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South Florida's Superintendents On Future Of Schooling

This post has been updated.

School districts across South Florida are devising plans now for students this fall. Broward County Public Schools has drafted a plan in which students may only be able to attend school two days a week. Palm Beach County Superintendent Donald Fennoy discussed the possibility that in school attendance will be voluntary depending on the discretion of parents. 

As districts continue to wrestle with the challenges of social distancing, sanitizing school property and keeping children safe, the only certainty this fall is that it will be a much different school experience than we are used to.      

We spoke with the four school superintendents of South Florida about what they've heard from teachers, parents and students as they plan for the upcoming year.  And if you missed any of our conversations you can go back and listen to them at wlrn.org/sundial.

Palm Beach County Superintendent Donald Fennoy  

Let's begin in our northernmost district, Palm Beach County and our conversation with Donald Fennoy. We asked him about reduced tax revenue on a local and state level and how that would play out with his budget.

WLRN: You've had a hiring freeze. You're cutting contracts. Do you have a plan if (tax revenue) is down 10 percent, 20 percent? We've heard it could be up to 30 percent.

Credit WLRN
Palm Beach County School Superintendent Dr. Donald Fennoy

FENNOY: Our executive team is running scenarios 5, 10, 15, 20 percent. So we are running those models now. Our finance team is, again, similar to the other school systems, running those simulations. And yes, it's going to be tough. All of us.

And when you run that simulation, what do you see? How bad will that be?

FENNOY: I think everything is on the table. We looked at furloughs. We looked at downsizing the organization, most of what we hope to do over the next year is through attrition; not filling jobs that are vacated, the retirements or people choose other things to do. And then we would have to then put the right people in the right position, [to] still not lose a lot of the continuity of services. And I think in some cases we're gonna have to decide on what services we will no longer provide just because we we can't afford it or we don't have the human capital manpower to do that. So I think all the possibilities of what we're looking at now, obviously we still have reserves. But, you know, reserves aren't reoccurring costs. And once they're depleted, they're gone. We're really studying every ounce of our budget to see what can and cannot be done.

Broward County Superintendent Robert Runcie

From there, we move south to Broward County, the second largest district in the state. And our conversation with Superintendent Robert Runcie. We discussed his district's preparations and challenges to conduct distance learning.

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Broward County School Superintendent Robert Runcie

RUNCIE: One thing I would say is that we were very fortunate in Broward County to have started this journey probably about four years ago, putting in the infrastructure, training our teachers to be able to do this. We'd invested in a online blended learning environment with a system called Canvas, which is our learning management system. We'd also built an authentication process for teachers and students where they would log in, they would be authenticated, they would be put into a virtual dashboard and then would be able to go into their classrooms where they would see assignments online. They would submit their work. They would have had access to digital resources. The second thing that we had put in place was reducing our student-to-computer ratio. In 2011, when I arrived in the district, it was somewhere between six to seven students to a computer. We'd made significant investments and reduced that almost down to one to one that enabled us to distribute laptops out to any student that wanted them. And so far we've distributed over 90,000 computers to students.

WLRN: And you said that this started four years ago. Were you thinking about remote learning back then?

RUNCIE: Well, yes, we were thinking about blended learning because we felt that technology would continue to play a greater role in education and also help to support our teachers and students to be more effective and create more engaging experiences for our students and also be able to connect them with more and more resources.

Miami Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho

We continue now to Miami-Dade County and Superintendent Alberto Carvalho. One of his greatest concerns is the slide and how far back students will fall because of the disruption to classroom learning.

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Miami-Dade School Superintendent Alberto Carvalho

CARVALHO: Even before we shut down the school system and started our structural continuity plan — which relies on distance learning — I announced across the county that I had a huge concern — which I continue to have — particularly for the most fragile children of those who live in poverty. Those who are performing below grade level, current English language learners and certainly students with disabilities and homeless children, children in foster care, who ordinarily experience what we refer to as an academic regression or summer slide during the summer. But what I said then I stand by still today is that across the county we will see. We will experience an unprecedented historic slide as a result of the compound effect of the summer slide preceded by a disrupted fourth quarter that we are going through right now.

WLRN: How are we tracking students' progress right now?

Carvalho So as a result of our instructional continuity plan 2.0, we built in accountability measures not only for attendance, but also connectivity. So we know actually with a high level of accuracy. Number one, the average daily attendance only had two schools below 80 percent and no school below 77 percent, which is stunning.

Monroe County Schools Superintendent Mark Porter

Finally, we spoke with Mark Porter, superintendent of Monroe County Schools. He shared his thoughts on what could happen if we reopen campuses in the fall and someone becomes infected with COVID-19. In May an employee in a Keys school tested positive and a lot had to happen to make the campus safe again.

Credit WLRN
Monroe County School Superintendent Mark Porter

PORTER: I think it is a little bit of foreshadowing. I think that is a tricky part, will be that each and every situation will have to be assessed on kind of an individual basis. I will acknowledge that this particular employee had been somewhat mobile about the school building. One of the things that we have asked of our employees when they do come back into our building, is we generally have asked them to make a very minimal amount of movement throughout the building, kind of come in the door, go to your destination and return by the same path, so to speak.

WLRN: You basically did contact tracing. You had to figure out everybody that person came into contact with.

Porter Yeah, absolutely. I think it's something we have to keep in mind when we do bring people back is that we're not quite as free to roam perhaps as much as we had [been] in the past, because, again, what we had to do here was we had to clean those areas that this individual employee had passed through or for whatever reason. And the more we can limit some of that, I think the less disruptive any type of an outbreak might be because at some point you certainly will be faced with the possibility of having to shut down an entire school. 

WLRN: Those are our conversations with South Florida's school superintendents: Palm Beach Superintendent Donald Fennoy, Broward Superintendent Ronald Runcie, Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho and Monroe Superintendent Mark Porter. Click the links to listen to the full interviews.

Luis Hernandez is an award-winning journalist and host whose career spans three decades in cities across the U.S. He’s the host of WLRN’s newest daily talk show, Sundial (Mon-Thu), and the news anchor every afternoon during All Things Considered.