Parents and teachers testified to the board about their concerns regarding opening early, saying they feared that not all buildings would be properly outfitted with safety equipment to stave off an outbreak of the coronavirus. “In my heart I feel everything is rushed,” said Jeffrey Coachman Jr., a parent of five children.
But facing state funding losses from $20 million to possibly $300 million, members said they would open school buildings Oct. 5 on a staggered schedule that would last several days.
Any schools that could not be ready in that timeline would be put on a list submitted to the state for permission to reopen later, and students who wanted to return to a school not opening would be accommodated elsewhere. Miami-Dade County schools surveyed parents recently on their preference for continued learning, and 51 percent chose returning to school. Whether families will be allowed to change their preference is unclear.
DeSantis, a Republican and a strong ally of President Trump, has been as aggressive as any governor in the country in reopening his state — even in areas that continue to report high coronavirus rates. Late last week, he allowed all restaurants and other businesses to reopen at 100 percent capacity, though some critics, including Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, questioned whether Florida was ready for the move.
According to Johns Hopkins University, which is tracking coronavirus cases nationwide, Florida has had more than 701,300 diagnosed cases of covid-19 and has a daily coronavirus positivity rate — an average over the past seven days — of 10.7 percent. The World Health Organization recommends that governments reopen their economies when the positivity rate is 5 percent or below for at least two weeks.
DeSantis is intent on allowing life in Florida to try to revert to its pre-pandemic rhythm, saying last week that his administration is considering some kind of “bill of rights” for college students who get in trouble for attending social gatherings that violate campus rules intended to prevent coronavirus outbreaks. He said, “I understand universities are trying to do the right thing, but I personally think it’s incredibly draconian that a student would get potentially expelled for going to a party.”
The governor’s administration is not releasing school-level coronavirus infection rates, and it has pressured some counties not to do so.
DeSantis ordered all schools to start the 2020-21 academic year by opening school buildings five days a week by Aug. 31, but he allowed a few districts in South Florida to begin with all-remote programs because of exceptionally high numbers of coronavirus cases. The region was one of the world’s coronavirus hotspots this summer, and Miami’s rates are much higher than in other parts of the state.
School districts elsewhere in the state had planned to start with remote learning but opened buildings after pressure from Tallahassee. For example, Hillsborough County, the seventh-largest district in the country, had opted for an all-remote opening, but DeSantis threatened to withhold more than $200 million in state funding.
Palm Beach County, the country’s 10th-largest district, was permitted to open remotely, but the state then pushed it to open brick-and-mortar schools earlier than it wanted; it did so in late September despite strong concerns from teachers and others that it wasn’t ready.
Broward County opened remotely with permission but found itself this week in the same situation as Miami-Dade: It had planned a soft opening in mid-October, but Corcoran has insisted that it open Oct. 5. Broward’s school board is meeting Thursday to discuss what to do.
The Miami-Dade County School Board voted Sept. 22 to open schools for some students on Oct. 14, with all students who opted to return to classrooms to be there by Oct. 21, giving the district time to put in place sufficient safety measures to prevent coronavirus outbreaks.
But Corcoran’s letter demanding an Oct. 5 opening — which was when Miami-Dade said this summer it would open — means the system has to rush to get buildings ready more than two weeks earlier than expected. Corcoran also said in the missive that the district could seek exceptions for individual schools but would have to provide evidence as to why Oct. 5 was too early to safely open.
The reopening controversy was just the latest trouble Miami-Dade schools have experienced in recent weeks. The district’s online platform, purchased for $15.3 million from the for-profit company K12 Inc., crashed the first day of the school year. After problems including software glitches, network outages and cyberattacks, the school board voted two weeks into the school year to drop the contract. A 16-year-old was arrested in connection with the cyberattacks.