State tells Miami schools to open or prove exemptions

Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran wrote a letter to Miami-Dade County Public Schools calling for schools to be fully open by Oct. 5 or ask for exemptions on a school-by-school basis.

The School Board on Friday morning received Corcoran’s three-page letter, which was addressed to Superintendent Alberto Carvalho and board Chair Perla Tabares Hantman. He begins the letter by expressing “grave concerns” about the board’s recent vote for a delayed start to a soft and conditional opening of schools Oct. 14 with all schools opening for those who wish to return to the schoolhouse on Oct. 21.

Corcoran said Tuesday’s vote “directly contradicts” the reopening plan the school district submitted to the state. He charged it also clashes with Miami-Dade County’s transition to Phase 2 on Sept. 14. That transition cleared the way for schools to reopen for in-person learning and triggered the reopening of movie theaters, arcades and other entertainment venues.

Gov. Ron DeSantis on Friday announced the state’s transition to Phase 3 and overruled all local rules and fines enacted by locally elected governments for protections put in place for the coronavirus pandemic. Local governments can have local rules with justification.

School Board chair Perla Tabares Hantman said she believed Corcoran’s letter was connected to the governor’s Phase 3 announcement.

“It’s just very strange to me and I think it took everyone by surprise,” Hantman said. “I’m very much in favor of opening schools but when it’s safe.”

Spokeswoman Daisy Gonzalez-Diego wrote in an emailed statement that the district is carefully reviewing Corcoran’s letter. She said a special School Board meeting is being planned for early next week, likely Tuesday. The school district must set and advertise the meeting 48 hours in advance. Monday is also Yom Kippur.

“The District was prepared to launch Stage II of our reopening plan, under the adjusted timeline proffered and unanimously approved by the School Board last week,” Gonzalez-Diego wrote. However, M-DCPS will not be announcing return dates until all implications and concerns outlined in the recently received communication have been assessed and direction from the Board has been received.”

The School Board unanimously voted to delay the district’s timeline of reopening schools to ensure schools and its workforce were prepared and safe.

In a statement, a Miami-Dade school district spokeswoman wrote Friday that Miami-Dade is waiting for guidance from the state as schools are not addressed in the state’s “Safe, Smart, Step-by-Step Plan for Recovery.” In that plan, education is listed as “ongoing considerations.”

Corcoran wrote that the district’s plan goes against the state’s emergency order to provide face-to-face instruction five days a week to parents who preferred that for their children. South Florida school districts like Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach were allowed to begin their school year virtually.

Corcoran said Miami-Dade’s delay is extremely difficult for students with special needs and students experiencing violence, abuse and food insecurity in their homes who may also suffer from achievement gaps.

At the Sept. 11 press conference announcing South Florida’s entry into Phase II, DeSantis only praised Miami-Dade County Public Schools when asked about its disastrous debut of virtual school. Just days before, dozens of teachers and parents of special needs students spoke for hours during the School Board’s public comment hearing that they struggled with the school district’s platform made by K12, a for-profit technology company.

Yet DeSantis made his case in July for opening schools because students, including those with disabilities, could fall behind.

Corcoran said if the Miami-Dade school district determined some schools must stay closed, then it needs to submit an amended plan proving the following criteria for each school seeking an exemption by Friday:

The student capacity; the number of students requesting in-person instruction; the number of students who can receive in-person instruction at a school, including the layout of the school’s facilities and specific determinations of classroom capacities; the number of students unable to be offered in-person instruction; an explanation of how the district is ensuring priority for in-person instruction of the most vulnerable students; a total explanation of why a school cannot open at all.

The letter encourages school districts to work with employees to determine who are “willing and able to provide in-person instruction on day one” as well as which teachers are best suited to support students learning remotely.

“Again, this is not a district-wide decision, but rather a school-by-school, grade-by-grade and classroom-by-classroom analysis,” Corcoran wrote.

Corcoran’s letter says Miami-Dade’s delayed reopening “far exceeds” the time needed by Palm Beach County to reopen schools. Palm Beach schools reopened Monday with two-thirds of students and one out of 12 teachers staying home, according to the Palm Beach Post. The Sun Sentinel reported that three students and four teachers were confirmed with COVID-19 in first week of school in Palm Beach. There is no indication of any outbreaks as all seven cases are at different schools.

The letter makes no mention of Broward County, which will vote Oct. 6 whether to open schools also on Oct. 14 only for specific groups of students. Hantman said she heard the school boards of Broward and Hillsborough counties also received similar letters. The Miami Herald reached out to Broward Schools but had not received a response Saturday evening.

Corcoran’s letter concluded by sternly laying out three options: Miami-Dade could follow its approved plan, submit an amended plan for approval or withdraw its current plan and “proceed under the existing statutory framework.”

Back in July, 51% of parents declared that they wanted to keep their children at home for online learning. That figure has shifted, as Carvalho recently said that 51% of students wished to return to the schoolhouse.

According to a July memo sent to the board, 51% of English language learners, 54% of students with disabilities and 54% of students who qualify for free or reduced price lunch opted for online learning.

At the last School Board meeting, Carvalho warned that the School Board’s delayed timeline to open schools could become an issue with the state. Vice Chair Steve Gallon pointed out that K12 was also a part of that submitted plan but is no longer used to educate Miami-Dade students without any objection from the state. The School Board previously voted unanimously to sever all ties with K12.

The Miami Herald has requested a school-by-school breakdown of students requesting in-person learning versus online education.

Colleen Wright returned to the Miami Herald in May 2018 to cover all things education, including Miami-Dade and Broward schools, colleges and universities. The Herald was her first internship before she left her hometown of South Miami to earn a journalism degree from the University of Florida. She previously covered education for the Tampa Bay Times.

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