Under state pressure to reopen schools, Miami school board to hold emergency session

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Miami Herald | Colleen Wright | September 28, 2020

The Miami-Dade County School Board will convene an emergency meeting Tuesday to discuss reopening schools, this time under pressure from the Florida Department of Education to open schools Monday.

Days after the board voted on a conditional timeline of reopening schools between Oct. 14 and Oct. 21, Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran sent a sternly worded letter to Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho and board chair Perla Tabares Hantman on Friday. He accused the board of contradicting the district’s state-approved reopening plan, which says the district would determine by Sept. 30 if “local conditions meet the criteria established” to open schools Oct. 5.

Corcoran instructed the district to open schools for in-person classes by Monday or prove exemptions on a school-by-school basis by Friday.

Tuesday’s 1 p.m. board meeting, to be held in person for the first time since March at the school district’s downtown headquarters, only has one item on the agenda to decide how to proceed. Superintendent Alberto Carvalho offered the board two options.

He recommended the first option of revising the board’s school reopening timeline to allow a return of students to in-person schooling on Monday, with a non-opt teacher planning day set for this Friday.

The second option authorizes Carvalho and his staff to “take actions necessary to secure the Florida Department of Education’s approval of the revised reopening timeline,” including a staggered reopening of schools beginning Monday to ensure the district remains eligible for state flexibility and funding under Corcoran’s previous emergency order calling for in-person learning five days a week.

Because South Florida became a COVID-19 hot spot over the summer, the Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach school districts were allowed to begin the school year virtually.

Carvalho said that if the board went with option two, the district would have to analyze each of its 340 schools, and submit that analysis to the state for approval.

Corcoran told the Miami-Dade School Board that it must answer six questions for each school that will not be open for in-person instruction by Monday. They range from school capacity and how many students have requested and can be accommodated for in-person instruction, to a “reasoned explanation” for why “not a single student” can receive in-person instruction by citing specific health and safety guidance.

Those answers are due by Friday, a week after the board received Corcoran’s letter.

Also on Friday, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed an executive order moving the state into Phase 3 of its coronavirus reopening plan, allowing for all businesses to reopen, some with capacity limits. On Saturday, Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez signed an order relaxing local restrictions in step with the governor’s order.

Schools are not specifically addressed in the state’s reopening plan. Rather, education is listed as an “ongoing consideration.”

Corcoran gave a third option for the board to consider, but Carvalho warned against it as it could cause “significant financial implications.”

Corcoran said the board could withdraw its reopening plan and proceed under existing statutory framework, but Carvalho said the state could determine that the district would no longer qualify for “guaranteed funding at levels beyond what would otherwise be available,” because the district was deemed to be out of compliance with the emergency order.

Board chair Hantman said Carvalho called Tuesday’s meeting and that she wasn’t thrilled with the proposal, believing that there should be more options for the board to consider.

“I honestly feel that to open the schools on the fifth as it says, I don’t believe this will be in the best interest of the students all at the same time,” she said, preferring a staggered start. “I don’t believe operations is ready to do that.”

A dozen protesters led by the Rank and File Educators of Miami-Dade rallied outside the Miami-Dade School Board administration building on Monday afternoon supporting the board’s decision for a later start and condemning DeSantis’ demands as bullying.

Jeff Raymond, a high school social studies teacher, said he visited his classroom at the end of last week and didn’t see any hand sanitizer and not enough social distancing in classrooms. His school, which he asked to not name, said 80% of students are expected back for in-person learning.

On Monday, Raymond received paperwork to apply for an exemption under the Americans with Disabilities Act. He has pre-existing health conditions and said he was “not comfortable at all” with his classroom setup.

“I’ve been prepared to take a bullet for my students and those are unpreventable,” he said. “This is preventable.”

Several teachers from Miami Beach Senior High were present. One teacher who declined to give his name said he hasn’t received any PPE or been told about protocols.

History teacher Charles Pilamunga said he brought a tape measure to his classroom. He has 37 desks in his spacious classroom, yet there’s only 2 feet between desks. International standards outlined in the teachers union agreement with the district call for 3 feet, 3 inches of social distance.

Pilamunga can’t quit his job. He’s the sole breadwinner in his family and he has two young children.

“It is what it is but I’d rather it not be this way,” he said, carrying a sign that read, “It’s life or death for us, our students and our communities.”

In a video, United Teachers of Dade president Karla Hernandez-Mats said there’s frustration in school communities. She called on the school board to have the fortitude and “the spine” to stand up to “this bully.”

“We see this as an attack on local control from the governor,” she said, adding that teachers have asked for a delay, not to keep schools closed. “Our teachers want to go back to school. But what they’re saying is that they want to do it with due diligence, making sure that all the safety precautions have been implemented.”

The Broward County School Board received an identical, word-for-word letter as Miami-Dade also on Friday.

Board chair Donna Korn responded to Corcoran that same day, saying the board was confused by his assertion that the board contradicted its reopening plan. The plan, approved by the state and posted on its website, clearly says the district “anticipates needing to remain in the eLearning modality for the first quarter of instruction (ending October 16, 2020).”

Korn pointed out that Phase 2 status is one of five considerations for reopening schools. The others include disease progression (infection rate, positivity rate trends, absolute positivity rate); ability to manage the spread (test result turnaround time, contact tracing capacity); health system capacity (COVID hospitalization rate, hospital bed/ICU capacity); and district safeguards (availability of PPE and sanitization materials).

“Therefore, we choose to move forward with the First option as outlined in your correspondence and continue to follow our original State approved Innovative Reopening Plan,” Korn wrote.

The Broward County School Board will vote on a reopening plan at its next meeting. The board has a workshop Tuesday and a meeting on Oct. 6. Korn wrote that schools can open no earlier than Oct. 14 but possibly earlier than Oct. 20.

Miami-Dade Superintendent Carvalho warned the board about deviating from the district’s state-approved reopening plan at the last board meeting. Vice chair Steve Gallon rejected that notion, pointing out that the district’s approved plan includes using curriculum by K12, the for-profit company that produced the district’s malfunctioning online learning platform that was ultimately scrapped. That platform hasn’t been in use for weeks with no objection from the state.

“What must be made clear is that this is not about the School Board against the Florida Department of Education — we can ill afford to let that ‘dog’ of a narrative hunt,” Gallon said in a statement. “This has been and must continue to be about the School Board standing for the education and safety of students and the welfare of employees, and for the future financial viability of our school district.”

A “School Reopening Discussion” was held with the School Board July 29. At that special meeting, district officials presented the school reopening plan and a delayed Aug. 31 school start date, but the board never took an official vote on the school reopening plan, which the district submitted the following day.