At a school board meeting that began Monday, Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho laid out a detailed reopening plan that would have put students back in school by early next week.
Miami-Dade County Public Schools have been open for virtual learning since August 31. After a bumpy start that included a cyber attack on the district's servers, Carvalho initially proposed that schools reopen for in-person instruction starting September 30. But after a marathon 29-hour session, board members voted yesterday afternoon to delay the reopening to October 14.
"If it feels rushed, it doesn't feel right," said Steve Gallon, the vice-chair of the school board.
The plan will use a staggered approach, bringing students back to school in three waves. Children in pre-kindergarten, kindergarten, and first grade, as well as students with special needs, can return for in-person instruction on October 14. The following week, the remaining elementary school students, as well as children in grades six, nine, and ten, will head back. By October 21, the remaining students who opt for in-person learning will be brought back to their campuses. Parents who previously indicated that they preferred online schooling will be able to keep their kids enrolled in the district's virtual learning program.
School board members pushed to delay the in-person reopening after posing questions to Carvalho and his staff over the course of five hours on Monday afternoon.
Board member Mari Tere Rojas mentioned that a recent lack of personnel might affect reopening efforts.
Rojas said that "360 instructional staff and 76 non-instructional staff have resigned or retired early since the start of the virus. I have concerns that we have enough custodian personnel at schools to ensure that cleanliness and thorough disinfection are taking place."
As of now, more than half of Miami-Dade students have opted for the schoolhouse, or in-person, model. Gallon expressed skepticism that the district would be able to prepare if the number of students wanting in-person learning increases.
"We're at 51 percent that want the schoolhouse model — how do we reconcile if that number amplifies?" he asked.
The figure was determined by a survey that parents took in early July, when the district was still planning to start the school year with in-person instruction in August. When a spike in COVID cases doomed the district's 275,000 public school students to remote learning, the survey results lost relevance. Now, those three-month-old survey results will dictate which students will go back to school and which will stay home.
During the meeting, several board members asked Carvalho how flexible those initial preferences are. The superintendent said Monday that parents would have the chance to switch, but only after the first grading period ends on October 22. It's unclear if the delayed reopening approved yesterday would affect that timeline.
Carvalho said the 20 percent of parents who didn't complete the survey will have their children automatically enrolled in in-person schooling.
But many parents have chosen to stick with virtual classes. One teacher with seven special-needs students in Little Havana tells New Times that all of her students have opted for remote learning.
"I feel like I can't help them as much as I would like to," she says of teaching them virtually. "I've made schedules, agendas, [and] reached out to parents in both English and Spanish, but it's very hard for some of them to understand. Some parents don't know how to read."
Even though she'd like to see her students in person, she has doubts about the reopening plan and the district's ability to provide teachers with the necessary support.
"We don't have school supplies. We buy everything ourselves," says the teacher, who asked New Times not to use her name. "I feel like the district doesn't support the teachers. They never have, so why are they going to now?"
Joe Bretl, a science teacher at Citrus Grove Middle School, says one of the biggest challenges he's seen in his community is access to technology.
"There is an 88-student waitlist for devices at my school," he says. "My students are sharing tablets and devices with siblings."
Citrus Grove Middle is one of 19 schools the Florida Department of Education designated as "persistently lowest-achieving" in 2010, and the school is under an improvement plan through the district's Education Transformation Office. About 92 percent of its students are Hispanic, and 95 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. Even as remote learning continues to widen the achievement gap, Bretl isn't sure reopening is the right solution.
"The board members are asking all the important questions. But even after you answer all of those questions, you still have to train all of your teachers," he says, adding that he's concerned that school staff won't be prepared to abide by the many health and safety requirements outlined in the plan.
Students are also struggling to adapt. Zakiyah, an eighth-grader at Brownsville Middle School, tells New Times that online school has presented an array of challenges.
"It's been terrible. There are distractions on top of distractions, and the computer doesn't always work. The internet went out during class today," she says.
Another student, who is in 11th grade and asked to remain anonymous, mentioned some of the challenges he is facing.
"I'm a visual learner, so I can't see what I'm supposed to do," he said. "Teachers explain work without me being able to see it."
Nevertheless, he says his academic performance is stronger than ever: "My grades are better at home. There are less distractions."
The bulk of the two-day meeting involved playing 762 voicemails that were submitted by the public, the majority of which urged board officials to delay reopening. The 18 hours of recordings began Monday, played overnight, and finished around 11 a.m. yesterday.
In one of those voicemails, Bianca Troy, a teacher and parent of a foster child who attends one of the district's schools, asked that the district hold off on reopening the schools for as long as possible. She said she and her daughter have compromised immune systems.
"I don't want to die," Troy said in the voicemail. "I don't want my child to die."
Other parents urged a return to normal. A mother named Veronica Rodriguez said hybrid learning is no longer working for her daughter, who is in a middle-school magnet program.
"I want a full opening," Rodriguez said in a voicemail. "We are tired."
Editor’s note: Lola Sanchez-Carrion is a former teacher with Miami-Dade County Public Schools.
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