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Miami-Dade Superintendent Says 'We Are In A Good Place' With School Reopening. Many Teachers Disagree

Miami-Dade School Superintendent Alberto Carvalho talks to kindergarten students during the first day back at school at Andrea Castillo Preparatory Academy in Doral on Oct. 5. Schools reopened for pre-k, kindergarten, first grade and for students with disabilities on a modified curriculum who have opted for in-person learning.
Matias J. Ocner/Miami Herald
Miami-Dade School Superintendent Alberto Carvalho talks to kindergarten students during the first day back at school at Andrea Castillo Preparatory Academy in Doral on Oct. 5. Schools reopened for pre-k, kindergarten, first grade and for students with disabilities on a modified curriculum who have opted for in-person learning.

As students return to Miami-Dade County Public Schools classrooms for the first time since mid-March, teachers are raising concerns about safety and logistics.

This story was updated at 9:52 a.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 7.

The union that represents Miami-Dade County Public Schools teachers is raising alarms about the district’s reopening — warning that the health of students and employees, and the quality of education, are both at risk.

In a letter to school principals, sent Monday evening, United Teachers of Dade President Karla Hernandez-Mats wrote that teachers and students are in danger of contracting the coronavirus during mealtimes. Children are taking off their masks to eat while sitting only about three feet apart in enclosed classrooms, while the virus could be spreading through the air.

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“If students are eating in a classroom with only one meter [three feet and three inches] of separation and they are not wearing their masks, they are putting each other and any employee in the room at risk,” Hernandez-Mats wrote in the letter. “Any time masks are off, six feet of distancing needs to be strictly enforced.”

Further, an agreement between the union and the school district stipulates that educators should not be required to work in “dual modalities,” which means teaching face-to-face and virtual students at the same time. That’s supposed to be allowed only in rare circumstances, like when a person is the sole teacher in a school qualified to teach a certain course. The union claims that rule is being broadly violated.

“Administrators are scheduling a significant number of classes as dual modality which are not ‘singleton classes,’” Hernandez-Mats wrote in the letter. “Some administrators have also told teachers verbally and in writing that they are required to teach dual modalities, which is a direct violation of our [agreement].”

“All research indicates that working with both modalities promotes ineffective instruction for both sets of students,” she wrote. “These scheduling issues should be resolved immediately.”

According to the Miami Herald, most or all teachers in at least two schools — Miami Jackson Senior High School and Sunset Elementary School — are being asked to teach both groups of students at the same time.

Superintendent Alberto Carvalho has maintained teachers are not being forced to teach both in-person and online students at the same time. During a news conference on Monday morning, he said in some cases, teachers are choosing to do so because they don’t want to split up their students.

“I understand there may be a number of cases where our rule may be broken. But that is an exception, and it's unacceptable to me,” Carvalho said.

Asked to address concerns from teachers that they are being asked to do both, Carvalho said: “If I were to respond to everything I've seen posted by a lot of folks, I would spend all day.”

The union sent the letter following the district’s first day of in-person classes, when about 22,000 students returned for the first time since the mid-March onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. The first wave included the youngest students and those with disabilities.

Throughout the week, the remaining elementary, middle and high school students will return.

Despite Carvalho’s assessment during Monday’s news conference that “we are in a good place,” teachers throughout the district complained of myriad problems ranging from inadequate personal protective equipment, water stains and mold in classrooms, windows that won’t open, and unclear directions about whether they are allowed to open windows; broken air conditioning systems, online education portal crashes and internet outages, and inconsistent compliance with mask mandates.

A spokeswoman for the district said technology and air conditioner malfunctions affected individual classrooms and schools but were not widespread and that staff worked quickly to address them.

A teacher at Miami Carol City Senior High School in Miami who spoke to WLRN under the condition of anonymity, out of fear of retaliation, said they are expected to teach dual modality — even though all of their students will be physically in school.

The teacher said there is room for only 18 students in their classroom, given the new distancing protocols, but their soon-to-be in-person classes have more than 18 students. The teacher said the additional students would be in a separate, overflow classroom, watching the class on a screen and being supervised by a substitute.

“They're telling us that we have to teach virtually, online, because you need to broadcast your teaching to another room,” the teacher said. “I don't know how parents are going to feel when their kid goes back and they realize that they're sitting alone in a room with no teacher. Why not just do that at home?”

The school’s principal did not respond to a request for comment on the teacher’s account.

In an emailed statement, a spokeswoman for the district did not specifically address the strategy of using overflow classrooms. She wrote, in part: "Our commitment to providing flexibility and showing compassion during these unprecedented times has real-world implications on school operations and the student experience. We ask for patience as we adjust, as necessary, to balance these various requests and needs."

The Miami Carol City teacher also said the school has been reorganizing class rosters to group virtual students together and in-person students together. In order to free up enough teachers to supervise in-person classes with fewer students, the virtual classes have “ballooned,” the teacher said. WLRN reviewed a redacted roster for one of the teacher’s virtual classes and confirmed it includes nearly 60 students.

“Quite frankly, you can't ensure that everybody is present and aware and attentive and completing proper work when you have 60 screens to look at,” the teacher said.

A high school teacher in Little Havana who works with students with severe intellectual disabilities and autism says it's impossible to help their students from more than three feet away. The teacher did not want their name or their school name to be included in this story because they were worried they would face retaliation for speaking out.

The teacher said they have to get physically close to their students to help them adjust their masks, hold pencils or pens and log on to computers.

"For me, that three feet apart doesn’t work. I’m touching my students," the teacher said.

"I had to show [one student] how to properly use the hand sanitizer when he came into my classroom, to rub it in his hands. I had to be close to him."

One of the teacher's students uses a wheelchair and requires diaper changes, but the teacher has refused to perform those, so a paraprofessional is doing it instead. When someone is infected with the coronavirus, it can be present in the person's feces.

The teacher said they have received cloth masks, a face shield, a box of gloves, disinfectant wipes, cleaning spray, paper towels and a bottle of hand sanitizer. The teacher said they want more personal protective equipment, including medical-grade masks and gowns.

During Monday's news conference, Carvalho said his administration had gone "above and beyond" to provide PPE to teachers and cleaning supplies to schools and classrooms.

“Despite what I heard from some people, I can assure you of this. They can call me a liar. Every PPE that needed to be in schools, every supply that needed to be in schools, was in schools,” Carvalho said.

The Little Havana high school teacher is also working with students in-person and online at the same time.

"Most teachers that I know have schedules with both modalities. It was not a choice," the teacher said.

Another teacher, at a Hialeah high school, is concerned that there won’t be enough space between them and their students. The teacher also asked for their name and their school name not to be included in this story because they are afraid of losing their job.

“Earlier this summer, I came in, and they were about 10 feet away from me — the first row [of desks]. I was like, ‘Cool. I feel a little more comfortable,’” the teacher said. “I took a measurement when I walked in this morning … and it's about 36 inches away from my desk. I don't think they're adequately separated.”

The teacher also expressed concerns that their colleagues and other employees in the school are not wearing their masks properly or maintaining appropriate distance.

“Grown ups think the virus doesn't affect them here — like a custodian. A custodian came in to clean my class, and no mask — like, the mask was down here,” the teacher said, pointing to their chin.

“I congregated with some of my teachers, some of my colleagues, next door, and my colleague was standing right over me. I have a niece at home, and I have parents at home. Like, please distance yourself. We're adults. Right?”

This story was updated to include a statement from Miami-Dade County Public Schools.

Jessica Bakeman is Director of Enterprise Journalism at WLRN News, and she is the former senior news editor and education reporter. Her 2021 project "Class of COVID-19" won a national Edward R. Murrow Award.
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