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COVID-19 And The Classroom, And A Discussion Of The Trans Violence 'Epidemic'

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JOSE A. IGLESIAS JIGLESIAS@ELNUEVOHERALD.COM
/
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.

South Florida teachers union leaders say CDC protocols are being followed but more work flexibility is needed. Also, a "vicious and violent" murder of a Black transgender woman highlights violence faced by the community.

Public school classrooms in South Florida have been open for at least four months and there remains plenty of tension over teaching in person, the protections in place and how well protocols are being followed. In the meantime, Florida International University is encouraging its staff to return to campus.

We spoke to teachers union leaders about working during the pandemic. Also on the program, we heard from activists about addressing the violence faced by transgender people in South Florida and beyond.

WLRN is here for you, even when life is unpredictable. Local journalists are working hard to keep you informed on the latest developments across South Florida. Please support this vital work. Become a WLRN member today. Thank you.

The presidents of the public school teachers unions in Miami-Dade and Broward counties agree that schools are following the recommendations for classrooms from the Centers for Disease Control. A week ago, the CDC released guidelines for reopening K through 12 schools, including continuing to require masks, social distancing, hand washing, and cleaning.

"All of our educators and support staff are working overtime and diligently to follow [the guidelines] themselves, "said Broward Teachers Union President Anna Fusco. "They're really part of the solution of helping keep those CDC guidelines and protocols working."

What helps schools maintain social distancing guidelines is the lack of students who have returned to the buildings. Far less than half of the student populations district-wide in Miami-Dade and Broward are back learning in school classrooms.

The CDC guidelines stopped short of requiring teacher vaccinations, but do recommend vaccinating staff and teachers "as soon as supply allows."

Currently in Florida, people over 65 years old, health care workers and people with underlying conditions are eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine. Getting teachers doses "is a big angst. It's a big point of contention," said United Teachers of Dade President Karla Hernandez-Mats.

Recently, tens of thousands of parents received letters from school districts warning them their children were doing poorly while learning from home or had attendance problems. The notices advised parents that the students should return to classrooms.

Fusco said while teachers have experienced some increase of in-person students, her concern remains on dual-modality teaching. That's requiring teachers to "teach through the computer for the students who are at home and meet the needs of the students who have physically come on campus face-to-face. It's been a struggle," she said.

"We know that teachers are not being as effective as they can be when they have to teach in through modalities," said Hernandez-Mats. "There's already education inequity, and we're trying our best to give the best of ourselves to our students. That is also a difference that we have in Miami-Dade, where dual modality is not compulsory."

Among the education issues foisted upon state lawmakers because of the pandemic is student promotion. Whether a student has completed their grade's requirements to graduate to the next grade level has been left up to school officials.

State Sen. Lori Berman, a Democrat who represents Palm Beach County, proposed allowing parents of younger students to decide for themselves whether to hold them back and repeat a grade. The legislation would allow the parents of kindergartners through eighth graders to tell school districts their children will repeat their grade.

Hernandez-Mats called it "a heavy question." Fusco worried about the accuracy of assessments parents may use to make a decision.

"There has to be some real strong data to go behind (that decision), and it has to be presented to the parent with transparency and fidelity," Fusco said.

Read More: Watch the Class of COVID-19: An Education Crisis for Florida's Vulnerable Students TV special Wednesday night at 7 p.m. on WLRN-TV. Find more information on the special and the project here.

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FIU To "Take Back Its Space"

Thousands of FIU employees were asked to return to campus this week. Some staff employees can still work a few days per week from home, but others have been asked to return full time. Students and instructors are not crowding back into their classrooms.

Under a deal forged last fall, faculty members were able to tell the school they were vulnerable to the coronavirus or care for someone who is, allowing them to teach remotely. Approximately 300 faculty members attested to that status according to Martha Meyer, president of the local chapter of United Faculty of Florida. The union represents nearly 1,400 FIU instructors.

Despite the administration's urging to return, teaching schedules and locations are not changing.

"There is no choice in terms of changing the learning environment. There is choice in terms of being on campus, repopulating office space, repopulating meetings, repopulating those kinds of things. But instructional methodology and instructional delivery — that's not going to change," Meyer said.

An 'Epidemic' Of Transgender Violence

Last year was the deadliest year of violence against transgender people on record. There were at least three murders of transgender Black and Latina women in South Florida last year. According to the Human Rights Campaign, Alexus Braxton was the first transgender murder victim this year in Miami-Dade County.

Police called it a “violent and vicious” attack that killed Braxton. She was found in her condominium in northeast Miami-Dade County on Feb. 4. Her family, friends and police are still looking for answers.

"Oftentimes we're at the bottom of the totem pole in our own communities."
Rajee Narinesingh, trans activist and author from Hollywood.

Melba Pearson called violence against the transgender community "an epidemic." Pearson is a former Miami-Dade prosecutor and director of programs at FIU's Center for the Administration of Justice. She said murders of transgender people are solved at a rate far below the national average for most homicides.

"Our community leaders and our law enforcement entities need to really take this seriously and step up to the plate to make sure these cases get solved," she said.

"Oftentimes we're at the bottom of the totem pole in our own communities," said Rajee Narinesingh, an activist and author from Hollywood. "As a transgender woman of color, I've lived through a lot of hardships, a lot of discrimination and injustice."

On the second day of his administration, President Joe Biden signed an executive order implementing a Supreme Court decision extending discrimination protections to include gender identity. This opened the way for the Florida Commission on Human Rights to extend state protections against employment, housing and public accommodation discriminations on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

"I think it's going to have a huge impact," said TransSOCIAL Executive Director Morgan Mayfaire. Still, Mayfaire is cautious. "What happens if you are discriminated against? What are the mechanisms for filing a complaint? How many trans individuals can afford an attorney or are able to find a pro bono attorney?"

Narinesingh is encouraged.

"Doesn't it all start with the law? I worked at companies when there was no protection and I was really discriminated against. I had no protection to to rely on. It was basically just at a whim, depending on how the company wanted to deal with a transgender employee," said Narinesingh. "I think having that is the first step."

In a journalism career covering news from high global finance to neighborhood infrastructure, Tom Hudson is the Vice President of News and Special Correspondent for WLRN. He hosts and produces the Sunshine Economy and anchors the Florida Roundup in addition to leading the organization's news engagement strategy.