Broward Superintendent, Robert Runcie

Almost a third of Broward students faring poorly in school amid pandemic, officials say

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Miami Herald | by David Goodhue | January 20, 2021

Nearly a third of Broward County public school students are not making adequate academic progress as the coronavirus pandemic forced them to turn their homes into classrooms, underscoring a deep divide in digital learning, parental support and a lack of socialization needed for children to thrive, the district’s top administrator said Wednesday.

Out of the Broward public school system’s 203,884 students, almost 59,000 of them are “struggling academically, socially and emotionally,” Superintendent Robert Runcie said during a school board meeting Wednesday morning.

And, he emphasized, the problem is impacting the most vulnerable in the community.

“This is also a significant equity issue, as 84% of students who are struggling and not making adequate progress are Black and Hispanic. Twenty-four percent are students with disabilities. Thirty-four percent are English language learners. And, 69% are low-income on our free and reduced lunch program,” Runcie told the seven elected board members. “We can and must do better for these children.”

District officials have been trying to encourage more students to return to in-person learning because they say children have a far better chance of succeeding if they’re in the actual classroom.

RUNCIE WANTS TEACHERS TO RETURN TO THEIR CLASSROOMS

Runcie is urging all Broward teachers to return to their classrooms, a move the teachers’ union is strenuously objecting to, saying hundreds of educators have serious health issues who would risk their lives should they catch COVID in the schools.

Runcie’s administration issued a letter in mid-December ordering all employees who had been working remotely since early October, when the district resumed in-person learning, to report for work in person on Jan. 13 for the spring semester. The coronavirus led South Florida schools to close their classrooms in March, pivoting to remote learning.

The Broward Teachers Union filed a lawsuit in county district court earlier this month to fight Runcie’s mandate. Rather than comply with the order, more than 70 teachers announced their retirements or resignations since they received the letter.

UNION: ELEMENTARY SCHOOL CLASSES HAVE MORE STUDENTS, MAKING DISTANCING HARD

Union officials argue only about 35% of the student body, 58,465 children, are now learning in school. The rest are taking classes virtually from their homes.

That’s up considerably from last semester, when slightly more than 37,000 were attending school in person.

With such low in-person student turnout, the union argues there is little to no need to have all the teachers back, especially those whose health is compromised with pre-existing conditions like diabetes, heart disease and organ transplants.

BTU President Anna Fusco said Wednesday that while in-person attendance is sparse in higher grades, younger grades are experiencing too many pupils per classroom.

“It’s beautiful in here with social distancing,” Broward Teachers Union President Anna Fusco told Runcie and the school board members, who were sitting in a nearly empty room. “But, I walk schools with 22 kids in a kindergarten room. Physical kids. Oh, yes, it happened.”

Runcie insists that the longer students remain away from their teachers in a brick-and-mortar classroom, the more their academic futures are in peril.

RUNCIE: STUDENTS GETTING FAILING GRADES HAS NEARLY TRIPLED

“We are now faced with the following realities. Students receiving failing grades is up from 4% to 11%. Habitually truant students has risen from 1,700 a year ago in the first quarter to over 8,200,” Runcie said.

In the beginning of the school year, Runcie said the district granted waivers for about 1,700 school employees to work remotely. Several hundred have not returned. He said it’s time for them to come back.

“We are responsible for providing them with a quality education. This is our highest priority. At this moment, we need all hands on deck, and we need teachers in front of the classroom for students who have returned, even if it’s only a few of them in a class,” Runcie said.

Runcie defended the district’s approach to COVID, saying it has operated with extreme caution since the beginning of the pandemic in March.

“We have been so cautious that we were the first district in the state of Florida to close and were the last to open,” he said.

Since the start of the academic year, 853 students and 925 employees have been confirmed by the Florida Department of Health to have tested positive for COVID-19, according to the district’s online dashboard tracking the illness in schools.

SCHOOLS ARE SAFE DUE TO TIGHTENED COVID PROTOCOLS, RUNCIE SAYS

But, Runcie and other school officials in the state have consistently maintained that widespread community spread of the virus is happening off campus, not within schools.

“We have created a controlled environment in our schools by putting health and sanitation protocols in place, including daily health checks before students and teachers leave home. More space for our children on buses. Wearing masks. Frequent hand washing. Mandatory distancing in classrooms and cafeterias. Making sure our ventilation systems are properly maintained,” Runcie said. “So, it is no wonder cases of COVID-19 are more likely to be contracted in the community than in our schools.”

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Information from Broward County Public Schools shows 853 students and 925 district employees have been confirmed to have tested positive for COVID-19 as of Jan. 19, 2021. BROWARD COUNTY PUBLIC SCHOOLS

Featured image: Broward Estates Elementary School Principal Cyntheria Hunt shows Superintendent Robert Runcie and school board member Rosalind Osgood the social distancing measures put in place in the school’s cafeteria on Friday, Oct. 9, 2020, the first day students returned for in-person learning. David Goodhue DGOODHUE@MIAMIHERALD.COM