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Broward Schools Reopen, But Most Students Stay Home

Broward Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie visits a classroom at Broward Estates Elementary School on Oct. 9, the first day of the district's reopening amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
David Goodhue/Miami Herald
Broward Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie visits a classroom at Broward Estates Elementary School on Oct. 9, the first day of the district's reopening amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Broward County Public Schools was the last district in the state to bring students back into classrooms.

Florida’s second largest school district reopened campuses to about 12,500 students on Friday, making it the final district in the state to resume face-to-face instruction amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Only about a quarter of the students who were eligible to return in the first wave of the staggered reopening process did, and school district officials expect the numbers to stay low.

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That’s a stark contrast to Miami-Dade County Public Schools, which saw about half of its student body return for in-person classes during its own phased reopening this week.

“There’s still concern about the COVID environment we’re in. That’s still top of mind for many parents,” Superintendent Robert Runcie told reporters while touring schools on Friday, as reported by the Sun Sentinel.

He offered another explanation for the low numbers of students returning to classrooms: Parents were satisfied with the quality of education their children were receiving virtually from home, he said.

Like in Miami-Dade, the first children to return to school buildings in Broward were the youngest — pre-kindergartners through second graders — as well as some students with disabilities. With the majority of students continuing to learn from home, schools didn’t have to contend with overcrowded classrooms.

“I didn’t see any major glitches, any systemic issues,” Runcie said during a news conference in Fort Lauderdale later in the day.

“I know we kind of got down to the crunch, down to the wire yesterday, just making sure that everyone had all of the supplies they needed,” he said, including specialized personal protective equipment for teachers whose students have severe disabilities and need more hands-on attention.

Broward Teachers Union President Anna Fusco said she visited seven schools at random in hopes of getting a realistic idea of how the reopening was going.

“The cleanliness and the social distancing component — that was there,” Fusco said during a news conference at the organization’s headquarters in Tamarac.

Her concerns were less about safety and more about the challenges of what she called “synchronized teaching.” Teachers throughout the district are leading classes for the students physically sitting in their classrooms and the ones tuning in from home at the same time.

Plus, they’re enforcing COVID-19 protocols like mask wearing and distancing.

“It's more than double the work,” Fusco said. “It’s about four times the amount of work.”

The reopening process will continue next week, with the remaining elementary, middle and high school students returning through Wednesday.

It was a relatively quiet transition compared to the bumpy return to campuses in Miami-Dade, where teachers expressed concerns about their safety and the quality of education.

Before the end of the week, the district had confirmed four cases of COVID-19 among students and employees.

In a statement released late Thursday night, the leader of Miami-Dade County’s teachers union said the reopening left her members “in complete fear and misery.”

United Teachers of Dade President Karla Hernandez-Mats then released a somewhat desperate video message Friday afternoon begging parents to send their children to school with cleaning supplies like disinfectant wipes.

She also told members to be brave and speak out about conditions in their classrooms.

“We need to get away from intimidation and retaliation,” she said. “This virus is deadly. This virus is invisible. And we cannot be invisible.”

Superintendent Alberto Carvalho had a much more positive assessment of the first week of face-to-face instruction.

During a news conference outside Miami Beach Senior High School Friday, Carvalho said hundreds of students changed from in-person classes to online or vice versa as the week went on, wreaking havoc on scheduling.

He praised educators for handling that challenge gracefully.

“I am very, very encouraged by the resilience of our teachers, our principals, for how quickly they are adapting to a rapidly evolving set of conditions,” Carvalho said. “Principals are being creative and flexible. Teachers are being understanding and accommodating.”

“As a district, they are stepping up,” he said. “And I knew that that's exactly what they would do.”

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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