Miami Dade College Remains Open Despite Statewide COVID-19 Outbreak

Miami Dade College students feel as if they're being forced to choose between their health and their grades.
Miami Dade College students feel as if they're being forced to choose between their health and their grades. Photo by Phillip Pessar / Flickr
Miami Dade College students feel as if they're being forced to choose between their health and their grades. - PHOTO BY PHILLIP PESSAR / FLICKR
Miami Dade College students feel as if they're being forced to choose between their health and their grades.
Update, March 13: Miami Dade College has announced that effective today, the school will be transitioning to online education until Sunday, March 29. Broward College announced its own pivot to remote learning starting tomorrow and will remain that way until March 22.

Citing a need to be "proactive rather than reactive" amid the spread of the novel coronavirus, Florida's state university system announced yesterday that, effective immediately, all schools should begin to transition to online instruction. Florida's colleges, however, are a different story.

State colleges — which typically do not offer postgraduate studies and are governed by a different body than the state's universities — have yet to announce an end to in-person classes. That decision has frustrated some Miami Dade College (MDC) students who believe they've been given an unfair ultimatum: their health or their grades.

Miami Dade College's medical campus was closed today after a member of a delegation from the Brazilian government tested positive for COVID-19 following a visit to the campus. College-wide, all extracurricular events have been canceled, but classes on the main campus have continued as scheduled.

"We feel as a community that we need to stand up and put health over school," says MDC sophomore Joseluis Barandiaran. "We also agreed that Miami dade [sic] has a variety of culture and people come in and out of school. Anyone can be infected and we need closure ASAP!"

Barandiaran, who was stuck in class today, communicated with New Times through a series of direct messages on Twitter. The 20-year-old student says he would have felt safer at home but had a final project to work on for a film class. According to Barandiaran, some MDC teachers have begun to express concern, saying they would understand if students choose not to attend classes next week.

"MDC needs to rethink their decision because it is [making students choose between] health or academic success," Barandiaran wrote in one of his messages.

A spokesperson for Miami Dade College did not immediately respond to a request for comment from New Times this afternoon. But in a letter sent to students and staff yesterday, Miami Dade College’s interim president, Rolando Montoya, made a point of stressing that the State University System's directive to switch to online classes did not include state colleges.

"Upon the recommendation of the Florida Department of Education, Miami Dade College and the 27 other states colleges remain open," Montoya wrote.

Multiple MDC students took to Twitter after the school's announcement to express their disappointment.

"[T]he world could be ending and Mdc won't close its doors," one wrote.
With more than 92,000 students enrolled, MDC touts itself as the largest college in the nation. Colleges tend to be smaller than universities and, unlike universities, usually do not offer postgraduate degrees. Another major difference: Though state universities are overseen by the Florida Board of Governors, state colleges and K-12 schools fall under the purview of the state department of education, which, as of yesterday, has maintained that Florida's students are a low-risk population.

That determination appears to be based on CDC guidance, which defines high-risk populations, such as the elderly and people with underlying health conditions, but stops short of labeling anyone "low risk." Moreover, adults of any age can enroll in classes at Miami Dade College, where 28 percent of students are aged 25 or older. It's likely there are hundreds of students at MDC who are older than age 60 or physically fragile.

In a letter sent to Florida College Presidents yesterday, Florida College System chancellor Kathryn Hepda recommended that faculty, staff, and students at state colleges and K-12 schools postpone all out-of-state flight travel but stopped short of recommending that the schools cancel all in-person instruction. 

A spokesperson for the Florida Department of Education, which oversees the Florida College System, tells New Times that state guidance is not binding and that individual colleges are free to respond to the COVID-19 outbreak however they see fit.

In his letter, Montoya attributed the determination that students are low risk to Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran. However, Montoya did not make clear which announcement by Corcoran was being referenced. On Monday, Corcoran announced in a press conference that his department was preparing to train 10,000 K-12 teachers to use Florida's Virtual School software if the need to transition to online classes becomes urgent. Corcoran, for his part, didn't seem to think it would.

“We don’t think that is going to be necessary, and I think we are doing a great job with our superintendents and creating that containment if a child is sick," Corcoran said Monday.

Critically, Florida's Virtual School does not include college instruction — just K-12 schools.

On Monday, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis declared a state of emergency in response to the spread of COVID-19. The first case of coronavirus in Miami-Dade was confirmed yesterday by the Florida Department of Health, and roughly 500 people are being monitored for symptoms. This morning, the Miami-Dade Police Department announced it would be suspending all eviction enforcement in response to coronavirus spread. 
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Manuel Madrid is a former staff writer for Miami New Times. The child of Venezuelan immigrants, he grew up in Pompano Beach. He studied finance at Virginia Commonwealth University and worked as a writing fellow for the magazine The American Prospect in Washington, D.C.