“My husband, who’s a retired physician, and I live at a continuing care community. I was a speech and hearing therapist back in New York. I would be very happy, and so would he, to help if there’s any way virtually that we could teach the children, or if there are kids who could call us with any of their questions. There are so many retired New York City school teachers here. It seems like a waste of our talents not to be able to help, especially at a time like this.” — Leona Radack, Boca Raton
I had been wondering if schools were still taking volunteers, so I was glad to get this question. The answer is: They are.
Broward schools have a “Virtual Volunteer Program.” You have to fill out an application and get security clearance, as you did pre-COVID. It’s up to each school to figure out what kinds of interactions would be useful, but it looks like communication is through Microsoft Teams on the volunteer’s personal computer. The school’s volunteer liaison has to be present during the session.
Palm Beach County schools want you to reach out to your preferred school directly. “It’s best for those interested in volunteer opportunities to contact the schools they are interested in helping directly to find out if any virtual options are available, such as virtual reading programs,” a spokeswoman said. “Not all schools have options available.”
There are also non-profits that could benefit from your expertise. I asked the Achievement Centers for Children and Families, which has pre-school and after-school programs for needy kids in Delray Beach, if they were accepting help.
“We’re open to any skills-based volunteers,” said Jessica Gregoire, volunteer program manager. So you could do a virtual science project with their kids, or lead a virtual garden club, or teach them how to write a resume, she said.
I’m sure the many retired teachers in South Florida have these talents and many more. So get on the phone, ladies and gentlemen, and brainstorm ways to get the next generation through these difficult times.
Are schools following COVID-19 rules?
“I am a teacher, so I hope you will not go looking for my name or print it. Revenge in education is a real thing and I need my job. Before we went back to the building, we were promised a lot. One-way halls, social distancing, and even that the kids would have their own containers of wipes for the desks, for before and after use. What do we have? One-way halls that are ignored, nobody enforcing social distancing, and my own collection of wipes at my own expense and my own work between classes. I can’t even get a pedicure without a temperature check. Why aren’t student temperatures being checked on their way into a school? Who is monitoring the one-way halls and social distancing in the secondary schools between classes and are those mandates being followed? How are the rooms/desks cleaned between classes in secondary schools, if at all?” — A Broward teacher
But even though you have to get a temperature check before your manicure, the consensus is those checks don’t accomplish much, and Broward schools aren’t doing them routinely. COVID-19 has an incubation period where symptoms are not manifesting or the patient could be taking aspirin or acetaminophen to suppress the fever, so schools are only checking temps if kids are exhibiting symptoms.
As for the hallways, here’s what the school district told me: “Schools have signage posted on walls and on floors indicating the appropriate directions for walking in hallways between classes to maintain social distancing. School security personnel, support staff and administrators work together to monitor these areas throughout the school day.”
High school students are supposed to disinfect their desk areas before they leave for their next class. Are teachers enforcing this rule? That I don’t know. As you can see, there are a lot of rules that are more like recommendations because overwhelmed teachers can only be burdened with so much.
“I’ve spoken to a half dozen teachers who just graduated from college and can’t pass the standard test given by the state of Florida for teachers' certification (50% failure rate). If Gov. DeSantis wants more teachers, why is the test so hard?” — S.S., Coral Springs
I didn’t realize getting certified as a Florida teacher was such a complicated business until I started looking into this question. Teachers can get a “Professional Certificate,” valid for five years, when they pass all their certification exams, or a “Temporary Certificate," good for three years, if they are in the process of passing their licensing tests and already have a teaching job.
To become fully certified, teachers have to pass Florida’s General Knowledge Exam, which has three parts. This test was intentionally made more difficult in 2015 to align with harder standardized tests being given to students. The state may have made the exams TOO hard: Teachers' scores dropped by as much as 30%.
Last year, seeing that only about half of prospective teachers were passing, the state realized something had to be done, and DeSantis signed a bill to make the process a little easier. Temporary teachers used to have one year to pass the General Knowledge test, now they have three. In addition, fees to take or retake parts of the test were reduced from $150 to $32.50.
“Overall, the state has made some effort to ease the path to the classroom, but there is no doubt more needs to be done to bring new teachers into the profession," said Joni Branch, spokeswoman for the Florida Education Association. "Florida has a severe teacher shortage.”
This is a tough one. We desperately need more teachers, but should we make their licensing exams easier just so we can have more of them?
“Teachers' requests for accommodations due to risk of COVID-19 are being denied regularly, despite the individual’s need to remain at home and work virtually, for legitimate medical reasons. The applications were ‘triaged’ and assigned a level: 1 through 4. Staff are getting emails explaining that they were denied because their ‘level’ had reached its quota. How can this be legal?” —A Broward teacher
COVID-19 has placed school systems in a strained relationship with many of their teachers: The districts desperately need these instructors but can’t accommodate all their requests to work from home as more and more kids come back to classrooms.
The district gave priority to teachers who have health conditions that put them at high risk for serious illness or death should they get infected with COVID-19, such as cancer, heart disease, kidney disease and Type 2 diabetes. These conditions are the highest priority level mentioned by the teacher above.
About 1,000 teachers who have at-risk family members have been denied (“Priority 3”), as are most who have health conditions deemed “Priority 2,” such as asthma, HIV and high blood pressure. Priority 4 staffers fit into none of these categories.
Superintendent Robert Runcie told the school board recently there’s no way a school district could function if it granted all requests. Still, the Broward Teachers Union says teachers are being unfairly denied petitions to work from home.
“The district is issuing denials of remote work assignment in an arbitrary manner that violates the provisions outlined in the Memorandum of Understanding between Broward schools and the Broward Teachers Union," union president Anna Fusco told me. “The memorandum requires a district panel to review applications, assign priorities thereto, and assess the needs of each individual work site to determine how many employees can be granted remote work while still maintaining operations of the work site.”
“BTU is working with the district to correct its implementation so that the maximum number of employees can be approved to work remotely at each work site, as contemplated by the parties' agreement.”
I asked Fort Lauderdale employment lawyer Donna Ballman about the legality of the denials. Here’s what she said: “I’m not seeing anything (in the memorandum) that discusses quotas, so it’s problematic that they may be limiting the numbers of accommodations. It’s also concerning that disabilities unrelated to COVID risk are bottom priority. There could be other disabilities requiring remote work that are being given short shrift. Each case should be considered separately on its merits and the accommodation should be granted if there is no undue hardship.”
“Is the University of Florida shutting down its campus after Thanksgiving? I’m not sure whether to send my son back to his apartment if all his classes and exams are going to be online and Gainesville becomes a ghost town.” — Beth, Boca Raton
According to the university’s website: “Faculty are encouraged to shift their classes to an online format after the holiday to give students the option to stay home if they so choose. Most courses will not have a face-to-face requirement after Thanksgiving, but some will.”
Like many colleges and universities across the country, UF is trying to minimize the back-and-forth between home and school that could spread coronavirus among communities. It’s the same at Florida State, the University of South Florida and the University of Central Florida: None are offering in-person classes after Thanksgiving, with a couple of exceptions for labs and other science requirements.
Not that many classes were in-person anyway. Only 35% of UF classes are face-to-face this semester. At the University of Central Florida, only 25% of classes are in-person.
It will be interesting to see what the kids come back to in January. The state is pushing for more in-person classes, but faculty members are resisting.
“If the state decides to take away our virtual option in January here in Broward County, and we do not feel it is safe for our family to send our straight-A student (3rd grader) back to a brick and mortar classroom, then what are our options? FLVS full time program is not an option in the middle of the school year, and I believe their part time program does not have FSA testing. Therefore, if choosing FLVS in the middle of the year, does that mean that my 3rd grader would have to re-complete third grade?” — Lisa Jabick, Plantation
“I am a parent of two Miami-Dade County public school students (high school and middle). They are both at home currently online with their teachers. Some students have returned to the physical building, but I do not plan on sending them back until it is 100% safe or if a real vaccine for COVID-19 is fully tested and is safe. When the district or state goes to Phase 3, will the district, school, or state force my children to return or will online still be an option? Cases in Florida are rising again and I do not feel safe.” — Pedro De Pacas, Hialeah
Parents across the state, and especially in South Florida with our high coronavirus rates, are anxiously waiting to hear if Gov. Ron DeSantis will renew the order that allowed online education through Jan. 8. It’s especially nerve-wracking because several programs, including Palm Beach, Miami-Dade and Broward’s virtual schools, are already full, although Broward does have room for high school students.
There may be room at Florida Virtual School, the statewide online program; administrators haven’t decided yet whether to take new fulltime elementary students next semester, spokeswoman Tania Clow said Monday.
FLVS has a fulltime, five-day-a-week, program that runs like a typical school day, and there’s also FLVS Flex for single courses or as a supplement to home schooling or other schooling. Speak to your principal about keeping up with standardized testing if you enroll in FLVS Flex. According to Clow: “Home school and private school students enrolled in FLVS Flex are not required to take state mandated tests, however, if they plan on transferring back to public school it is recommended that they take the grade-appropriate FSA exams.”
“With regard to the MERV-13 filters placed in most Palm Beach County schools: While this is good, the effectiveness requires adequate ventilation rates for circulation. How do you find out which schools have the better filters and what are the ventilation rates for classrooms?”— Elliot Weinstock, Boynton Beach
The Palm Beach County School District seems to be paying close attention to air filters. I wasn’t able to get a list of which schools have the MERV-13s, but the district has been buying as many as they can, and installing them in buildings where they fit.
The MERV rating system measures a filter’s power to capture particles in the air; the higher the rating, the smaller the particles, including bacteria and viruses, the filter is able to trap.
“MERV-11 HVAC system air filters are being replaced with MERV-13 filters wherever air conditioning design allows (without negatively affecting airflow, and in full compliance with HVAC equipment manufacturer requirements),” a district spokeswoman told me. “For the schools not being upgraded to MERV-13 filters, 1-inch filters will be changed every 30 days, instead of every 45 days, and 2-inch filters will be changed every 60 days, instead of 90 days. The new MERV-13 filters will be changed every 90 days.”
In addition: “If a filter slated for replacement with a MERV-13 filter has not been changed recently (1-inch filters within 30 days and 2-inch filters within 60 days), the district will make sure it is replaced with a new filter until the MERV-13 filter is installed,” she said.
As for ventilation rates, which measure how often the air changes over the course of an hour, the district doesn’t calculate the rates at schools regularly, more on an as-needed basis, said Stacey Marshall, director of facility services.
Teachers' medical records
“Many teachers seeking an Americans with Disabilities Act accommodation in Broward County have gotten letters from their doctors that say explicitly that they should not return to school and should continue to work from home. The Broward County school district has asked for detailed medical records. Do they have the right to that private information?” — Jay Ryman, Miramar
The Broward school district has approved about 800 requests from teachers who want to work remotely, out of about 5,000 who have applied. The district gave priority to teachers who have health conditions that put them at high risk for serious illness or death should they get infected with COVID-19, such as cancer, heart disease, kidney disease, obesity and Type 2 diabetes. These are devastating diseases that employees may not want to tell their bosses about.
I asked Fort Lauderdale employment lawyer Donna Ballman, author of “Stand Up For Yourself Without Getting Fired,” what the district is allowed to ask for. Here’s what she said:
"It cannot ask for the employee’s entire medical history because that could disclose medical information having nothing to do with the disability in question. Instead, the employer may request medical information needed to determine if there is a disability, only if the disability is not obvious. They may also request medical information to determine the expected length of the impairment, what limitations the employee has, and what accommodation or accommodations are needed.”
So it sounds like the district is entitled to information specifically related to the illness that prevents the teacher from working in the classroom during the pandemic. It’s a bureaucratic slog, but I hope the teachers who are truly at risk are able to get the documentation they need so they can keep teaching and stay healthy.
“There has been a reported case of a student with COVID-19 at Glades Middle School in Miramar. I think all parents of students attending have a right to know. Teachers have been told to self-quarantine. I’m assuming only people and parents of students that had direct contact will be informed.” — J.R., Miramar
That’s correct, only people who may have been exposed are getting notified.
Here’s the Broward policy: “The isolation room nurse and school principal will consult with the Florida Department of Health in Broward County immediately and determine if the student should be quarantined and who else may have been directly exposed.”
People who came into close contact with the infected person are supposed to quarantine for two weeks. You should get a notice from an administrator if you need to.
“The school principal will notify all individuals who may have been directly exposed to the suspected case and all areas that were visited by the student will receive an emergency cleaning that night,” according to the school district.
“It is the intention of the district to notify parents, guardians and staff of a particular school the same day that a positive COVID-19 case has been confirmed. Two letters will be distributed that day, one to the class affected and a second letter will be distributed school-wide,” according to the school district’s website.
Palm Beach was finding that the rumor mill was going crazy when a school had a case and decided to notify everyone in hopes of shutting down the gossip. We can assess in the coming months which approach was more effective.
Why does Florida require SAT/ACT tests?
“Why is Florida the last state in the country to require the SAT/ACT for admission to a state school next year? All the other states have waived this requirement. It doesn’t seem fair to our kids, considering how hard it’s become to find a testing site.” — J.L., Cooper City
This has been a mystery for months. SAT and ACT testing centers have been closing left and right due to COVID-19 restrictions. Families have been driving hours, even out of state, to score sites that are still offering the exams, which remain required for admission to Florida’s universities.
Yes, we are the last state in the country to mandate these tests. Why? The Orlando Sentinel may have found an answer. Reporters asked the 16 members of the Board of Governors, which oversees the state’s 12 public universities, and only one responded, but her answer can be summed up in two words: Bright Futures.
The state scholarship program is “so tied up in the fabric of Florida higher education that people are hesitant to not require test scores for admission when it’s required for Bright Futures,” according to Ally Schneider, who is also the student government president at the University of North Florida.
Bright Futures covers 100% of tuition and fees at state universities if students get high enough scores on the SAT or ACT. The eligibility rules are written into the law, so they appear immutable. But perhaps there’s an attorney out there who can figure out an alternative way to award the scholarships, considering no one knew COVID-19 would be coming when the program began in 1997.
Rules for football fans
“My son is finally able to play football! Is there anything I need to know about being a high school football spectator during COVID-19 (Palm Beach County)?” — Susan, Boynton Beach
High school football season typically starts in August but has been delayed due to COVID-19. Palm Beach County’s opening games are this weekend at three sites: Jupiter High, Boca Raton High and Wellington High.
There are lots of new rules for fans, so be prepared: Players are offered a limited number of guest tickets; you’ll have to be pre-approved. You will only be allowed to park if you have a ticket. And guests can no longer purchase tickets upon entrance; they must buy them in advance using “GoFan,” a high school ticketing website.
Bring a photo ID, proof of a digital ticket for the event, a mask (no neck gaiters or bandannas allowed), and a clear plastic bag as a purse. They’re going to take your temperature and check you out with a metal detector before they take your ticket.
Concession stands will be closed. Each spectator can bring one water bottle, and it “should not be frozen.”
And don’t be late: No one will be allowed in after the start of the third quarter.
Broward’s rules will be similar to Palm Beach’s. There will be limited, pre-approved guests, and only spectators with tickets will be allowed to park. Admission won’t be permitted after the start of the third quarter. The only difference: There may be some concession sales. Only pre-packaged items will be available.
How will enrollment affect funding?
“Will school enrollment numbers be accepted by the state for funding, even if not every student is present for physical, face-to-face classes?”— Greg Moore, Hollywood
There’s been a lot of stress, as well as threats, over whether the state will withhold money from school districts that delayed their re-openings due to COVID-19. Even though schools have been open for a few weeks now, the question remains.
Unfortunately, the state Department of Education is not committing one way or the other at the moment.
“The department wants to review attendance and enrollment data from the official student headcount before making any decisions,” DOE spokeswoman Cheryl Etters told me.
The state gives money to school districts based on how many students are enrolled, so the districts are always hoping for healthy headcounts. The initial numbers aren’t looking too good: In Broward, there are about 215,000 students, a decline of about 7,600. In Palm Beach, enrollment is 187,776, a loss of 7,300.
Some school districts, including Palm Beach, which opened Sept. 21, said they were worried the state would slash funding if they delayed their school openings too long, and opened sooner than they would have preferred.
While Gov. Ron DeSantis and Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran allowed school districts to delay the start of the school year, they threatened to withhold funding to districts that delayed too long. Broward ended up being the last district in the state to open for in-person classes; it’s not clear whether any punishment will follow that distinction.
“The Bradenton Herald recently reported that rapid testing will now be the standard procedure for the coronavirus at all state-run testing sites and that Gov. Ron DeSantis said that tests will be provided to schools. Does this mean that the recommendation for schools in Florida is to now use the rapid test for children and employees? What are the pros and cons to using the rapid test vs. the PCR test for schools? The NBA uses a rapid test, but I have heard of some false positives. What test will schools now use going forward?”— Amy Sherman, Fort Lauderdale
The state has sent schools 60,000 rapid testing kits, made by Abbott Laboratories and called BiNax Now, that offer COVID-19 results in 15 minutes through a nasal swab. BiNax Now is an antigen test, which detects proteins on the surface of the coronavirus.
In South Florida, Palm Beach County schools will use the rapid tests but Broward schools will not.
Here’s what the Health Care District of Palm Beach County, which supplies more than 200 nurses to the county’s schools, said about the new tests:
“The Health Care District is working closely with the School District of Palm Beach County and the Florida Department of Health in Palm Beach County to implement rapid antigen COVID-19 testing using the Abbott BinaxNOW Ag Card once they are provided by the state of Florida,” spokeswoman Robin Kish said. “The Health Care District’s school nurses have been trained on how to provide this rapid test if screening results indicate students should be tested and if parental consent is received. It takes approximately 15 minutes for the test to indicate results on the spot.”
She added: “Dr. Belma Andri?, the Health Care District’s chief medical officer, says if used appropriately for symptomatic people during the first week of infection, the FDA-approved rapid antigen test would be effective for students since the goal is to prevent transmission as soon as possible.”
The antigen tests are considered less sensitive than viral tests, known as RT-PCRs, which detect genetic material, require specialized equipment and take a minimum of two hours to process.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, rapid tests are useful in large settings such as nursing homes and schools.
“In (these cases), there may be value in providing immediate results with antigen tests even though they may have lower sensitivity than RT-PCR tests, especially in settings where a rapid turnaround time is required,” according to the CDC.
But Broward will not use the rapid kits. According to a school district spokeswoman: "If an employee or student needs to get tested for COVID-19, the Florida Department of Health-Broward will direct the individual to the nearest of 10 priority testing sites, which currently have a turnaround time of 24-48 hours from specimen collection. The Department of Health priority sites administer the PCR Test, which is considered the optimal test for COVID-19.”
She continued: “Public health experts have informed the district that rapid test kits, which were provided through the state’s Office of Emergency Management, do not negate the need for full testing at a state site or a private health care provider.”
Gov. Ron DeSantis said Florida will receive about 6.4 million rapid kits in the coming months. Nursing homes, senior communities and community testing sites will also get the kits. They appear to be the wave of the future, so hopefully there won’t be too many false negatives as their use expands.
"We are hearing troubling accounts of high schools' handling of COVID-19 cases. It seems that administrations keep this critical information under wraps, quietly notifying only those individuals who have been in close contact with the infected person. We know this isn’t the only way COVID-19 is spread.
Have you looked into what individual schools have done to make rooms safe for kids and teachers? Have they installed dividers on every desk? Have they spaced the desks six feet apart? When do they disinfect each classroom? Who is responsible to disinfect between classes in middle and high schools? Where do kids eat lunch? Have effective air cleaners been installed in every room?"— Evey and Mark Groothuis, Delray Beach
I’ve visited a few schools over the past few weeks, so I do have a feel for the efforts they’re making to keep the campuses clean and keep the kids socially distanced. It’s hard for me to tell, though, if these efforts are consistent and where they fall short.
I didn’t see dividers between kids' desks, although the desks were six feet apart. Each classroom is disinfected daily by the custodial staff, and bathrooms more often. In Broward, high school students are supposed to disinfect their desk areas before they leave for their next class. Are teachers enforcing this rule? That I don’t know.
Lunch depends on the school; some kids go to the cafeteria, others are eating outside, others stay in their classroom. I visited an elementary school in Plantation where desks were moved into the cafeteria, each six feet apart, for socially distanced lunches; a middle school I visited in Boca Raton has kids sitting in designated seats at the cafeteria’s long tables so they are no longer eating in close proximity.
Broward and Palm Beach schools have installed MERV-13 air filters, which trap the smallest particles, in most of their classrooms. Otherwise, classrooms have a “minimum of MERV-8 or 9,” according to Broward schools.
Are these precautions working? There hasn’t been an epidemic at an individual school yet; according to the online COVID-19 dashboards in Broward and Palm Beach, no school has had more than four cases as of now. A Palm Beach schools spokeswoman said every case in Palm Beach has come from outside the school.
“We haven’t had a single case of a person infecting another person at a school,” she said.
“When will teachers in Palm Beach County get their raise with the money that was allocated to each district in the state by Gov. Ron DeSantis? My son is a second-year teacher in Palm Beach County. His counterparts in Broward have already gotten their raises and he’s wondering why he hasn’t gotten his." —M.W., Loxahatchee
Palm Beach County teacher salary negotiations usually go more amicably than Broward’s, but it looks like it’s the reverse this time. Broward concluded its negotiations last month, and the parties agreed to bring up the lowest salaries to at least $47,500, as required by the governor, with everyone getting a raise ranging from about $1,000 to $3,700.
DeSantis signed a bill in June releasing $500 million to boost starting teacher pay and another $100 million for raises for those already working. The exact amount of the raises would have to be negotiated with teachers unions.
In Palm Beach, the negotiations are proceeding, with no immediate end in sight.
“We are currently in discussions with [the union] on how to administer the money from the state for teacher raises,” said Vicki Evans-Pare, the district’s labor relations manager. “The district has offered to raise the starting salary to $47,500 with all teachers receiving a minimum of 1.7% increase. The teachers' union rejected the initial offer and provided a counter offer. The parties are continuing to negotiate.”
Before the new money came in, teachers in Broward and Palm Beach had started at about $41,000. The impact was less dramatic in Miami-Dade, which used money from a voter referendum to pay new teachers $46,125.
Are choice school seats safe?
“My child is not attending his zoned home school. He’s been awarded a seat at another school. Our question is if we decide to keep him home doing online learning until January, will he lose his awarded seat? We are not home schooling. Just not planning to send him back in person until then.” — Michelle Smith, Sunrise
Your seat at your choice school is secure. There’s been a lot of confusion about choice programs during COVID-19, but the Broward school district says the seat you won in the lottery will remain yours.
“If the student is attending a school he was awarded through the School Choice program, and is eLearning at home with instruction provided through the awarded school (not the home zoned school), he remains eligible to attend the awarded school for the upcoming semester,” the district told me.
It’s not clear yet if students will be able to continue to choose in-person or online learning next semester. The school district wouldn’t commit to a plan when I asked recently for another reader’s question: “Broward County Public Schools is providing families the option to choose between eLearning or face-to-face instruction. The continuation of this option beyond the fall semester, which ends January 8, 2021, is contingent upon an extension of the (state’s) current Emergency Order or subsequent guidance from the Florida Department of Education.”
I hope the state makes a decision on this in the next few weeks, because families need to start planning differently if they will no longer have the option of virtual learning.
“Did the Broward school district update its policy on vented masks?”— Stuart Slutsky, Weston
They did, and they are no longer allowed. At a workshop on Oct. 13, the School Board discussed how its policies on face coverings were going and learned that students are wearing masks with “holes for drinks and straws” (interesting, I haven’t seen these) and decided to ban any mask with an opening, including the vented masks that have discs for breathing in and out.
The vents “only protect the person wearing the mask, and not anyone else,” School Board member Robin Bartleman said.
The researchers found the best protection comes from cotton masks with at least two layers of fabric, N-95 masks and CVS surgical-grade face coverings.
The board also decided students don’t have to wear masks during theatrical and musical performances, but they must keep them on during rehearsals. They also agreed that students actively participating in athletic practice or competition are not required to put on their masks, but they do have to wear them in the weight room and during physical education classes.
“Are parents allowed to change their choice for transportation to/from school after the deadline? While it is clear that in-person or virtual learning had to be selected by Oct. 14, the transportation option is less clear.” — K.B., Delray Beach
Palm Beach County is requiring families to lock in to their schooling choices for the rest of the semester, and that includes whether they want their kids on the bus.
The county had originally announced that parents could switch if they gave the district a week’s notice. But at the end of September, Palm Beach schools decided families had to make a choice for this semester and stick with it. Deputy superintendent Keith Oswald said allowing people to change their minds was hindering principals trying to plan how many students would fit in a socially distanced classroom and how many teachers the schools would need on a consistent basis. The same appears to apply to transportation.
Broward is being a little more flexible and will allow bus changes. Here’s what a spokeswoman told me:
“Parents of students who are eligible for transportation can submit a change request after the original deadline. However, bus seating capacity is now limited due to COVID-19 safety protocols, which are impacting the request process. The district is working to address all transportation requests in a timely manner, but parents can expect a delay in receiving a new bus assignment, since all eligible students now have to be routed individually.”
Also, news on the dashboards: After facing lots of criticism, Palm Beach County schools have decided to update their COVID-19 Dashboard at 10 a.m. and 10 p.m. each day. Parents had criticized the lag between when a case was diagnosed at a school and when it was posted on the district’s website; sometimes it took as long as five days. Also, principals will notify everyone in a class where a child tested positive; previously, only those who had been in close contact with the child got a call.
“There have been so many changes to the school calendar. I’m wondering if the last day of school has changed, too. Also, has the first day of classes been figured out for next year? It seems like the summer will be much shorter if this year is ending later in June and school starts up again in early August.”— Lisa, Boca Raton
COVID-19 has caused so much upheaval that it’s been hard to keep track of all the calendar adjustments. The first day of school in Palm Beach County changed from Aug. 10 to Aug. 31. Then they had to figure out when to make the switch from virtual to in-person classes, which ended up starting Sept. 21. Hopefully, the rest of the year will be more stable.
Palm Beach County’s last day had been set for May 28; now it’s June 18. Broward schools are maintaining their June 9 last day, and Miami-Dade’s last day is the same.
All the districts are giving the kids two weeks off for winter break, as previously planned. Palm Beach and Broward also have a week off for Thanksgiving and a week off for spring break in March.
It seems like ages ago that a contingent of parents was objecting to school start dates in early to mid-August because they interfered with family vacations and Northern sleepaway camp schedules. It will be interesting to see if this problem resurfaces as the school districts figure out their calendars for next year. With all the scheduling disruptions of the current year, none of our South Florida school boards has begun to tackle the 2021-22 calendars yet.
Is the school COVID dashboard accurate?
“I sent you an email revealing a case of a student at Boca Raton Middle School. The letter from the principal said: ‘I’m writing to inform you that a student has tested positive for COVID-19. I’d like to assure you that all contact tracing protocols are presently being followed, and anyone who was in close proximity to this person will be notified. If you are not notified, your child was not directly exposed.’ This case does not appear on the school district’s COVID-19 Dashboard. What else are they hiding?” — H.K., Boca Raton
I checked the Palm Beach County School District’s online dashboard the day I got this email from H.K., and Boca Middle did not have any cases listed at that point. But the case mentioned above was on the dashboard, which shows COVID cases by school, by the next day.
There’s a lag between word getting out about a COVID case at a school and when it appears on the dashboard, and it appears to be causing distrust between the school systems and their families. I asked the school district about the reasons for the delay, and here’s what I was told.
Before it gets to the dashboard, a case has to go through several layers of bureaucracy. Families have to report their children’s positive diagnosis to their principals by the next day. The principals tell their bosses so they can figure out which areas need to be cleaned and whether a classroom or the school needs to be closed.
The school’s administration has to contact several departments, including Risk Management, Maintenance & Plant Operations, School Support Services, and Environmental and Conservation Services.
The families have to give their principals a list of everyone they were in close contact with. The principal’s boss then shares the information with a school district health specialist, who begins contact tracing and coordinates a response with the Florida Department of Health. The health specialist also contacts the district’s director of communications, who informs the superintendent, who tells the School Board.
So there’s lots of red tape before it gets to the public. And they’re not going to tell us who was infected.
“The name of the student with the positive COVID-19 test will not be revealed when notifying other students' parents/guardians and members of the school’s staff,” according to the district.
Thus the rumor mill gets going. To aggravate matters, it can be three to five days between the reporting of an incident and its announcement on the dashboard, a spokeswoman said.
“The dashboard isn’t updated on weekends,” according to the spokeswoman. “But again, to stress, this isn’t an effort to hide anything as your reader stated. The parents will know about it in advance of the dashboard update.”
“Why are they paying less to the substitute teachers than you can make at McDonald’s? It’s ridiculous, especially now with coronavirus. The subs should get exactly what the teachers are getting.” — James Gehron, Plantation
There’s little motivation for anyone to become a substitute teacher these days. The pay is depressing, there’s minimal training in how to teach online and in-person at the same time, and then there’s potential exposure to COVID-19.
Broward pays its subs about $11.27 an hour. In Palm Beach County, retired teachers who sub get $13.91 an hour, those with bachelor’s degrees earn $13.39 an hour and those with associate’s degrees $11.59. You can get $3 an hour extra if you’re willing to teach in the towns around Lake Okeechobee.
Miami-Dade County pays about $13 an hour for subs with bachelor’s degrees, which Indeed.com says is 21% higher than the national average.
According to Indeed, a jobs website, McDonald’s cashiers typically earn $10.78 an hour in Florida.
Surprisingly, Broward schools say they have enough subs, although they are always hiring more. There are 3,595, compared with 3,356 at this time last year, the district told me.
The Palm Beach County schools' website says “Now hiring substitute teachers, click here” on the banner at the top of its main page. It looks like they are much needed. Although the pay is not an incentive and there are no health or retirement benefits, there are a couple of positives, including choosing the days you’ll work and knowing you’re helping kids learn.
“I am concerned about the level of safety being very different from school to school. Teachers are buying their own supplies and parents are donating supplies such as air purifiers, touchless sanitizer dispensers, and numerous other items to help keep students and teachers safe. Once again this leaves our less affluent schools at a higher risk of infection. I would like to know how Broward schools will address these concerns.”— Irene Myers, Davie
“We want to have a portable air filter in the classroom. The class already bought it. Is it permitted?”— Nilo Rodriguez, Miami
The equitable distribution of supplies is an existential problem that’s been around since the creation of our public schools. Parents with means supplement classrooms with extra essentials, volunteers, decorations, class parties and other swag while students at poorer schools get the basics but that’s about it.
Soon we’ll see if the same holds true during COVID-19. The school systems say every school is undergoing the same cleaning procedures and getting the same amount of cleaning products. Here’s what Broward schools say about hand sanitizer:
“Each classroom will receive a hand sanitizer dispenser and a one-gallon hand sanitizer refill jug. Additional hand sanitizer stations will also be made available in certain common areas throughout the school. The placement of these supplemental stations will ultimately depend on the layout of each school and fire code restrictions.”
Every school is also supposed to have masks, thermometers, wipes and gloves.
Miami-Dade schools are less specific about what they’re supplying for each classroom. According to their website: “Hand sanitizing stations will be available in high-traffic areas in schools, including classrooms, and on school buses. If a student leaves class during a class period, they will be expected to wash their hands or use hand sanitizer prior to returning to the classroom.”
As for donating a portable air filter to a classroom, here’s what Miami-Dade schools spokeswoman Jaquelyn Calzadilla said: “We welcome community partners that want to support public education and provide additional resources. We recommend that they consult with the school’s administration prior to bringing the filter to the schoolhouse.”
So ask your principal how you can supplement your child’s classroom. And consider donating to schools that lack these extras.
Are board members working remotely?
“Since teachers are being required to return to schools, I would like to know if all Broward School Board members are now working at the K.C. Wright Administration Building on a normal schedule. "Are School Board meetings being held in the board room with the floor open to anyone and all questions? Are the School Board employees that work at headquarters all back to work, working from their offices and not working remotely? What is good for the folks at headquarters is good for all, from the top down. At least those at K.C. Wright are not going to be exposed to 500 to 3,000 young persons that can be transporting the virus.”— B. Hill, Fort Lauderdale
School Board meetings in Broward and Palm Beach, which went remote when the pandemic began in March, are now back in-person at their administrative centers in Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach. They went back sooner than Gov. Ron DeSantis required; his latest order requires government agencies to be prepared for in-person meetings beginning Nov. 1.
If kids were going back to school buildings, the boards said they wanted to show they too would be meeting in-person. Not every board member is always there; I’ve seen several in both counties call in or Zoom in to meetings because they were sick or otherwise couldn’t come in.
Here’s what the Broward school district told me about current meeting policies and who can speak before the board:
“In addition to wearing masks, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines are followed for physical distancing. These are the same CDC guidelines that will be followed at our schools. During School Board meetings, up to 15 people may present their public comments in person. If there are more than 15 public speakers, the comments from the remainder of speakers are made available online.”
Some administrative employees are working from home, depending on the arrangements they made with their supervisor.
“Individual departments are responsible for determining employee schedules, including protocols for physically returning to the office,” the district said. “The expectation is the transition will be consistent with the full reopening of schools.”
It sounds like they want everyone to return to their offices eventually, but as we have seen so many times, these rules are fluid and many are likely to continue working from home for the foreseeable future.
“Will student temperatures be taken upon entering a Broward public or charter school? It seems such a basic thing to do.”— Mitchell Pellecchia, MargateNews.net, Margate
The short answer is, no. Broward schools want parents to take their kids' temperatures before they go to school. Schools will only check temps if kids are exhibiting symptoms.
Here’s the official statement from the school district on the temperature issue:
“The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not currently recommend universal symptom screenings be conducted by schools. Parents or caregivers, students, and staff are strongly encouraged to perform temperature checks and monitor themselves for signs of infectious illness every day. Parents would have to assist with younger students. Students who are sick should not attend school in-person.Each school will have thermometers available to check the temperatures of students who may exhibit symptoms while on campus, as needed.”
As for charter schools, the district says check with each campus as to their policy.
It’s become routine to check temperatures as people enter buildings; my gym does it, as does an office building I went to recently. But the consensus seems to be that it doesn’t accomplish much, as COVID-19 has an incubation period where symptoms are not manifesting or the patient could be taking aspirin or acetaminophen to suppress the fever.
How will positive tests be communicated?
“With laws in place to protect medical security and privacy, I fear that we will not know when a student or teacher tests positive. At one point we received a memo saying (school staff) did not need to report if we tested positive for COVID. The district’s reopening plan shows how many schools currently have staff that have tested positive. I know of two schools not listed that have teachers currently with COVID. How are positive tests being reported to the schools and will the schools notify staff and/or parents of positive cases?”— Maite Hernandez
The school districts' “COVID-19 Dashboards,” published on their websites, tell us whether a student or teacher has contracted the virus at each public school in their county. In Palm Beach County on Monday, 20 staffers and 13 students are listed; in Broward, there were 28 cases, all school employees, at 23 sites (school buildings aren’t opening to students until Friday).
The districts make it clear on their websites that these are cases reported to the school system. In Palm Beach, the staff cases were submitted to the Risk Management department; kids got their positive tests through their school nurses.
So anyone who tests outside the school system or chooses not to tell their school district will not be listed on the dashboards. Also, the dashboards are not reporting in real-time, so there could be a lag depending on when the reports are received and entered into the computer system.
It’ll be hard to find out what’s happening on a classroom-by-classroom basis, since the dashboards only tell us about schools. The state does not require schools to notify all parents in a class if a student has the virus; only those who were in close contact and need to quarantine. Parents will get a phone call or email if their children are exposed to an infected person, and those children will have to stay at home for 14 days.
So the dashboards are providing some useful information, but seem to be posing more questions than they answer.
“As stated in the Sun-Sentinel article on Sept. 22 regarding Broward schools reopening, 32% of 5,000 teachers stated that they would take a leave of absence rather than return to the classroom. If that rate remains the same when all responses are in, then roughly 4,800 out of 15,000 teachers would not return. What is the plan to replace up to one-third of the teaching staff? Do they plan to hire 4,800 teachers, or do they plan to fill in with 4,800 substitute teachers?” — Susan Lanteigne, Plantation
“What will be the situation for substitutes when Broward schools open? They aren’t trained in the online program, so will they be needed at all? Will they be used just as monitors if teachers call in sick?”— Karen Zaslow, Boca Raton
A large chunk of Broward teachers — about a third — said in a survey last week they would not return to classrooms, and the school district is figuring out now if they have enough educators for buildings to reopen next week.
Enrollment has fallen, so fewer teachers will be needed. The decline is about 7,600 students, or 3.5%, from last year. Most of the students — about 5,100 — are in elementary schools, representing a 5.5% drop.
The district says there are enough subs, although they are always hiring more. There are 3,595, compared with 3,356 at this time last year, the district told me.
The district says its staff will train subs in online learning, but it’s unlikely a sub will have the high level of expertise needed to operate the classroom cameras that educators will be using to teach students who are learning at home and in the classroom at the same time, a tremendous feat in itself.
It’s likely Broward’s first few days will be similar to the experience in Palm Beach County, which opened school buildings Sept. 21. So many teachers called in sick that many schools had to send non-teaching staff to supervise classrooms or ask teachers to monitor two classrooms. Some students had to wait in overflow rooms until their next class started, the Palm Beach Post reported.
If you want to become a substitute, our schools always need you. The pay is not much of an incentive: Broward offers only $11.27 an hour. In Palm Beach County, subs get $13.39 an hour if they have bachelor’s degrees and $11.59 for associate degrees. Go to www.browardschools.com or www.palmbeachschools.org.
Will schools use overflow space?
“What happens if our children won’t fit in the classroom because of social distancing requirements? Would they get sent to an “overflow” space such as the cafeteria or media center like in Palm Beach County? This would greatly affect our decision to return in person.” — Marian Primmer, Wilton Manors
Broward schools have not yet announced what they will do if more kids show up for in-person lessons than social distancing will allow. But at most schools, this will not be a problem, as student turnout is expected to be low when campuses reopen.
Only a third of students whose families responded to a Broward survey said they plan to return to school buildings. Others will continue to learn at home.
Palm Beach County had a higher turnout for in-person classes, 36%, and also hasn’t had much need for overflow rooms, which could be the cafeteria, media center or an empty classroom. Still, even when there is low turnout, social distancing is not assured. A picture of students jamming the breezeway between classes at Boca Raton High School went viral last month; schools are now making sure to stagger when they empty out their classes.
What about cancelled SAT and ACT tests?
“Nova High School canceled all ACTs and SATs in September and never notified the College Board to alert students. There are no more Broward schools even left now to sign up my daughter and we are scheduled to drive over two hours away. For future tests going forward, are they planning on ever administering tests again to allow this year’s seniors any opportunities to take them? Most schools are not test blind and after all of my daughter’s hard work her whole school career this may be the thing that prevents her from getting in where she deserves.”— Tracy Internoscia, Davie
I’ve been hearing a lot about the frequent cancellation of SAT and ACT exams, sometimes with very little notice. Parents are driving all over the state to find alternative testing sites so their kids can take the exams in time for their college applications. It’s become quite a challenge as most sites are limiting how many kids they’ll take to ensure social distancing, while some private schools that had served as regional testing centers have gone so far as to only allow their own students to take the exams.
High school students hoping for Bright Futures scholarships, which pay up to 100% of tuition at state universities, also must take the SAT or ACT. The state has extended the deadline for submitting test scores from June 30 to Dec. 1 because of the deluge of test site closings.
Here’s what Broward schools told me when I asked about the constant cancellations at its testing centers:
“Broward County Public Schools understands the importance of providing opportunities for students to participate in SAT and ACT testing as part of our focus on college readiness. Schools suspended SAT and ACT national date (weekend) testing due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Starting in September, schools were approved to restart national date testing for SAT and ACT. When testing is offered, all testing sites will adhere to CDC health and safety guidelines for COVID-19 (College Board SAT COVID guidelines, ACT COVID guidelines). Parents and the community can check test center availability on the College Board/SAT website and ACT website.”
I went to the College Board website and it looks like the cancellations are continuing. Most Broward testing sites that were scheduled to offer the Oct. 3 exam are closed with a “makeup to be determined,” and it wasn’t clear which ones remain open.
What a mess.
High school seniors have already started applying to colleges. According to FairTest: The National Center for Fair and Open Testing, two-thirds of American colleges and universities are no longer requiring the SAT or ACT for admission; Florida’s state universities are not among them.
There are letter-writing and petition campaigns to try to get the Florida Board of Governors to waive this requirement. It definitely would be reasonable for the state to offer a dispensation this year, given the exceptional circumstances of this pandemic.
“Will Broward schoolchildren still have the choice of virtual learning?”— Minette Herman, Weston
Yes, at least through January. Broward students have the option of going back to school buildings on Oct. 14 and 20, depending on their grade. They can continue virtual learning if they feel safer at home.
School principals seem to be going out of their way to make sure virtual learning is just as meaningful as in-school learning. According to a Q&A sent last week to parents at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland: “Students in the classroom will see the teacher live and in person and students at home will see the teacher via (Microsoft) TEAMS. All students will see the same thing from the teacher.”
You can’t change your mind mid-semester, though. If you’re learning at home, you have to stick with that plan until January, and even then, the schools will only take you back “space permitting.”
“A request to switch can be submitted in January and each request will be examined on an individual basis and will be contingent upon available space,” according to the MSD document.
“I am concerned about vented masks being allowed anywhere a mask is required. Masks are required to prevent the spread of COVID-19. A vented mask does not prevent the spread. Many airlines do not allow the use of vented masks. I am particularly concerned about vented masks being allowed in schools because my wife is a computer science teacher at Cypress Bay High School and the allowance of vented masks increases her chance of getting sick, which of course could impact her for life and increase the chance of me getting sick.”— Stuart Slutsky, Weston
When Broward schools open in October, everyone has to wear a mask, even in classrooms and on buses. There are some restrictions on what kinds of masks are allowed, but the policy never specifically mentions vented masks, which have a disk that opens or closes when the wearer breathes in and out.
Broward’s policy allows any “commercially produced surgical masks or respirators.” Cloth face coverings are permitted, too.
The policy says masks have to fit snugly, with no holes or gaps, and cannot have offensive wording. Plastic face shields are also mostly forbidden; they are permitted to replace a traditional mask only with a medical exemption.
In Broward, families have to supply their kids with masks, which are not allowed to have wording that supports political parties or candidates or endorses discrimination, drugs or violence. Palm Beach County schools have similar policies and are providing up to five masks for each student, although students are allowed to bring their own; neck gaiters and “open chin triangle bandannas” are prohibited.
I haven’t seen much discussion in South Florida schools about vented masks, but studies are showing they’re not safe. Most recently, Florida Atlantic University research found vented masks allowed droplets from a cough or sneeze to break free into the air. The study reported the best protection came from cotton masks with at least two layers of fabric, N-95 masks and CVS surgical-grade face coverings.
Studies by the CDC and hospitals across the country have come to similar conclusions. Our local school districts should heed this latest health advice, because vented masks may protect the wearers, but they don’t protect the people around them, which is what officials tell us is one of the main reasons we need to cover our faces.
Why isn’t pediatric positivity rate used?
“As brick and mortar schools will be opening in the near future, why isn’t the COVID-19 pediatric positivity rate factored in, rather than just the general positivity rate?”— Alice Tobias, Cooper City
School district and health officials gave me the run-around on this question. I asked Broward schools, which referred me to the state Health Department, which referred me back to the school district, which never got back to me.
A decline in disease progression and general positivity rates, which have been below the targeted 5% threshold for several weeks. The number of new school employee cases has also declined.
Ability to manage the spread. Health department officials say they can handle new cases from the school district and can arrange testing within 48 hours and then begin contact tracing.
Health system capacity. Hospitalizations have been flat and hospital administrators said they are ready for schools to open in October.
A reliable supply of personal protective equipment and cleaning products. All are expected to arrive by Oct. 5.
Palm Beach County did not link school reopenings to the children’s positivity rate either. Reopening was connected to the county entering its Phase 2, which happened on Sept. 8. School buildings were supposed to open a week later, but were delayed to Sept. 21.
State figures for Thursday showed 16.4% of children under 18 tested positive in Broward, higher than the state average of 13.6%.
How will crossing guards be trained?
“I have been a crossing guard in Coral Springs for over 10 years. We are the first and last persons each day the students interact with. What rules do we follow? Wearing a mask for our own protection and blowing our whistles? Social distances at our assigned post? Elementary students often walk to schools themselves. We are the only ones who look after those who walk alone. The safety of our children is our primary responsibility. Just wanted to give you a heads up about the many who show up every day in all weather conditions.”— Gerald Gordon, Coral Springs
As we look at the details of the complicated return to school, few of us have thought about crossing guards, so I was so glad to hear from this contingent.
The Coral Springs Police Department, which supervises crossing guards for schools in the city, hires them through a staffing company. Officials at the company, Staffing Connection/Action Labor, say they will be in touch with the crossing guards before school starts in Broward next month, but here’s what they said about COVID-19 procedures, conveyed to me through Coral Springs Police Capt. George Soberon:
“Crossing guards are to have no physical contact with students. Crossing guards must keep a social distance and communicate the distance with the children as they approach the post. Crossing guards should explain the importance of social distancing to the students.
“Crossing guards are instructed to wear masks while conducting their crossing. We have given masks to our field supervisors to give to any guards who may need them. There is time (10-15 minutes typically) on all posts when no students are present and we have instructed our guards to pull their masks down if they need a break from the mask for breathing.”
Soberon told me the guards can take off their masks to blow their whistles and then put the masks back on.
It all sounds reasonable to me. Crossing guards are such an important link in the chain of school safety. I’m glad they’re getting detailed instructions on how to protect themselves and the kids they escort.
What’s Broward’s mask policy?
“Has the Broward School Board updated its mask policy? They had said kids didn’t have to wear them if they could maintain six-feet distance, but now I’m hearing they do have to wear them all the time except if they’re eating.”
It’s official: Students and teachers will have to wear masks during school hours, with just a few exceptions, according to a new policy the school board approved on Tuesday, Sept. 22.
The policy says: “Facial coverings must be worn at all times while on campus and school buses.”
This is an update to the August reopening plan, which said students had to wear masks “whenever 6′ of physical distancing cannot be observed.” The change is another example of how advice about preventing the spread of COVID-19 changes quickly, even over the span of just a few weeks.
The new policy details how to wear the mask, which “should cover both the nose and mouth of the person and should fit snugly against the sides of the person’s face with no gaps," and offers several exceptions, including infants, people who are outdoors and can maintain six-feet distance, people who are eating or performing in theater and certain employees who get their bosses' approval.
Each school will get about 500 masks for employees and 500 for students in need. Teachers and staff who work with special education students are being given transparent face coverings so their students can better understand their words.
Palm Beach County schools, which opened on Monday, have similar face covering rules. Masks have to be worn at all times, with some exceptions, and fit snugly, with no holes or gaps, or offensive wording.
“Is the Broward school district hiring licensed professionals to teach who don’t have full teacher certifications? So many teachers are not willing to go back to the classrooms.”— Jeffrey Levy, Fort Lauderdale
Local school districts are definitely hiring. Although it seems like teachers are quitting left and right, the districts say there isn’t a bigger shortage of educators than there usually is. Still, they are always searching for teachers, especially in critical shortage areas such as math, science and special education.
For years, there have been several non-traditional routes to becoming a Florida certified teacher. You can be licensed by another state or country, or decide to change careers after trying another profession. Either way, you have to send over your college transcripts and the state will do an extensive background check to make sure you’re not a criminal.
If approved, you can get a temporary certificate to teach that lasts for three years as you work toward your full certification. It looks like they are making some exceptions for COVID-19: The state website says all certificates that were set to expire June 30 have been automatically renewed to Dec. 31.
“We encourage candidates interested in teaching to apply,” a Broward schools spokeswoman told me. “Our Talent Acquisition and Operationsteam will review the application and respond with information. The candidate should review the Florida Department of Education’s website for specific requirements.”
You can also go to browardschools.com/teacher. Broward is going to host an information session for teacher candidates looking at alternative routes to the profession, “possibly as early as November,” according to the school district.
Are teachers transferring to Florida Virtual School?
“My son’s teacher announced today she is leaving Palm Beach County schools because she does not want to teach in-person and online at the same time. She is going to work for Florida Virtual School. How common has this become?”— Boca Raton mom
As South Florida’s school boards are learning, many teachers are uncomfortable returning to the classroom during the COVID-19 pandemic and are desperate to work from home. Teachers don’t seem to be leaving in droves, but I keep hearing anecdotes like this one, where teachers decide having to teach simultaneously to students in the classroom and students learning from home is the last straw.
Some have sought jobs at Florida Virtual School (FLVS), the statewide, tuition-free online education program. It’s been around since 1997 but has expanded greatly this year as families are rejecting traditional public schools during the pandemic. There’s also FLVS Flex, which allows part-time study.
FLVS has definitely been hiring. The online school now has 2,158 teachers across the state, up from 1,772 a year ago, and still has 124 open positions. Since July 1, the system has hired 305 instructors, who can teach pupils anywhere in Florida. I asked which counties their new teachers came from, but spokeswoman Tania Clow said the school doesn’t track that.
The kids keep coming, too.
“Since July 1, FLVS has seen a 52 percent increase (more than 147,000 new course enrollments) in FLVS Flex, and FLVS Full Time is serving approximately 64 percent (3,720) more students compared to last year,” Clow said.
If you’re a parent interested in online school or a teacher interested in making a switch, go to www.flvs.net.
“Are bus drivers still getting paid, even though schools are closed?” — B.Z., Miramar
They are. Bus drivers in both Palm Beach and Broward counties have been getting their regular wages. The school districts desperately need these drivers and didn’t want to risk any of them finding another job as schools are set to reopen soon. (Palm Beach County schools are opening Monday; Broward is looking at Oct. 5.)
Here’s what the Broward schools spokesperson told me when I asked about bus driver pay during the pandemic: “Since (Broward schools are) experiencing a shortage of bus operators, the district is ensuring the livelihood of its employees, while making all efforts to maintain the highest number of bus operators and attendants for when students return physically to school campuses."
The district said drivers, and attendants who assist children with special needs, are required by the Florida Department of Education to have a number of annual training hours. So they have been using these weeks before school buildings open to fulfill these training requirements.
The school district has been conducting additional training around bus sanitizing and COVID-19 “passenger management techniques," like telling kids to put on their masks and to not get closer to each other than they have to. The district has also found other work for them, such as delivering school supplies, laptops and sanitizing high-touch traffic areas in schools.
A shortage of bus drivers has become a perennial problem because of low pay and students who are often difficult to manage. In Palm Beach County, drivers earn a starting salary of $14.57 an hour and about $22,000 a year.
In Broward, the starting salary is $15.10 an hour in a 37.5-hour work week. Most earn about $28,000 a year. Benefits include medical care and a retirement plan. There are about 85 vacancies at the moment and 1,072 drivers.
Why is football favored over other sports?
“Palm Beach County schools' return-to-sports plan favors football. Doesn’t the school district realize there are other sports? Fall sports also include cross country, volleyball and golf. I know so much revolves around football, but there are many high school athletes that play other sports that are ready to play and deserve equal footing as we get back to normal.”— Palm Beach County sports parent
Sept. 21 will be a big day for student athletes in both Broward and Palm Beach counties. Both will be allowed to start conditioning for their seasons after six months of inactivity due to COVID-19.
Under a plan proposed to the Palm Beach County School Board last week, Palm Beach County teams could begin outdoor conditioning on Monday, the beginning of a gradual transition into indoor weight rooms, non-contact practices, contact practices, and then competitions and games with other schools. The plan has not yet been officially adopted.
There are more pages in the 51-page Palm Beach sports restart plan devoted to football, which would open its season on Oct. 30, than other sports, but the report also details plans for cross country and golf, which would start up on Oct. 5; swimming/diving and bowling, which would begin Oct. 13; and girls’ volleyball, which would restart on Oct. 26.
There’s no doubt that many schools see football as a crowd-pleaser and source of money. My colleague Adam Lichtenstein reports Palm Beach schools are expecting to lose $650,000 due to the decrease of football gate revenue from a shorter season this year. But I wouldn’t say the other sports are being ignored or dismissed because they are not as popular.
What are the options for school nurses?
“I am a senior school nurse employed with the Health Care District of Palm Beach County for 9 years, going on age 62, with concerns for my safety and was only offered to voluntarily resign if concerns for safety an issue. No benefits offered. Not even health insurance. I have been employed as a school nurse 19 years all total including time in North Carolina. All that I am prepared for skill-wise now is school nursing. I wasn’t ready to retire financially. Shouldn’t we be given options during this pandemic in a state which has been leading the number of cases of COVID-19?"— Donna Markham, Palm Beach County school nurse
Although Broward schools employ their nurses directly, Palm Beach County schools get their nurses through the Health Care District of Palm Beach County, which has been supplying nurses since 1997. The nurses got laid off during the pandemic but are now back at work, even though school buildings will not reopen until Sept. 21.
School nursing in the coming year will be all about COVID-19, according to the Health Care District, and nurses will need to buy in to this philosophy.
“For the 2020-21 school year, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the traditional use of the school clinics will be modified in order to focus on students with suspected COVID-19 symptoms,” district spokeswoman Robin Kish told me. “All students with respiratory, gastrointestinal or general symptoms of feeling sick will be evaluated by the school nurse in the health room. School nurses wearing full personal protective equipment will perform a screening and determine if a student with these symptoms needs testing and if so, help schedule COVID-19 tests in the community in a timely fashion. It is expected that school nurses will perform testing once test kits are available.”
Kish said the nurses' expanded role has been made clear to them.
“Since July of this year, the Health Care District of Palm Beach County has been openly communicating with the school nurses about the inevitable expansion of the role of the school nurse when students return to classroom learning in Palm Beach County’s public schools. Those discussions included potential new duties related to COVID-19, such as testing, and possible exposure to COVID-positive students or staff on a daily basis. The Health Care District continues to work individually with the school nurses on their new role, concerns, and future duties. We welcome our school nurses and school health staff to share any questions they have with their supervisors and/or human resources so we can respond to their individual concerns and clarify any misinformation in a supportive and confidential manner.”
So nurses know what they’re getting into, and now they have to decide if they’re up for it. Similar to most other professions, if you leave before retirement age, the harsh reality is that’s the end of your benefits, no matter how much time you’ve put in.
“A few of my colleagues have retired early to avoid having to teach in person during the pandemic. I’m hearing about lots of teachers quitting or retiring early. Just want to know how widespread this is and how it will affect the number of teachers we have.”— R.S., Palm Beach County teacher
I have seen rumors on social media that massive waves of teachers are quitting, but I couldn’t find any proof of this when I got the statistics from the school districts. In Broward County, there were 89 instructional vacancies as of Sept. 4 (out of 15,000 teachers), compared with 138 in September 2019. In Palm Beach County, there are 133 vacancies (out of 13,000 teachers); a year ago, there were 159.
Palm Beach County has granted 77 requests this year for Family Medical Leave (unpaid, but job is protected), out of 82 applications, compared with 105 granted out of 116 requests last year.
In Broward, 584 teachers applied for family leave last year; 490 were approved and 94 were denied. For the current year, 90 teaches applied; 84 were approved and six have been denied.
So although there may be anecdotes about teachers quitting, retiring or taking a leave of absence, there definitely isn’t a mass exodus at the moment. These numbers could fluctuate in the near future, though, as school buildings reopen and teachers will have to decide if they want to take the plunge into in-person instruction during the pandemic.
How will schools maintain social distance?
“Will the school district guarantee 6 feet social distance in my class limiting the number of students or will my classes swell when parents want their kids in school? I’m very anxious being 64 and 9 months. My wife is 76 and has other health issues too. I don’t want to bring it home to her. Six foot distancing is an issue because if we are not holding to that standard then we have no safe standard.” — Jerry O’Donnell, science teacher, Eagles Landing Middle School, West Boca
Unfortunately schools are making no promises regarding that 6 feet of social distancing recommendation from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Palm Beach County’s COVID-19 Guiding Document states, “Student desks will be spaced 6 feet apart, when possible[my emphasis], and extraneous furniture will be removed in order to ensure proper social distancing practices.”
They’re leaving it up to principals to supervise desk layouts and monitor them as student counts change throughout the year and “adjustments are required.” That could mean more desks added in because families decide to send their kids back as the virus (hopefully) dissipates. This would be good if there is less virus in the community but bad if desks are starting to move closer and closer together.
Broward’s school reopening document couches the distancing rule the same way: “A six foot (6′) distance between all persons on campus is expected at all times when feasible.”
To accommodate 6-foot distancing, Broward figured out most classrooms could have only 14 students. This would mean 4,614 more teachers would have to be hired, and that would cost $359 million, which is obviously not going to happen.
But if only half of kids come back when schools reopen, Broward calculated that the 6-foot measure in classrooms might be possible. Broward will also let students and teachers take their masks off when 6-foot distancing is assured.
How will masks be enforced?
“What will happen to students who don’t wear their masks when schools reopen?”— L.A., Boca Raton
Although the reopening of schools is looking somewhat chaotic at the moment, there’s one rule that Broward and Palm Beach County school officials say is going to be enforced: Everyone has to wear a mask, and only certain masks are allowed.
There will be discipline for the mask-less, although not too severe.
“Students who ignore facial covering guidelines will be educated on the importance of mask usage,” according to the Palm Beach County school district’s posted policy. The district is appointing a “COVID Point Person” on each campus to make sure each student is wearing a face covering and adhering to other rules intended to avoid coronavirus spread.
In Broward, students will be “reminded” to put their masks on and their parents will get a call.
Further punishment, based on the Student Code of Conduct, is allowed if a student “blatantly disregards the health and safety of others and/or refuses to comply with wearing a face covering.”
When the kids are allowed back in Broward, families will have to supply their children with masks, which are not allowed to have wording that supports political parties or candidates or endorses discrimination, drugs or violence. Students won’t have to wear masks if they are sitting 6 feet apart from their fellow students, but they will have to wear them whenever they are in transit.
Palm Beach will provide disposable masks to students who forget theirs, although students are allowed to bring their own; neck gaiters and “open chin triangle bandannas” will not be allowed.
Kids will have to wear them in their classrooms and on the bus, but not if they are eating (sitting six feet apart, of course), exercising, acting in a play or visiting the school nurse. The masks will have to fit snugly, with no holes or gaps, and cannot have offensive wording. And no plastic face shields; they will be permitted to replace a traditional mask only with a medical exemption.
“Are schools saving money by being closed?” — A.S., Hollywood
I’ve seen a lot on social media about how taxpayers should have their school taxes reduced because schools are not open. But the pandemic is actually costing South Florida’s school districts lots of money.
In Broward, pandemic costs are more than $5 million, according to Judith Marte, the district’s chief financial officer. This includes buying masks and other protective equipment for employees, extra cleaning materials and related labor costs, software to support distance learning, new internet costs and new school signage related to social distancing and other mandates.
Besides the increased costs, there’s a loss of money coming in, she said. “The revenue losses exceed $10 million and continue to grow,” Marte said.
Palm Beach County schools broke down their pandemic costs differently for me. They’re spending $12 million for technology for coronavirus-related health and sanitation, including:
$1.6 million for more than 2 million masks and face shields for students and employees and $110,00 for gloves.
$70,000 for 1,500 no-touch thermometers.
$131,000 for 1,000 plexiglass partitions and $857,000 for 13,000 teacher desk shields.
$45,000 for signs.
$171,000 for soap, $145,000 for paper towels and $2 million for wipes.
$112,000 for 36 electrostatic sprayers and $40,000 for 272 sprayer disinfectants.
$355,000 for air filters.
$1 million for “enhanced cleaning.”
$5 million for personal protective equipment for special education students, athletes, students who are learning English and their teachers.
Then there are the technology costs. Palm Beach spent $25 million for 82,000 laptops and $2.1 million for expanded internet access for students learning at home. In addition, it cost an extra $8.8 million to train educators in the distance learning technology they are currently using to teach students.
Palm Beach says these pandemic costs will total about $50 million.
Each district is calculating its expenses differently, but as we can see, coronavirus is bruising school budgets. With the state reporting a 20%-a-month financial hit from a loss of sales taxes, which provide half of many school districts’ budgets, further woes are surely ahead.
Leave of absence
“A large (not sure exact number) of teachers are taking a “leave of absence” this school year. Do you know how many?”— E.T., Broward teacher
South Florida’s school districts have not reopened their buildings yet, so we don’t know how many teachers will refuse to return for face-to-face lessons. But the Florida Education Association surveyed teachers over the summer and got a preliminary response to how teachers feel about going back. It’s not looking good.
About 77% of teachers said they don’t think their schools can reopen with adequate precautions. Less than 10% said they would choose to go back to full-time, in-person teaching, while 76% preferred to teach remotely or a combination of remote and in-person.
These numbers don’t mean the teachers won’t go back, just that it’s not their first choice. But in another jarring response, almost 40% told the union they are “more likely to retire or leave education earlier than planned.”
Only 15% of teachers who have kids were comfortable sending their own children back. The survey got 44,000 responses; there are about 180,000 public school teachers in the state.
The results show it’s “clear that parents and educators alike have grave concerns regarding Florida’s rush to reopen school campuses,” according to the union.
The survey was taken in July, and it’s possible some teachers have since been reassured by proposed protections, such as distanced desks and mandatory masks. But judging by teachers’ furious response to the lack of options for the return to classrooms in Palm Beach County, it’s clear many remain unconvinced.
About private child-care facilities
“Although it has been deemed too high of a risk by the Broward County School Board for schools to resume in person at this time, why is it OK for fee-based child care facilities throughout the county to provide their regular services? In fact, it was expressly written that the school district doesn’t endorse these child care facilities; however, they put out a list of all these facilities for families needing child care. It seems to me that the School Board is condoning the use of these child care facilities when they aren’t even willing to physically reopen their own schools at reduced capacity.”— Cori Schwartzberg, Parkland
It is a bit of a contradiction. Broward schools remain closed because the risk of coronavirus spread persists, but the school district offered parents a list of open child care centers, even though the virus could spread through these sites just as well. The list includes 22 locations throughout the county as well as 12 Boys and Girls Clubs.
At School Board meetings over the summer, board members were trying to figure out ways to help parents, and their own employees, who were going to have to return to work but had kids whose schools were going to be closed. The child care centers are privately run and can make their own rules about masks and social distancing.
The district is making clear it doesn’t control these centers and is just trying to assist desperate families.
“Broward County Public Schools understands the difficulties our community is facing as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic,” the district told me. “Though the District is not affiliated with and does not endorse any of the independent child care facilities included in the list, the resource was created to provide assistance to the many families who were seeking guidance locating child care. Our goal is to help support our families through these trying times.”
Many employees can’t work from home and need to go to their work sites each day knowing their kids are in a relatively safe place. A list like this is useful to them, even though it’s awkward for the school district to put it out.
How will reopening be decided?
“Broward Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie recently announced that he wants to open schools as soon as possible. My fear is that the schools will be opened too soon and they won’t stick to the original guidelines with the COVID-19 positivity rates. I know that Broward has lost thousands of students and many of these students may come back when school campuses reopen. I am sure that district officials want the students back before the official student count in October. It’s possible that they could lose millions in funding if the students don’t return. How can we be reassured that the decision to return to school will be based on the safety of our children and teachers and not based on money?” — Irene Myers, Davie
Broward schools are indeed losing students. Enrollment in Broward’s district-run schools is down to about 215,000. That’s a decline of about 7,600 students, or 3.5%, from last year. Most of the students — about 5,100 — are in elementary schools, representing a 5.5% drop.
The state gives each school district money for each student, so every student Broward loses means less money for teachers and programs. Many in the school district hope the families who declined to enroll will come back once buildings reopen, although there’s no date for that yet.
When Runcie talks publicly about reopening schools, he emphasizes safety and not the millions in funding the district could lose. In a video he released on Aug. 25, he listed five criteria for reopening, and all revolved around diminishing levels of coronavirus in the community, including the county entering Phase 2, reduced transmission rates and the health system’s capacity to manage cases.
“I consult with public health officials almost daily to look at every opportunity to open safely,” he said. He predicted school buildings would open “sometime this fall.”
So if buildings open and parents feel it’s still unsafe, their kids can continue their education online. For teachers, it’s more complicated, and the issues related to their return are still being negotiated.
“My daughter’s sixth-grade reading teacher has been out for the past two days. When she logs in to that class period, the screen shows a note that states the teacher is out sick. Shouldn’t there be a substitute when a teacher is out sick?”— Jackie Brown, Coconut Creek
I was taken aback when I got this note. A teacher is out sick in the first days of school and there’s no substitute, or at least some type of instructions on what to do?
It’s actually the latest variation of an old problem. There’s been an insufficient number of subs for many years. In 2018, my colleague Scott Travis reported that the improving economy had aggravated the sub shortage, to the point nearly one in five Broward classes with an absent teacher had nobody to take over the class.
The salary is not much of an incentive to sign up. Broward pays $11.27 an hour, regardless of whether the subs have an associate degree or a bachelor’s. In Palm Beach County, subs get $13.39 an hour if they have bachelor’s degrees and $11.59 for associate degrees. Miami-Dade County pays about $12 an hour.
If they want to delve into online teaching, subs are going to have to be trained in the computer skills teachers have honed over the summer. In the meantime, the school district suggests parents contact their principals when a blank screen arises.
“The school should have substitute coverage for any teacher that is absent,” the district’s communications office told me.
Are schools equipped with MERV-13 filters?
“I’ve been reading a lot about how schools need to improve their air filtration systems for when kids come back into the classroom. MERV-13 is supposed to be the rating the filters should have. Are our schools updating their filters before kids return?”— G.B., Fort Lauderdale
To remove coronavirus from the air, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends MERV-13 filters in schools, restaurants, office buildings and many indoor spaces. The MERV rating system measures a filter’s power to capture particles in the air; the higher the rating, the smaller the particles, including bacteria and viruses, the filter is able to capture. MERV-8 is widely used in many buildings now but is not powerful enough to extract coronavirus from indoor air.
There’s been a frantic run on these filters now that we know that the virus travels as we talk, sing or sneeze. There are reports of shortages throughout the country.
Still, our local school districts have managed to find some and are installing them in schools where the filters fit.
“At Broward County Public Schools, all air conditioning units utilize MERV-rated filters; however, the size of the unit determines the thickness of the filter,” the school district told me. “While most of the District’s air conditioning units are the larger units and are equipped with MERV-13 filters, some of our systems cannot accommodate that size of filter. The smaller units are equipped with a lower MERV efficiency rating filter, such as a minimum of MERV-8 or 9.”
Palm Beach is also adding in MERV-13 filters if they fit. “Where not, the filters will be cleaned frequently,” a spokeswoman told me.
Several parents have asked in previous columns if Florida VPK, the free pre-kindergarten program, is going virtual in the coming year. The answer is: Yes! You can still send your little one for in-person pre-school, but online VPK is now an option.
Renee Jaffe, chief executive officer of the Early Learning Coalition of Broward County, said the vouchers for online learning are designed for families who want their children to have a pre-K experience but are leery of sending them to a child care center.
“In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, we understand that deciding whether or not to send young children into a classroom is not an easy decision for parents,” Jaffe said. “While the virtual VPK option is not a replacement to in-person instruction, this flexible option allows children to continue learning, which is critical to their social and emotional development.”
The vouchers are good through December. Parents should contact the provider they want to work with to see if they are offering a virtual choice. If you have questions, contact the ELC at 954-377-2188 or go to www.elcbroward.org
Why was SAT/ACT testing canceled?
“Why did Broward schools cancel SAT/ACT testing in August? If school buildings are open, why did the county not take the steps to set up leases and work within CDC guidelines to make their schools accessible for Saturday testing? And if they decided not to host testing, why wait so long to notify students of the cancellations?”— Cori Schwartzberg, Parkland
We all know how stressed out future college students get before taking the SAT and ACT, so a sudden cancellation is definitely jarring. Broward test takers found out about two weeks before the Aug. 29 exams that they had been canceled at Broward sites.
Here’s what the school district’s Office of Communications said about the sudden postponement:
“The COVID-19 pandemic conditions did not permit the District to approve any schools as testing sites for either the SAT or ACT between March and August of this year. BCPS staff is now working with school administrations to have school sites be leased as hosting sites for the SAT and ACT test administrations beginning in September. When testing is offered, all testing sites will adhere to CDC health and safety guidelines for COVID-19. We will keep students and families informed about SAT and ACT testing registration deadlines and test dates as information becomes available.”
The district said it doesn’t know how many kids were affected because that’s monitored by the College Board, which offers the exams. But I saw an email that said 219 students were set to take the tests this month at Monarch High School in Coconut Creek. According to the College Board, there are 15 testing sites offered by the Broward district, so if each school had as many as Monarch, that would mean a few thousand kids were affected by this cancellation.
So all this means students are going to have to wait until September to take their college entrance exams, or else travel to another part of the state where testing centers are open.
“If students don’t even bother signing on, is this an automatic fail?”— Pam O., Coral Springs
Students are expected to log in for school each day, although the penalties for not signing on are not clearly spelled out.
According to Phillip Shaver, Broward’s attendance coordinator: “Regular attendance is expected. A student who does not attend class will be recorded as absent. Chronic absenteeism is a leading indicator that can predict academic deficiencies.”
Shaver said teachers will be paying close attention to attendance each day, noting that virtual absenteeism could be connected to problems in the home.
“In many cases, chronic absenteeism in the virtual setting may be associated with underlying causes in the student’s life, such as a change in family setting or composition, illness of student or family member, food insecurity, trauma or grief, or access to consistent internet service.”
The Broward e-learning attendance policy doesn’t list any punishments, so if the district sticks with its previous rules, students in middle or high school could potentially not get credit for classes they chronically missed. They also could get their driver’s license suspended (that’s a state law) or have their parents called in to court.
Palm Beach County has similar rules. “Habitual truants” who miss school 15 times in 90 days could have their licenses suspended, although they can’t be suspended from school.
“Are teachers allowed to work from home? Or do they have to go into their classrooms at school each day?”
Now that virtual school has begun in Broward, you may notice a random cat or child walking by your child’s teacher’s desk, or hear a handyman ringing her doorbell. That’s because teachers in Broward are allowed to work from home.
Palm Beach County teachers also will be allowed to lead their classes from their homes, although school doesn’t start until Aug. 31.
Each school district gave teachers the choice, with the approval of each teacher’s principal. Some may prefer to go on campus to avoid the many distractions of their houses, while others may want to stay home to avoid exposure to the pandemic.
It’s not clear yet what the majority have selected, according to Anna Fusco, Broward teachers’ union president.
“It’s a big mixture. A lot depends on whether their class was in working order,” Fusco said. “They’re happy they got the choice.”
“I teach at a two-year college and have occasionally used the resources of the “Orange Grove,” an online electronic repository of free educational materials for K-12 and college students (https://www.floridashines.org/orange-grove). For my college students it provides a no-cost way to access credible supplementary course material. I can only imagine how valuable these resources are for home-schoolers.
Suddenly a notice has appeared that due to budget cuts, the repository will no longer be available as of Aug. 30 — now of all times, when so many people need to use it! I am wondering, why this, and why now?”— Gail Dillard, Wilton Manors
The Orange Grove, a collection of educational resources that allows Florida K-12 and higher education instructors and students to share lessons, videos, textbooks and curriculum, is indeed about to shut down. A spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Education told me: “This is part of budget vetoes announced on June 29, 2020.”
The budget included funding reductions for the state’s colleges and universities totaling $11.9 million. So it looks like the Orange Grove is among the victims. A note at the top of the Orange Grove home page suggests that instructors who have uploaded lessons to the site should migrate them to another site before Aug. 30.
“When school starts face-to-face, do we still have to send our kids to school? Because right now I’m scared to send my kids back.”— Juanita Fuller, West Park
Your kids will be able to keep learning from home when South Florida’s schools reopen in Phase 2.
Broward and Palm Beach County schools are giving families the option to continue virtual learning when school buildings reopen. It’s not clear yet how that will work. Will teachers be teaching an in-person class for some students at the same time they are teaching students who are learning at home on their computers? Details still have to be worked out.
But your kids won’t be required to return to their classrooms. Just make sure if you withdraw them from the school district to home school them, you let your school principal know. Otherwise, your kids will be considered truant. Truancy can be a second-degree misdemeanor for the parents, with up to two months of jail time.
What does parents survey reveal?
“A few weeks ago, parents were invited to participate in a survey from Broward County Public Schools to get their view on whether or not the schools should re-open or be conducted online. Have the results of that survey been made public? I’d like to know what the majority of parents had to say.” — Alfredo Colon, Coral Springs
The survey results showed a deep split among Broward parents. About a third (32%) wanted to continue virtual learning, and close to another third (31%) wanted a full return to traditional brick-and-mortar education in school buildings. The last third (35%) wanted a hybrid, or combination of the two.
In Palm Beach County, the survey questions were worded differently. The main question was: “If schools can reopen according to state guidance, how likely would you be to send your child(ren) to school based on the following options?” Parents were able to choose more than one category, thus 54% supported a full reopening, 54% said they would return with hybrid learning and 51% favored learning at a distance.
Although the results offer a snapshot of families’ feelings about the reopening of school, they weren’t a big consideration as South Florida’s school districts decided not to reopen this month. The districts went with the advice of health authorities, who said the COVID-19 rate of spread is still too high. Broward schools will reopen virtually on Aug. 19, while Palm Beach schools will restart on Aug. 31.
“Do the learning pods violate mayor- or county-designated social distancing guidelines? Doesn’t hiring a teacher contradict the teachers’ union stance on safety for staff? If people can ‘pod’ why can’t kids attend school?”— John Fusaro, Sunrise
Learning pods are small groups of children led by a teacher or parent, usually in one of the student’s homes. Many families, anxious to have their children learn in the company of their peers, have been frantically putting these groups together as virtual school begins next week in Broward and on Aug. 31 in Palm Beach and Miami-Dade.
In a story I wrote about these pods last week, I found the families creating them were super-conscious about the pandemic and wanted everyone participating to follow strict rules, including parents working from home and minimal contact with strangers. Guidelines in Broward and Palm Beach say there should be no more than 10 people gathering for social events; usually there are only three or four kids in each pod plus their teacher.
The teachers the families are hiring to supervise online learning are not working for South Florida’s school systems. They are retired teachers or private tutors or college students.
These pods are small-scale projects in homes and offices. Reopening schools during this pandemic is a massive undertaking with hundreds or thousands of students at each school who could be bringing COVID-19 on to campus and transmitting it to their classmates and teachers.
How will children on autism spectrum be taught?
“Our granddaughter is 5 years old and will start kindergarten this month. She is on the (autism) spectrum and has been in therapy since she was 2. It is noted by her neurologist that focus and comprehension will be difficult for her in her schooling. Our son and daughter-in-law have had little communication with the schools and input regarding how a virtual program will work for a child with autism. We are hopeful the system will step up to today’s challenges and children with special needs do not get left behind.
“I would be most appreciative if you can forward any information regarding what is available through the school system, how you go about requesting these services for children with autism, how the special services are implemented and who to contact directly if her needs are not being met. Due to COVID, the school has not met with our son/daughter to review anything. A meeting was supposed to take place in July.”— Wendy Pare, Boca Raton
Of all times for your granddaughter to start school, right? According to the Palm Beach County school district, the school should be inviting your granddaughter’s parents to a video conference shortly.
A school district spokeswoman said: “Each student/family will have two meetings prior to the start of school, one to review the IEP (individual education plan) and one to review the plan to provide the instruction in the distance model.”
Your granddaughter should be getting live instruction every day as well as counseling and other supports she needs to transition to school. Your contact is Kelly Fisher, special education coordinator for the south region, 561-731-2879, or firstname.lastname@example.org. The school principal also should be able to help.
Since school starts Aug. 31, you should be hearing from the special education staff any day now.
How will kindergartners learn to read and write?
“How will teachers tackle e-learning with kindergarten students who are starting to learn to read and are not yet writing on their own? Will working parents have to be over their shoulder all the time? Will they break out in smaller reading groups with reading coaches?” — M. Primmer, Wilton Manors
School buildings are closed for the foreseeable future and kids are going to have to learn at home. It’s hard to imagine kindergartners sitting still for hours in front of the computer as they do their lessons with their classmates. South Florida’s school districts say they are hyper-aware of challenges such as these and are coming up with detailed plans for how to teach these little readers-to-be.
According to Nicole Mancini, Broward’s director of elementary learning: “Teachers will use live instruction for whole group (e.g. interactive read-aloud, poetry, shared reading) and small group activities. During live instruction, the teacher will use virtual letter tiles and other tools to assist students with early literacy skills. While the teacher is teaching in a small group, students will be assigned appropriate independent activities to learn and practice early literacy skills, including online books, recorded stories, virtual letter tiles and others. Teachers also have the ability to record directions for students in assigned activities through our learning management system. Reading coaches will support teachers at their school as needed. Families are encouraged to support their child in engaging with the technology and independent work.”
So it will be a combination of lessons with their whole class, small-group breakout activities, recorded tutorials and independent assignments. Hopefully this variety will keep our 5- and 6-year-olds intrigued and eager to log in each morning to see their teacher and learn the basics they need until buildings reopen.
How are charter schools regulated?
“My question for you is regarding charter schools in our area. I understand that they work off a different governing board than the public school system. But why should they be allowed to reopen when the superintendents of all counties have said it is not safe at this time? I am a teacher with an 8 year old and basically if I want my job, my daughter and I have to go back Aug. 19. Who is regulating these charters at a time like this?!”— R.B., Coral Springs
When the state ordered schools to reopen this month, the order also applied to charter schools, which are public schools run by private boards. But the state gave the schools leeway depending on how much COVID-19 was spreading. Public schools in South Florida chose not to reopen their buildings for now, and many charters are keeping theirs closed, too.
When they want to reopen, charters are going to have to get their plans approved by the state just as traditional public schools will. In the meantime, many are offering online-only, including Pembroke Pines’ and Coral Springs’ city-run charter schools, Franklin Academy schools and charter schools operated by the management company Academica, including Somerset and Ben Gamla. The nine BridgePrep charter schools in South Florida are also starting virtually.
I’m not sure which school R.B. works at. But charter schools have the freedom to make their own decisions; that’s been the appeal to many families who want an option outside traditional public schools. So it’s not surprising that some are reopening. I just hope they are taking extensive precautions to keep R.B. and students safe.
“Will VPK start the school year virtually?”— Lourdes Canizares, Miami
Parents of pre-kindergartners are eagerly awaiting this answer. VPK is the state program that pays for pre-school for little ones the year before they enter kindergarten. Teaching them online will be a tough proposition.
“No decision had been made on allowing virtual VPK, but that may change soon,” said Evelio Torres, president and chief executive officer of the Early Learning Coalition of Miami-Dade/Monroe. “Providers have been preparing to provide traditional, virtual or hybrid early learning education, but no changes have been made to the way VPK is delivered. Many programs remain closed across the state, but most plan to open with the start of the new school year.
“Many early learning programs continued to provide educational support over the last few months, even if children were at home. This was critical to avoid the loss of learning gains which is a big concern for parents and educators.”
He said there should be an update soon on how pre-schoolers will attend VPK in the coming year.
What if a teacher has a vulnerable family member?
“I live in Broward County, but work as a full time teacher in Miami-Dade County (the epicenter of COVID-19 cases). Much has been said about teachers with pre-existing conditions and if they will be able to teach from home, but what about teachers living with vulnerable family members?
It seems that during Phase 1, teachers will be able to stay home and teach remotely, but when we move to Phase 2, will there be a way for teachers with vulnerable family members to stay home and teach remotely to protect the vulnerable family members from exposure to the virus?”
Many teachers have been expressing concern about immune-compromised family members and how they will be affected if teachers they live with return to the classroom. All of South Florida’s teachers will teach from home during Phase 1, which we are currently in, but are likely to return to school buildings during Phase 2, when COVID-19 cases are down and more institutions begin their reopening. There’s no date on that yet.
I asked Miami-Dade schools about teachers’ vulnerable family members and here’s what they said:
“The Americans with Disabilities Act Office (ADA) provides support for employees with underlying medical conditions at a higher risk for exposure to COVID-19.
The Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) provides paid sick leave and expanded family and medical leave for specified reasons related to COVID-19. In addition, under specific circumstances it provides for paid leave for reasons arising from child care or school closures.
School site administrators are currently working on teacher placements based on a variety of contributing factors, including but not limited to the following: parent/student choice, course selection, teacher certification.”
They didn’t answer the question directly, but it sounds like they are encouraging administrators to be flexible depending on each teacher’s personal situation.
“My daughter is a speech pathologist working in Broward schools. She works with a lot of low- functioning children with autism. I know there have been no decisions made yet so this question may be premature.
They are talking about ESE (students with disabilities ) and ELL (English language learners) working with teachers in person. Do you know if this is true? I’m not sure how they could ask only some teachers to work directly with students.
In her typical school day she may get licked or spit on. Will she have the option to work from home?” — I.M.
The question of how to meet the needs of students who are disabled or learning English during this pandemic is still being debated by South Florida’s school boards. They know these children are in urgent need of schooling but also want them and their teachers to be in a safe environment. Here’s what Broward schools told me:
“The district continues to develop plans for the upcoming school year to best meet the needs of students and address concerns from parents, guardians and teachers. A final determination on what, if any, in-person instruction will be offered for specific student populations, such as students with special needs, has not yet been made.
“District staff is currently gathering information from teachers and parents of students in self-contained Exceptional Student Education classrooms and cluster schools regarding their preferences for in-person instruction due to the specialized educational needs of these students.”
Superintendent Robert Runcie announced on Tuesday he is considering a pilot program for special-needs students if teachers and students are willing to return to school buildings. In the meantime, these groups will start with virtual learning, like everyone else will, but it looks like everything is in flux at the moment as we await a detailed announcement on how they’re going to bring these kids back.
Will teacher pay change?
“If schools do not open for students to attend in person, will teachers be paid their full salaries?” — E.B., Sunrise
There’s been a lot of online chatter about teachers not having to work as hard if they are teaching online. I’m sure most teachers will refute this. In either case, they will get their full salaries from South Florida’s school districts.
Here’s what Alan Strauss, the Broward school district’s chief human resources officer said: “A teacher’s pay is not affected by the modality of instruction. Whether the teacher provides instruction in person or through e-learning, the individual will be paid his or her salary.”
Teachers’ salaries are always a point of contention. Their pay rate recently caught the attention of Gov. Ron DeSantis, who announced in June that new teachers will make a minimum salary of $47,500, up from about $41,000 in Broward and Palm Beach counties and $46,125 in Miami-Dade.
“What special training can we expect that the teachers will have received in order to teach virtually now? The March-June virtual teaching was totally ineffective and probably did more harm than good because now the middle and high school students are miserable as they anticipate the upcoming school year.”— Trudy Bell, Fort Lauderdale
“I am a grandma to two grandchildren who attend public schools in Broward. When COVID-19 started in March and our kids went to distance learning, I saw that the actual teachers weren’t spending very much time teaching my granddaughters. My eighth grader was given what amounted to busy work and my fourth grader went to teaching websites and spent about two hours a day on school. This fall, will actual teachers be in front of the camera teaching our kids?” — Joan Calder, Plantation
It’s definitely the consensus that families were disappointed with the virtual learning offered by South Florida’s school districts when schools had to close abruptly in March. The districts are promising an improved online experience when e-learning, as they call it, resumes next month.
They say there will be daily live instruction offered by teachers, who will undergo extensive training in the coming weeks.
Here’s what Broward County schools said when I showed them your questions.
“Among the District’s priorities with e-learning in the fall is providing daily teacher-led live instruction to students. Teachers will interact with their classes over five hours each day through video chat, discussion boards and text.
“Each day, students will be following the same daily schedule of activities and courses they would be under non-COVID-19 conditions. At the elementary level, there will also be more flexibility offered to working parents and their students, with optional evening classes to accommodate their schedule. For middle and high schools, additional live instructional support or ‘office hours’ will be available for students who need it.”
So we can look forward to live interaction through the computer screen, electives including physical education and music, teachers better trained in the technology and intensive monitoring of students’ participation and progress. Now we have to see if the time spent planning over the summer results in the high quality schooling parents are being promised.
What about 2021?
“When will school start in 2021?”— Jennifer Wyman, Boca Raton
Although it’s a year away, this question is on a lot of parents’ minds, especially in Palm Beach County, where the school year has been pushed forward three weeks. The last day of school for the upcoming year is now June 18, reducing the length of next summer’s vacation.
The short answer is we don’t have a start date yet for 2021, in Palm Beach or Broward.
Palm Beach County schools had originally announced Aug. 10 as the 2021 start date, but decided to take another look at the calendar after parents pushed back against such an early opening. The board had approved that same date for this year, but they changed it to Aug. 31 last week to give kids more of a chance for in-person learning at the end of the year, hopefully post-pandemic.
Palm Beach County School Board member Karen Brill asked her fellow board members on Wednesday to approve a new policy that would make the third Monday in August the earliest date school could start. But the board decided to delay that discussion, saying there are more pressing issues at the moment.
”Let’s wait ‘til we’re through this crisis,” board member Erica Whitfield said. “There’s too many other things going on to have this discussion.”
On Wednesday, Miami-Dade moved its start date this year from Aug. 24 to Aug. 31. Broward’s first day of school is Aug. 19.
Here’s an early homework assignment for your kids: Have them write to me to express their thoughts about not being able to return to school. Will they miss their friends? Are they sad about not being able to take the bus, eat in the cafeteria or play on the school playground? Middle and high school students, will you miss playing in the band or competing in sports?
We want to publish the essays and take your kids’ pictures. Deadline is Aug. 7. Now get those kids writing!
What happens if I withdraw my kids?
“Can parents take their children out of school altogether until this nightmare is over? Online “learning” is not an option for us and the Palm Beach County School plan of distance learning is our only option. What happens if they just don’t participate? Will I lose my spot with choice? I would rather him only participate in school when he can do it in person.”
If you do plan to home school, make sure to let your school district know.
You will lose your spot in your choice school. A Palm Beach County school district policy warns:
“If assigned through the Choice lottery and you withdraw from the assigned Choice school, you will forfeit your seat.”
It’s the same in Broward schools. The school choice policy states: “A student who withdraws from a Magnet school/program must reapply for admission according to the provision of this Policy... Any request for temporary leave from a Magnet school/program must be approved by the principal of the school and the Director of Demographics & Student Assignments before the student is withdrawn.”
So give it a lot of thought before you pull out of these competitive programs, because you can be sure someone else will want your spot.
Virtual schooling is going to prove challenging for many families. If their kids are in elementary school, or have trouble sitting still at the computer, or need one-on-one-learning assistance, they are preparing for a labor-intensive and potentially stressful few weeks or months.
Some parents are teaming up with friends to share schooling responsibilities. They are alternating days of the week when they are in charge of a few children or asking a neighbor who is at home to monitor their kids’ online schooling when they go to work.
If you’re one of these families, tell us all about it. We may feature you in an upcoming story on these learning pods. Write to me at email@example.com. I can’t wait to hear about your creative approaches to the new kind of schooling in South Florida.
Will camps be available?
“Now that school is postponed in Palm Beach County until Aug. 31, are any camps extending their programs?”
Although Broward schools are going to start virtually on their previously announced date, Aug. 19, the opening of Palm Beach County schools has been delayed for three weeks until Aug. 31. The Palm Beach school district made this decision last week, hoping the later virtual start allows more time on the other end, in June, for in-class instruction post-pandemic.
So that means three more weeks of looking for something for our kids to do. I did some research and discovered several small camps that are remaining open into August. They all sound really fun: Horseback riding, martial arts, surfing and gymnastics.
Raise Leaders, Boynton Beach: Open through Aug. 7. $225 a week. Martial arts, gymnastics, arts and crafts, science projects. Call 561-735-0306 or go to raiseleaders.org.
Waves Surf Academy, Delray Beach: Surf camp through Aug. 28. Ages 5 to 14. Full week of camp is $300, or $285 if you live in Delray Beach. Call 561-843-0481 or go to wavessurfacademy.com/city-of-delray.
Delray Equestrian Center Summer Camp: Weekly camp through Aug. 15. Call for hours and pricing. 561- 495-4701 or go to sunshinemeadowsdelray.com.
Twisters, Boca Raton: Daily and weekly gymnastics camp for ages 5 to 10. Daily enrollment is $89 for 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. or $104 for 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Weekly enrollment is $396 to 3 p.m. or $462 to 6 p.m. $27 one-time enrollment fee. Call 561-750-6001 or go to twistersgymnastics.com.
Because the focus has been, and rightfully so, on the forced re-opening of K-12 or they risk losing their funding, there has been very little information on the public university system. Will they be opening? Will they lose funding if they don’t? Are there any definitive plans for any of the South Florida colleges and universities?— Laurie Meyers, Davie
On July 10, President Trump did threaten to withhold the tax-exempt status of colleges and universities that did not reopen. But unlike K-12 schools, South Florida’s higher education institutions have all announced detailed reopening plans that include back-to-campus life, with the caveat of lots of limits.
Dorms will be open at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton and Florida International University in Miami. The universities are staggering move-in periods and instructing students on how to keep their rooms clean. Visitors will be restricted and students are set to be tested for COVID-19 regularly.
Although most classes will be remote-only, all the colleges and universities are allowing in-person learning for courses such as science labs. At Broward College and Palm Beach State College, classes such as public safety and nursing also will be face-to-face.
At Florida International University, about a third of classes will be in-person or a combination of online and face-to-face. The school is setting aside 132 beds to isolate students who test positive for COVID-19.
It will be interesting to see how the virus affects campus life. FAU President John Kelly told students in a July 13 letter that masks must be worn “when entering and exiting buildings and while inside public spaces in all buildings, including restrooms, elevators and stairwells, classrooms, and on FAU transportation.” They also have to be on “when close proximity to others is possible” outside. It’s hard to imagine college students adhering to this, but maybe I should have more faith.
“How will the decision to begin school remotely impact VPK? Will parents be able to choose to use the VPK certificate at a future date? Most preschool programs don’t offer virtual learning.” — Christie Bisbee, Lake Worth
“My daughter is eligible to start VPK this school year and is registered at a church preschool. The preschool is currently open and plans to stay open even if Broward schools open virtually in August. My concern is if schools open virtually how does this affect the state-funded VPK program? If I want her to attend preschool in person will I have to foot the bill or will the state still cover the cost?”— Hilary Ruiz, Coral Springs
VPK is free pre-kindergarten, paid for by the state, for 4- and 5-year-olds in Florida. It’s up to individual VPK sites whether they want to open during the pandemic, regardless of what their school districts decide. If a program you like is open, you can use your voucher there.
“At this point, the state has not approved virtual learning for VPK, however that is something being considered by state leaders at the Office of Early Learning who fund local Early Learning Coalitions,” said Renee Jaffe, chief executive officer of Broward’s Early Learning Coalition.
Local coalitions continue to cover the cost of the VPK voucher for any child who will attend in the coming school year.
“You will not have to foot the bill for VPK regardless of what program your child attends (in person),” Jaffe said.
More questions? Call the Broward Early Learning Coalition’s Child Care Resource and Referral hotline at 954-377-2188 or go to www.elcbroward.org. In Palm Beach County, call 561-514-3300 or go to www.elcpalmbeach.org.
“If one student in a class becomes sick, does the entire class have to quarantine for 14 days? If the teacher becomes sick, does the entire class have to quarantine for 14 days?” — Michael Omara, Fort Lauderdale
A lot of parents are asking this question. It goes to everyone’s biggest fear about schools reopening: They could have to shut down again if coronavirus ricochets around a classroom or a school.
Since South Florida school buildings are not planning to open for a while, there is no publicly announced plan for what they will do when COVID-19 cases hit their classrooms.
But here’s how Florida Atlantic University medical school professor Terry Adirim says they should handle these situations. She’s the chair and professor of pediatrics in the Integrative Medical Sciences Department and senior associate dean for clinical affairs at the Schmidt College of Medicine.
“The school would not have to close if (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) guidance is followed,” she said. But here’s what she said they would have to do:
1. Isolate any student exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19 from others immediately. 2. Establish procedures for safely transporting the child home or to a health care facility. 3. Notify local health officials of a possible case. 4. Close off areas where the child has been. 5. Clean and disinfect those areas 24 hours after the child was removed from the areas. 6. Advise those who had been in close contact with the child to stay home and quarantine and self-monitor for symptoms.
The CDC says schools can shut down for a day or two for cleaning and disinfection if a person with COVID-19 was in the building.
“It really depends on the situation, and school officials will need to determine the significance of the exposure and procedures required to make the classroom safe,” Adirim said.
So they will have to analyze each case and figure out how much interaction the student or teacher had with others in the school. These scenarios are a long way off, but schools do need to figure this out before kids re-enter the buildings.