Miami-Dade’s public schools start Monday. How ready is the new online platform?

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Miami Herald | by Colleen Wright | August 25, 2020

Less than a week out from a new school year, the new online platform adopted as the centerpiece of Miami-Dade County Public Schools’ teaching and learning experience has racked up complaints from educators.

Education officials are questioning how ready the school district will be when 275,000 students log on Monday.

“My opinion is that they’re not ready. They haven’t been ready,” said School Board chairwoman Perla Tabares Hantman. “I just feel that there’s too many complaints. Too many teachers complaining that it’s a new thing that they have to learn in a short amount of time.”

Superintendent Alberto Carvalho already pushed back the start of school from Aug. 24 to Aug. 31 to allow for a week and a half of training and orienting teachers, parents and students to My School Online, a “one-stop shop” platform for all students, meant to mirror a traditional school day as much as possible.

When schools abruptly shuttered in March, the district allowed teachers to use whatever online platform they felt most comfortable using on such short notice. Many parents complained that there were too many platforms to navigate among their child’s teachers and that communicating via several platforms was difficult.

The Florida Department of Education approved Miami-Dade’s reopening plan on July 17. My School Online was part of that plan, and Miami-Dade school district officials had to make several assurances that students would have access to the same curriculum, regardless of whether they were learning face-to-face or remotely.

The district spent $15 million from CARES Act funding on a no-bid contract with education conglomerate K12, which runs My School Online. The purchase did not require School Board approval. A spokeswoman pointed to board policy that educational services are exempted from a competitive bidding process.

The school district has not provided the Herald with a copy of the contract. Hantman says she hasn’t seen a copy of the contract either.

“Like every contract, it should have a cancellation clause,” she said. Hantman said she’s received many texts and emails, some in the form of a chain letter. “There’s a lot of discontent.”

Sylvia Diaz and Lisette Alves, administrators who work in the district’s academics department, said My School Online and Florida Virtual School were the only options for the district. My School Online, they said, allowed teachers to customize their lessons, unlike Florida Virtual.

But when teachers logged on for the first training session Wednesday night, they couldn’t register. K12 had to send out individual links to webinars. Once they were in the session, teachers complained that they learned more about pedagogy and not how to use the platform.

Then, teachers were told they couldn’t actually access the platform — and learn the platform by tinkering with it and uploading their materials — until the first day of school.

“There is a lot of stress, anxiety and frustration,” said United Teachers of Dade president Karla Hernandez-Mats, who said My School Online was billed to teachers as the “Rolls-Royce” of online education. “They feel like throughout the summer, this should’ve been better planned out. The district should’ve had a platform that would be ready to launch when they said it is ready to launch.”

After seeing the negative reaction from teachers on social media, vice chair Steve Gallon inquired with the school district and posted on his social media that teachers will have access by Thursday.

“Based on the many concerns I have received, it appears that several areas of planning and execution relative to training and new system fell below the expectations we set as a Board and for which employees and parents look forward to,” Gallon wrote in a text.

The school district says K12 agreed to expediting the timeline so teachers can access the platform on a rolling basis, now beginning Wednesday. Microsoft Teams, which has Zoom video chats built in and was a preferred option for teachers in the spring, is still an option for teachers this fall.

“We’ve done this in a really short time frame,” said Diaz, the assistant superintendent over innovation and school choice. She said the district didn’t integrate its data with My School Online until Aug. 17.

“We’ve had some bumps in the road with that. We’ve found some workarounds with that. The intent was never for them [teachers] to have access until Aug. 31. The intent was to have it at the end of this week.”

“We were surprised by that access too and had to remedy that,” she added. “Frankly, the provider is having to do some workarounds to try to expedite the load.”

By 10:30 a.m. Monday, the district posted on its Facebook page that the Week of Welcome website, where parents and students become oriented to My School Online, was experiencing technical difficulties. The website was back up by noon.

The district said there were 129,000 unique log-ins into the Week of Welcome website for parent orientation on Monday. Students, with help from their teachers, will participate in a one-week K12 Introduction to Online Learning Course beginning Monday, the first day of school.

The online stream of Tuesday evening’s parent webinar, hosted by Carvalho, also went down. The school district’s social media directed parents to watch on WLRN, Channel 17.

At an education webinar hosted by the Herald earlier Tuesday, Carvalho mentioned issues with the technology used by the district, but said he still anticipated a smooth reopening on Monday.

He said it’s possible that students whose parents opted for a schoolhouse model under safe conditions will be in classrooms sooner rather than later.

Exactly half of the school district’s enrollment preferred that model. The other half will stay on My School Online.

Meanwhile, the district and the teachers’ union have yet to hammer out a letter of understanding, or LOU. An LOU lays out the terms of teachers’ working conditions under new circumstances.

UTD is calling for leave protections for teachers who may not be able to report back to a physical classroom. Hernandez-Mats said the UTD and the district last settled on some language about 10 days ago.

The current contract calls on teachers to teach a minimum of three hours a day — a provision that was also the subject of many parent complaints in the spring.

Carvalho confirmed that the district’s most fragile students, including students with disabilities, will be returning to brick-and-mortar schools for an in-person learning experience “shortly thereafter” Aug. 31.

Then, he said the district is confident it could move up its timeline to the middle of September based on better COVID-19 data trends. The district originally said it would re-evaluate opening schools back up on Oct. 5 by Sept. 30.

“We are not rushing through the process but we are encouraged by the data,” he said.