Miami schools could start opening Sept. 30, but 18 hours of public comments delay vote

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Miami Herald | Colleen Wright | September 21, 2020

Miami-Dade County Public Schools officials on Monday proposed a staggered reopening of schools for a return to in-person learning, with all willing students back in classrooms by Wednesday, Oct. 7.

The reopening schedule must be approved first by the School Board, which will vote on the matter around 11:30 a.m. Tuesday. The board decided to ask questions of district staff and discuss policies before playing more than 18 hours of public comments left on voicemail, which are required to be heard before holding a vote.

Those comments are playing overnight, possibly to no board members listening. The board clarified that it does not need a quorum during public comment. The online visual stream of the virtual meeting does not show board members’ screens, but rather the screen of whomever is speaking. There is a generic screen during public comment.

Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said students in pre-kindergarten, kindergarten and first grade, as well as students with special needs, would return to the classroom in a little over a week on Wednesday, Sept. 30.

On Oct. 5, all elementary school students plus students in sixth, ninth and 10th grades — some of whom are entering new buildings and schools for the first time — can return. On that day, all high school students, whether learning online or in-person, would go back to starting school at 7:20 a.m.

By Oct. 7, all students whose parents opted for them to return to in-person learning could do so, according to the plan.

Carvalho recently said 51% of families wish to send their children back for in-person learning.

Next Monday, Sept. 28, is a teacher planning day that teachers are allowed to opt out. Carvalho said Tuesday, Sept. 29, will be a no-opt teacher planning day that will not include any professional development. He said that day is for teachers to prepare their classrooms.

Teachers will have to teach in-person and online learning for just Oct. 5 and 6, Carvalho said. Carvalho has said that teachers are expected to either teach fully online or fully in-person, although there may be some exceptions for Advanced Placement and dual enrollment teachers. Some teachers have said they’ve been pressured to teach virtually and in-person.

If approved, return dates and expectations would be communicated to families and employees Tuesday, student and parent notifications would go out Wednesday and dry bus runs would begin Friday.

The School Board’s special meeting on Monday, held solely to discuss whether to reopen schools under the county’s Phase 2 status, attracted 762 voicemails submitted by the public that school officials said would take over 18 hours to hear.

That’s more than double the verbal and written public speaker turnout for the 14-hour Sept. 9 meeting that ended at 3 a.m. the following day. At that meeting, the School Board severed the district’s ties with K12, the company that made the problematic online learning platform that crashed repeatedly during the first two weeks of virtual school.

The School Board’s secretary said there were 209 written comments that were submitted on time, but those would not be read aloud. Instead, they would be entered into the record.

An additional 16 callers left voicemails after the deadline. The School Board voted to listen to that extra half hour of comment.

The board deliberated on what to do, since listening to 18.5 hours would end Monday’s school board meeting around 6 a.m. Tuesday. One of the options floated was to listen to the reopening presentation by district staff first, then hear all the public comments without taking action, then reconvene on Wednesday to allow for 48 hours notice to advertise a public meeting.

Without a clear plan for what to do after the presentation, the School Board around noon voted to allow Carvalho to present his reopening plan.

Without a plan for public comments, board members jumped to the reopening discussion and rattled off their questions for district staff, often in the form of lists. By 5 p.m. Monday, the board decided to let public comments play overnight and take up a vote Tuesday morning on the reopening plan.

Board member Lubby Navarro felt the reopening plan was satisfactory.

“It seems like a slow, methodical approach, very thoughtful,” she said.

Vice chair Steve Gallon compared the discussion of reopening schools to getting married: “If it feels rushed, it doesn’t feel right.”

Asked about parents who wish to switch between online and in-person learning, Carvalho said parents are pushing to send their children to school and not the other way around. He said he wants the first grading period to be as stable as possible, but each school has discretion based on availability of seats open for exceptions.

Other questions asked by board members were answered mostly by Carvalho:

  • Students who do not wear masks will face consequences. Carvalho says masks are a “necessary, indispensable part of the uniform” and being out of compliance is “defiance of the code of student conduct.” Students who arrive without a face covering will be provided one.
  • A COVID-19 dashboard will go live Sept. 28 as teachers return to school. The student portion will go live Sept. 30. The dashboard will be updated as information comes in but will likely run one day late like the county’s dashboard. It will be managed by school emergency operations staff, Carvalho said.
  • Teachers who do not have an Americans with Disabilities Act exemption but prefer to teach online may be authorized to do so if allowed by a principal. Some teachers said during public comment that their ADA requests were denied with no explanation.
  • Tens of thousands of face shields will be distributed to schools.
  • The district is re-advertising the Chief Health Officer position as candidates “did not have the caliber” in the first round. Some candidates fell ill with COVID-19 themselves.
  • An $800,000 contact tracing application that rapidly pushes out information to affected employees and families should be ready by Sept. 28.
  • The district’s human resources chief, Jose Dotres, says three rapid testing centers will be set up around the county for employees and their dependents.
  • Many questioned air quality and ventilation and school cleanliness, pointing out that school bathrooms lack soap and paper towels. An aide for School Board member Mari Tere Rojas said 86 custodial personnel have requested leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act, which she described as “quite surprising.”

Thursday’s school district meeting with medical experts cleared the way for this discussion.

The experts felt with the number of COVID-19 cases dropping in Miami-Dade County, conditions have vastly improved, even though there is a reported delay in reporting of school-aged immunizations. Dr. Aileen Marty, an infectious disease professor at FIU’s Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine, expressed concerns over contact tracing.

The first 100 comments heard were overwhelmingly against reopening schools. Many of those comments came from district educators, some commenting under the Miami-Dade and Broward teachers unions campaigns of #SafeSchoolsSFL.

Studies have shown that up to half of all school employees nationwide are directly or potentially at increased risk of severe COVID-19 due to underlying health conditions.

Many comments from teachers also bristled at overcrowded classrooms and only 3 feet of social distancing. The United Teachers of Dade doubted that schools were capable of practicing proper social distancing.

“School sites are not prepared with the resources needed to open in-person instruction in a safe way,” wrote UTD spokeswoman Sonia Diaz in an emailed statement. “There is a lack of processes, resources and protocol currently in regard to foot traffic, transportation, food distribution, and sanitation.”

Diaz also wrote that the district “continues to be short-staffed on custodial staff who would provide sanitation to the school sites.”

Palm Beach County schools opened Monday, though two-thirds of students and 1 in 12 teachers stayed home. Broward County School Superintendent Robert Runcie will announce on Tuesday his plan to reopen schools for in-person learning on Oct. 5.

Monroe County schools in the Florida Keys opened Sept. 14 with desks 6 feet apart and mandatory masks