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South Florida Educators On Critical Race Theory, COVID-19, Masks And Teacher Shortages

Sarita Sanmiguel’s kindergarten class at Redland Elementary in south Miami-Dade on Monday, Oct. 5, 2020, the first day that Miami-Dade public school students returned to their classrooms, after learning remotely since March due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The Miami Herald
Sarita Sanmiguel’s kindergarten class at Redland Elementary in south Miami-Dade on Monday, Oct. 5, 2020, the first day that Miami-Dade public school students returned to their classrooms, after learning remotely since March due to the coronavirus pandemic.

On this, Wednesday, August 4, episode of Sundial.

The school year is about to start and teachers are facing mounting challenges.

Earlier this summer, Florida became one of a handful of states against the idea of critical race theory. The Florida Board of Education agreed to ban teaching it in public schools.

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More recently, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed an executive order not allowing mask mandates — even after the CDC recommended masks for schools.

And in the coming years more than a quarter million teachers are also expected to leave the profession.

Sundial gathered a panel of teachers to discuss these issues and the upcoming school year.

The panel included:

  • La-Shanda West, teacher at Cutler Bay Senior High School in Miami-Dade County.
  • Richard Judd, teacher at Nova High School in Broward County.
  • Stephen Backs, teacher at Hialeah Gardens High School in Miami-Dade County.

This excerpt of the conversation has been edited for clarity.

On Critical Race Theory

WEST: I must say in my 20 years of teaching this is a new issue. As a social studies history teacher, as well as any school district, we teach standards and mandates. For example, African-American history, you teach about slavery, you teach about segregation, civil rights — there’s no way to separate racial policies from history. So this idea that critical race theory is not a part of the curriculum in K-12 classrooms — in theory, that is correct, because this is a theory that is taught in law school.

JUDD: For instance, in a government course, which is what I teach, I'm concerned that this course deals with policy and contemporary policy. So this being a policy issue, if I bring this up in class or if a student brings it up in class and we're having a discussion about the policy disagreements about it, does that mean I'm somehow breaking the law? Does that mean that I'm in violation of a state mandate? And that's my big concern.

BACKS: There's a fear that it's going to be a blame game because otherwise we're all responsible for everything that's going on in this country. I don't think that's exactly what it is, but people need to know why we are where we are today. This year, I talked about the massacre in Ocoee outside of Orlando. Nobody knew about it. My biggest fear is that teachers are simply going to avoid anything that might get them in trouble. They're going to avoid things about Jim Crow or Brown vs. Board of Education. My kids ask me, "Why is Liberty City the way it is? Why is this predominantly black?" And I have to explain that to them. How do I do that in the classroom when I'm going to have a parent that's going to call upset, saying that I'm teaching critical race theory?

On COVID And Masks

JUDD: There's a lot of teachers who are upset because Tallahassee essentially threatened funding because of the mask mandate. So essentially they've taken local control. And they said, "We're going to take away funding from the six largest school districts in the United States if you move forward with the mask mandate." They sort of strong-armed the board into backing up on that mask mandate. I think most of my colleagues that have discussed the issue with plans on wearing them, obviously we're limited in requiring students to wear them.

WEST: I am a proud parent of Miami-Dade County public school students, age 13 and six. My sons will be in masks partly because it's just the right thing to do for safety purposes. But secondly, they have health issues. I know that Miami-Dade went on record saying that it's a parent's choice. However, as we know, the common good of all should supersede individual choice. So I just hope that safety will win over parents and we're back in masks.

On Teacher Shortage And Pay

BACKS: I enjoy what I do and I find weekends and summers essential, but, it's quite a bit of hours and not the greatest compensation overall. We lost four teachers who left the state this year, just this year alone. And some others have moved back in with their families because they can't afford to live on their own. Some are living in efficiencies that are basically converted garages or master bedrooms around the area. I look at the studio apartments near me in Pembroke Pines and they're going for $1,500 for a studio. I don't know how a new teacher can afford to do that. We're seeing people who are leaving the profession. We're seeing teachers that are going to other places where the cost of living is less than pay is higher.

JUDD: I've seen a lot of veteran teachers retire a little earlier than they were intending to and I've seen really a lot of newer teachers at the beginning of their career opt out and start looking for other things. I'm planning on riding out my years in this career. It's something I love to do. But when you look at some of those policies coming from Tallahassee that have come in, it's made it difficult. I think that COVID just cast a lot of light on some of the more negative things associated with this profession and really ought to convince us to start maybe talking about some new ways of looking at it.

Leslie Ovalle Atkinson is the former lead producer behind Sundial. As a multimedia producer, she also worked on visual and digital storytelling.