At Miami-Dade School Board meeting, parents and educators plead for clarity over COVID rules

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Miami Herald | by Colleen Wright | October 21, 2020

As positive COVID cases ticked up on Miami-Dade County Public Schools’ dashboard, so did concerns — and confusion.

Superintendent Alberto Carvalho on Wednesday evening addressed public and private consternation about quarantine procedures as the district tops 100 positive cases — after a 75% increase over the weekend — and two schools temporarily closed.

But a handful of parents and educators pushed back following Carvalho’s responses. Board members still had lingering questions — some the Miami Herald has asked for weeks with no direct answer. Some called for transparent, clearly outlined guidelines to resolve “justifiable ambiguity.”

“Right now, we don’t have any guidelines,” said vice chair Steve Gallon. He said that people are justified in “creating” their own reasons why quarantine procedures are different from school to school. “Are we trying to reduce some of these ambiguities?”

Carvalho reiterated that the district’s COVID dashboard reflects self-reported employee cases, substantiated with proof of a positive test or doctor’s note, and student cases once they are confirmed by the Florida Department of Health. It can take days for the health department to confirm a student case, resulting in a lag, but Carvalho insisted that all school communities have been notified of cases on the same day.

“It does take a little bit of time,” he said, explaining why a family may get a call from a school to self-quarantine or to not report to school but not see the district’s dashboard updated.

Amanda Prieto, a Southwest Miami-Dade parent who recently founded a parent-advocacy group called MDCPS Parents, spoke at the board meeting during public comment. She said she had heard about the opposite scenario: Some parents are finding out about cases form the dashboard or the health department’s report.

“This causes a lack of confidence in the data being provided,” she said.

The district’s dashboard also only reflects cases of students who attended school and excludes those learning online from home, explaining the discrepancy between the district’s dashboard to the health department’s dashboard. The school district has been counting cases since Oct. 5

On the topic of closing schools due to positive cases, Carvalho gave these examples:

He said that MAST Academy was shut down because infected individuals roamed through three classrooms, the cafeteria and restroom. At elementary schools, students and staff are usually confined to one classroom, decreasing the likelihood of a school wide shutdown. But at Coral Park Elementary, the employee had “mobile, roving responsibilities,” Carvalho said.

Several questions have bubbled up about what siblings are to do if a student must quarantine due to possible exposure. The district recently said siblings are not automatically expected to quarantine.

‘DIFFERENT CIRCUMSTANCES LEAD TO DIFFERENT OUTCOMES’

Carvalho said that the number of quarantined individuals depends on case-by-case circumstances — for example, if the infected student was on a bus specific to one school, or if that bus serviced other schools. Another example he gave was if the student was involved in extracurricular activities.

“Different circumstances lead to different outcomes,” Carvalho said.

Closing schools due to positive cases has exacerbated other existing problems in Miami-Dade’s public schools. Board members and the teacher’s union said they continue to receive reports of teachers pressured, or even bullied into, teaching in-person students and online students simultaneously, which is not allowed according to the agreement between the district and the United Teachers of Dade.

Board member Susie Castillo said she visited five schools where she saw a “majority of teachers” teaching online and in person simultaneously — dual modality.

“I don’t think it’s completely out of choice,” she said. “I did get a comment from one of them that said, what other choice do they have because the students need to be educated.”

District staff, who are meeting Thursday with union leaders, agreed that teachers should not feel pressure and that conditions would improve in the second grading period, which begins Monday.

Carvalho said the issue of dual modality is more prevalent in specialty high schools, which have unique classes taught only by one teacher. He also said there were some high schools with “zero teachers teaching dual modality.”

He says closing schools due to COVID cases are a “trigger” for parents to change their child from in-person learning back to online, overwhelming administrators.

Board member Mari Tere Rojas asked if quarantined students are placed in My School Online, the district’s online learning option. Carvalho said quarantined students on MSO “does create a disruption which could augment dual modality pressure on teachers” but that most students are accommodated. He said there are difficulties with students in unique classes.

To that point, Prieto asked for the district to summarize for parents the number of individuals quarantined, the outbreak and which protocols were updated, as well as distinctions made between why one school closed while another didn’t.

“What I’d like to propose is to ask you, what is a better way to disseminate this information to parents to alleviate these concerns to make better and informed decisions?” Prieto said.

Q&A GUIDE IN THE WORKS

Board member Martin Karp also brought up issues with confusion and communication, despite the district’s best efforts. Deputy Superintendent Valtena Brown said the district is working with its communications department to put together a Q&A guide for parents.

Some board members asked about substitute teachers and hiring more teachers to solve the issue of dual modality. Carvalho was adamant that hiring teachers was not an option. Instead, the district is trying to grow its substitute pool and staff college-educated district employees at schools.

He said every Florida school district, with the exception of St. Johns County, has lost enrollment. Miami-Dade’s total district enrollment is down 8,000 students from its already lowered projection. Right now, the district is being funded based on last year’s enrollment, and many questions remain.

Carvalho said it was still unclear if the state will fund students in distance learning as much as a student physically in school. He wondered if the district will continue to be funded according to last year’s healthier enrollment.

Regardless, hiring more teachers means “we are creating a bigger hole than the hole we know the entire state is in,” he said.

PHASE 3 GUIDANCE FOR SCHOOLS?

Carvalho said he made contact with Florida Department of Education Chancellor to ask about guidance for public schools under Phase 3 since there isn’t any right now. Carvalho said he was told that it’s currently being reviewed and will be released in November.

“That will obviously be welcomed information without knowing what it will say,” he said.

Carvalho said comments made by Gov. Ron DeSantis in Jacksonville on Tuesday “diminished” the possibility of school closures.

Carvalho on Wednesday also announced that the district received 7,000 antigen COVID tests, which involve a less invasive nasal swab, but those kits must be shared with charter schools and private schools that receive Title I federal dollars. He said anyone can administer those tests once they view a 10-minute video, which MDCPS is looking into.

LAST MEETING FOR KARP, CASTILLO, FELDMAN

Wednesday’s meeting was also the last for three board members who decided to not seek another term on the dais.

Martin Karp, Susie Castillo and Larry Feldman each said their teary goodbyes and gave heartfelt thanks to district staff and constituents. Board members and Carvalho thanked them and wished them well.

Karp was elected to the board in 2004, Castillo was elected in 2012 and Feldman was elected in 2008. Their successors will be decided in next month’s general election, and the winners will be sworn in at an organization meeting Nov. 17.

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Parents drop off their children at Henry S. Laboratory School, where more than a majority of parents elected to send their children to school as members of the staff greet them on Monday, October 5, 2020, the first day back of in-person learning after schools pivoted to online learning in March due to pandemic. CJUSTE@MIAMIHERALD.COM