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The Pandemic Is Getting Worse, And Schools Are Still Open. New Board Members Think That's A Mistake

Emily Michot/Miami Herald
Broward Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie leans in toward teacher Skylar Billingsley’s laptop to say hello to her students at Nova Blanche Forman Elementary School on Aug. 19. Broward County Public Schools began the school year online because of the summer surge of COVID-19 but opened buildings for face-to-face classes in early October. Schools are remaining open, despite worsening pandemic conditions.

Contact tracing has not shown schools to be drivers of new infections, local superintendents counter.

COVID-19 conditions are worsening again throughout South Florida, but local school district superintendents are not considering more widespread school closures.

Some newly elected school board members think they should.

“We need to start having some very serious conversations again about closing and doing 100 percent e-learning,” said Sarah Leonardi, a teacher who was recently sworn in to the Broward County school board.

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In Miami-Dade County, new school board member Christi Fraga wishes the district had planned a temporary break from in-person classes following Thanksgiving, in anticipation of a potential spike in new cases that could result from holiday gatherings.

“We should have talked about having a quarantine period after Thanksgiving, maybe not reconvening classes right away,” said Fraga, former vice mayor of Doral. “I think it would behoove us to be cautious, so that we don't have to have permanent closures.”

While the Miami-Dade district has not publicly entertained closing schools again, officials are planning to reconvene a task force of medical experts in early December to advise them on what to do as new cases and hospitalizations increase.

Meanwhile, the leaders of both districts have been making the same argument: While hundreds of students and teachers each in Miami-Dade and Broward counties have tested positive since schools reopened in early October, superintendents Alberto Carvalho and Robert Runcie have pointed to contact tracing that shows new infections aren’t happening at school.

“There is nothing that suggests that our schools are sources of transmission of the COVID-19 virus,” Runcie said during a virtual town hall on Nov. 18.

School officials in Palm Beach County and the Florida Keys have also resisted school closures.

Monroe County School District spokeswoman Becky Herrin said the district is “frequently consulting with our local health department about virus levels.”

Throughout the country and the world, school reopenings have not been linked to COVID-19 outbreaks as many public health officials expected they might, but more research is needed to fully understand the risks.

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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