Facing anxious teachers, Broward public schools pushes back opening of classrooms

Laveta Brigham

Pointing to unresolved details in the plan, Broward County School Board members pushed back Tuesday against Superintendent Robert Runcie’s proposal to start reopening brick-and-mortar schools by early October. During a special workshop meeting that lasted nearly 12 hours, the Broward school district suggested elementary, K-8 and special needs students from […]

Pointing to unresolved details in the plan, Broward County School Board members pushed back Tuesday against Superintendent Robert Runcie’s proposal to start reopening brick-and-mortar schools by early October.

During a special workshop meeting that lasted nearly 12 hours, the Broward school district suggested elementary, K-8 and special needs students from six schools could return to classrooms on Oct. 5, and the remaining middle and high school students could follow a week later, on Oct. 12.

But after firing questions for about eight hours about missing information on the 54-page draft of the reopening plan, the nine elected school board members concluded Runcie and his team still needed to work on it.

Late into the evening, the board settled on the following timeline, although it did not vote on it: Oct. 9 and 12 would be half days for teacher planning, and Oct. 13 would be a full day for teachers to plan for the transition. Students in Pre-K, kindergarten and first, second, sixth and ninth grades, as well as special needs students, would return to school from Oct. 14 to Oct. 16.

The rest of the students in middle and high school would return Oct. 20, the first day of the second quarter.

The plan to reopen schools could change if local coronavirus data, which has improved over the past few weeks, makes a turn for the worse soon. School board member Robin Bartleman said the Labor Day weekend holiday in early September could still have an effect on the number of confirmed COVID cases and the positivity rate, which have both been trending downward.

With mandatory use of masks and social distancing, students and teachers will go back to the buildings, turn on their devices, log on and learn in a similar way they have been doing so since Aug. 19, when the 2020-21 school year began remotely. They will continue to use Canvas, the online learning system, and Microsoft Teams, district officials said.

However, some school members asked the district to re-frame how they explain the transition to mention that although learning will remain online, being in the same physical space grants the students and teachers better communication and interaction.

“We are selling ourselves short,” said board member Laurie Rich Levinson.

The board received more than 600 public comments ahead of the Tuesday meeting, but it only allowed about 15 people to speak during it. It simply entered the rest into the record — a stark difference to the Miami-Dade County School Board, which allowed for more than 18 hours of public comment recordings to play overnight Monday.

The Miami-Dade board members voted Tuesday to delay the gradual start of in-person classes until Oct. 14, more than a week later than first proposed, and finish by Oct. 21.

The Broward County School Board still has to vote on an official reopening plan either next Tuesday in a workshop or at an Oct. 6 board meeting.

Both the Broward school district, the sixth largest in the country and second largest in the state, and the Miami-Dade school district, the fourth largest in the country and largest in the state, remain the only ones in Florida that haven’t reopened physical classrooms since shuttering them in March due to the pandemic.

Surveys on whether to return to classrooms

The board also advocated for new deadlines for the surveys asking parents and employees whether they’d like to return to campus or stay home. Runcie agreed and said everyone will have until 5 p.m. next Tuesday, Sept. 29 to answer the questions online.

The district already sent out the survey for teachers and classroom support professionals, and plans to send the survey for families Wednesday morning.

Educators can technically choose from three options: return to campus, go on unpaid leave or request ADA accommodations, but the survey only includes the first two of those options. If someone choose the unpaid leave option, the district will automatically consider them for ADA accommodations first, a school district employee said.

Preliminary data as of Tuesday morning showed about 5,400 teachers and classroom support professionals have responded and out of those, about 1,400, or 26%, said they intend to seek leave. Out of the teachers only: about 3,600 have responded and out of those, about 1,200, or 32%, said they intent to seek leave.

Parents will choose between sending their children back to campus or not. If sending them back, they need to specify whether students need devices from the district to learn or if they will bring their own.

Depending on how many students request to return, schools may need to open overflow areas, such as gyms, media centers and cafeterias, to allow for social distancing. If a 100% of the students request to return, schools “will have to get creative” and either adopt a hybrid model of teaching in which students take turns to go to the classrooms or prioritize somehow who gets to go to the classrooms.

“That’s a conversation we need to have with the school leaders and with the board,” Runcie said.

Tension about reopening brick-and-mortar schools

At the top of the Tuesday meeting, Runcie acknowledged the “anxiety, fear and concerns raised” about the return to classrooms, but said the district will try to balance those worries against needs for students and families to send their children to school. He mentioned students with disabilities who need direct services and homeless students who need support.

“We can’t let perfect stand in the way of good. There’s no guarantee that we’ll have ever 100% COVID-free environment. Issues will emerge, and we will correct them. We will learn from them and we will make adjustments as necessary,” he said.

Shortly thereafter, Broward Teachers Union President Anna Fusco argued that’s not the right approach, and raised issues over increased COVID-19 cases.

“Let’s do it right instead of saying, ‘Let’s fix it when we get in there,’” she said. “People are still contracting the virus. People are still dying. And if the nine of you and superintendent Runcie are OK with people dying on your watch, on your hands, then you guys stand up there and you vote to open schools when they’re not ready,” she added.

“So when people start dying, then start getting ready for the repercussions. Because if you think it’s not going to happen and if you think it’s not going to be blamed on Broward County schools, think again.”

She said she doesn’t know the right date for reopening, but knows it’s not Oct. 5.

School board member Patricia Good got emotional talking about the difficult situation. She said federal and state leaders didn’t handle the pandemic as well as they should’ve, and because of that, school districts across the U.S. and Florida have struggled.

Good said she doesn’t take the reopening decision lightly.

“I don’t appreciate people saying that I’ll have blood on my hands,” she said, as her voice broke. “I stay up at night about this … because I know that we’re going to have to make decisions that are gonna impact a lot of people.”

Buses, food and other pending issues

Buses became a critical point in the reopening after the school district revealed the plan called for “relaxed CDC guidelines” inside the vehicles, meaning one student would travel in each seat, and 6-feet distances would be impossible. The plan indicated it would’ve cost more than $40 million to buy buses, hire drivers and adapt infrastructure to allow for proper social distancing.

But even with “relaxed CDC guidelines” the district could only accommodate about 50% of student ridership. Board Vice President Rosalind Osgood asked what would happen if more than that percentage of students request to use the buses? A district official said “that wouldn’t be a district-wide issue,” but rather would only affect a “subset of schools.”

Teresa McBride, a Broward driver who spoke during public comment at the meeting, said the “babies” that ride on her bus won’t keep their masks on and won’t stop touching each other.

“I’m more than a yellow bus that you see driving down the street. I am a mother on that bus. I am a mentor. And I care about the kids,” said McBride. “We need to show they’re our precious cargo.”

The district still needs to hash out other details too.

For instance, how will students on campus eat? The district proposed two options: reactivate traditional cafeteria services if schools can ensure social distancing, or tell students to pick up food from the cafeteria and eat in classroom or outside.

Also, how will students charge their devices during the day? A district employee said the district wants to install charging stations, but it has yet to figure out what popular brands of chargers to use, as some students will bring their personal ones and would need different ones than the ones needed for district-issued devices.

Other examples: The district has yet to receive the air filters needed to decrease the exposure to the virus inside classrooms and has yet to finish negotiating a memo of understanding with the teachers’ union.

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