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A Very Different First Day Of School: Miami-Dade District Welcomes Students Back During Pandemic

Miami Herald MDCPS first day of school pandemic Carl Juste 10_5_20.jpeg
Carl Juste/Miami Herald
A student gathers her things as she prepares to enter Henry S. West Laboratory School in Coral Gables on Oct. 5.

About 22,000 students returned to Miami-Dade County Public Schools on Monday in the first wave of a phased-in reopening that continues later this week.

Public school students in Miami-Dade County are back in their classrooms for the first time since COVID-19 shut down campuses in mid-March.

It’s a staggered reopening, with about 22,000 students returning on Monday and the rest following throughout the week.

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The first wave was pre-kindergartners, kindergarteners and first graders, as well as some students with disabilities. Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said about half of the students eligible to return to in-person classes did so, while the rest continued learning online from home.

The unusual first day of school followed a problematic and chaotic start of the academic year in the nation’s fourth largest school district. Cyber attacks and software glitches plagued a new online education platform, leading the school board to end the district’s relationship with its for-profit provider, K12.

Then, the board chose Oct. 14 as the day to begin a phased reopening, following 18 hours of public comment submitted via voicemail, most of which were from teachers and parents expressing opposition to bringing students back into classrooms.

A week later, the board reversed its decision under pressure from the Florida Department of Education, moving forward with the plan to start this week, despite remaining concerns from teachers and union leaders that schools were not equipped to reopen safely.

During a news conference outside a new elementary school in Doral Monday morning, Carvalho pushed back against those claims.

“Despite what I heard from some people, I can assure you of this. They can call me a liar. Every PPE [personal protective equipment] that needed to be in schools, every supply that needed to be in schools, was in schools,” Carvalho said. “We have literally millions of facial coverings, masks. We have gone above and beyond. We never promised face shields, but we have provided face shields. Hand disinfectants — plenty in every single classroom, every single school.”

Colleen Wright Carvalho presser 10_5_2020.jpeg
Colleen Wright/Miami Herald
Miami-Dade County Public Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho addresses reporters outside Andrea Castillo Preparatory Academy in Doral on Oct. 5.

Carvalho said he was bracing for the possibility of staffing shortages and technology problems but was relieved that his fears did not materialize.

He said he expected up to 1,000 teachers to stay home. Schools had asked staff members with college degrees, including administrators and curriculum specialists, to prepare to lead classes if needed. He said he did not yet have exact numbers but teacher absenteeism was “far less than that.”

As for technology, he said the district was operating with less than 20 percent of its bandwidth and had not detected any interference.

On Monday morning, some teachers complained on social media that the online education portal was down and that there were internet outages. The United Teachers of Dade reported some classrooms were without air conditioning. A spokesperson for the district said these problems were localized, not district-wide, and that staff was working quickly to fix them.

Carvalho said he saw young children wearing their masks properly when he toured three schools this morning.

“I saw them following their teachers with appropriate distancing. I saw them extending their arm to maintain a certain distance as they were walking in line. I saw them sitting in cafeterias with the appropriate social distancing,” Carvalho said. “So I was actually impressed by the students.”