Board member Lubby Navarro said she was “gravely concerned” at the staggering figures for potential financial losses. Steiger assured the board that under the state’s executive order, funding is guaranteed for all students through the end of the year, though he didn't specify whether he referred to the calendar year or the academic year, nor did he address the long-term outlook.
Under the revised plan approved yesterday, the 52 percent of Miami-Dade families who opted for in-person learning back in July will see their children return in three waves. Students in pre-kindergarten, kindergarten, and first grade, as well as those with special needs, will start in-person learning next Monday, October 5. Two days later, the remaining elementary students, as well as those in grades six, nine, and ten, will return. The remaining student will return on Friday, October 9.
Board members expressed concerns that some schools aren't ready to reopen their doors on Monday.
“In some schools, we can eat off the floors,” said Navarro. “But there are some buildings and bathrooms where germs congregate that are going to be living ground for this illness.”
Per the amended proposal, the district must identify schools that aren’t equipped for reopening and request any necessary repairs or modifications. Carvalho said students who attend those schools will remain in remote learning until the school is able to accommodate them. He mentioned the possibility of enrolling students in nearby schools if they are below 75 percent capacity. Families will also have the option to switch from online to in-person after October 22, when the first grading period ends.
Earlier in the board meeting, members of the United Teachers of Dade expressed strong concerns with reopening.
“None of the schools we visited were 100 percent ready,” union president Karla Hernandez-Matz said of the unannounced visits she and other union members made to schools throughout the week.
Others worried that the district was succumbing to a political ploy on the part of the Department of Education.
“For 23 years, Florida has been at the peril of those who run this state,” said Shawnie Tumbling, a 23-year veteran teacher who'd opted to keep her kids out of district schools until this year.
Meanwhile, a mandatory teacher-planning day has been scheduled for Friday, for remote and in-person personnel alike, to prepare for Monday’s physical reopening.
“Teachers are expected to return to the schoolhouse, said Carvalho, “regardless of modality.”