UPDATED: This story was updated at noon on Sunday, March 15.
Millions of Florida children won’t go to public schools for the next two weeks, after the state Department of Education recommended sweeping closures in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
The state directive came down after superintendents of South Florida’s three large districts announced plans to shutter campuses next week, after which they plan to proceed with their previously scheduled weeklong spring breaks. The leaders of the Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach county districts said extended closures beyond March 27 were possible, depending on how the COVID-19 crisis develops.
“This is not like preparing for a hurricane,” Miami-Dade superintendent Alberto Carvalho said, “for hurricanes are predictable in terms of their speed, anticipated devastation and, most importantly, timing. The coronavirus, COVID-19, is unpredictable. We do not know when, where or whom it will affect.
“Therefore, it is our moral and legal obligation to take whatever steps are necessary to protect our community, beginning with the most vulnerable and the most fragile,” Carvalho said, speaking during a news conference at the district’s downtown Miami headquarters.
The South Florida districts announced different plans for how to proceed with the closures.
In Miami-Dade, students will begin distance learning on Monday. The district is offering devices such as laptops, tablets and phones with large screens to families who need them, and Comcast will be providing free internet service for 60 days to those without connectivity. Only certain employees will be required to report to schools and other district sites, including managers and some workers who focus on safety and security, food service and sanitation.
In Broward and Palm Beach, there are no immediate plans to begin remote learning, but the districts’ superintendents said they were preparing for a switch to online classes should schools be closed past spring break.
Only "identified essential personnel" in the Broward district will be required to report to work for the first week of the closure. For the second week, all staff are expected to work, administrators announced on Friday evening. That was after Superintendent Robert Runcie had initially said March 16-20 would be a regular work week for employees with some limited exceptions, which drew pushback from the district's teachers union.
Palm Beach is releasing teachers and support staff from their duties during the closure but is requiring district administrators and food service employees to work.
The Monroe County school district had been scheduled to begin spring break on Monday. Following the state directive, the break has been extended through March 27. At this point, all staff will be required to report to work on March 23.
“This is a rapidly evolving situation, and it is important to understand that my first concern is with the health and welfare of our students and our staff,” Palm Beach superintendent Donald Fennoy said during a news conference at the county’s emergency operations center in West Palm Beach. “Canceling school is the first step to ensuring that. All of the other details will be worked out in a timely fashion.”
Among the most important of those details is how children will be fed while schools are closed. A majority of students in the three districts qualify for free and reduced-price lunch.
Miami-Dade and Broward announced specific plans for how food will be distributed next week. In Miami-Dade, all schools will offer hot grab-and-go meals for breakfast and lunch from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. (The only exception is Ruth K. Broad/Bay Harbor K-8 Center, which the district closed Friday after dozens of students at an afterschool program came in contact with a person who has tested positive for COVID-19.)
In Broward, nine schools will offer breakfast from 8 to 10 a.m. and lunch from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Monday, Wednesday and Thursday next week. Students who are eligible to receive free and reduced-price meals who have identification and any family members who are present will be able to receive the meals, which they can access by walking up or driving up to the designated distribution locations on each campus. The schools are: Boyd H. Anderson High School, Blanche Ely High School, Dillard High School, Hallandale High School, Charles W. Flanagan High School, Miramar High School, Nova High School, J.P. Taravella High School and Sunrise Middle School.
In Palm Beach, anyone who is 18 and under will be able to receive meals from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. March 16-20 at the school locations listed here. At the same times and locations on Tuesday and Friday, Feeding South Florida will provide families with take-home boxes of food, including peanut butter and jelly, mac and cheese, rice and beans, oatmeal, fruit and other items.
Miami-Dade and Broward also announced child care will be available on a limited basis, prioritizing the children of healthcare workers.
“This is unchartered territory for not only us in Broward County but, I think, for this nation,” Runcie said during a news conference in Fort Lauderdale. “One thing I know gets humanity through these challenges, and that’s when we put our differences aside, we work collaboratively, and we look out for our friends and neighbors.
“I think if we do that, we can get through this challenge,” he said.
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