MIAMI—Last week, a few days before Donald Trump revealed he came down with COVID-19, Karla Hernandez-Mats went on a coronavirus safety fact-finding mission in South Florida schools ahead of their reopening on Monday.
The president of United Teachers of Dade, the local teachers union, Hernandez-Mats said she and her colleagues conducted surprise inspection visits at 17 Miami-area schools that suggested administrators were still scrambling to put safety measures in place.
At Miami Springs Senior High, one of the 17 schools inspected, administrators initially refused to allow her colleague, United Teachers of Dade First Vice-President Antonio White, to enter the building and called a police resource officer on him, the union officials told The Daily Beast.
“When administrators act like that, their schools are usually not prepared,” White said in an interview. “That was the case at Miami Springs.”
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For instance, the school appears to be supplying teachers with alcohol-free hand sanitizer, which may be ineffective in killing coronavirus, the union officials said, providing The Daily Beast with a photo of just that. (The Centers for Disease Control’s COVID-19 guidance recommends people use hand sanitizer that is at least 60 percent ethanol-based or 70 percent isopropanol-based.) Union officials also provided photos showing decals marking 6-foot distance requirements that were already peeling off the sidewalks near the school’s entrance, and desks arranged in such a way that does not allow for 6-foot social distancing.
Reached by phone, Miami Springs principal Torossian said he was unaware of police being called on the union official and referred further questions to the school district’s media relations department. Spokeswoman Jacquelyn Calzadilla did not specifically address what had occurred at Miami Springs, but she said “our school site administrators are working around the clock to ensure a safe return to the schoolhouse for our students and employees.”
The flap illustrates the daunting task facing the public school system in Miami-Dade County, which has been the epicenter of Florida’s COVID-19 outbreak for most of the pandemic. More than 10,000 teachers and 133,000 students begin filing into 340 schools this week on a staggered schedule. This after the Miami-Dade School Board voted to resume in-person learning under pressure from Florida Education Commissioner Richard Cocoran, a Gov. Ron DeSantis appointee who threatened to cut the school district’s funding if classes did not resume by early October.
Miami-Dade’s daily positivity rate rolling average for the 14 days ending on Oct. 4 stood at 4.78 percent, just below the 5 percent positivity rate that the World Health Organization recommends maintaining for two weeks before lifting shelter-at-home and social distancing protocols. During the same 14-day period, Miami-Dade reported 5,456 new cases, bringing its total to 172,205.
Photo courtesy United Teachers of Dade
School reopenings have been a mess of infection, quarantine, and closure across America in recent weeks. But conversations with teachers, labor leaders, and experts in South Florida painted a picture of Miami schools as a new guinea pig for epidemiological mayhem imposed on high from Tallahassee.
This past Friday, Thais Alvarez returned to Norman S. Edelcup Sunny Isles Beach K-8 in Sunny Isles Beach, Florida, for the first time since the pandemic forced the shutdown of school buildings across the country.
Alvarez, 48, believes keeping students 6 feet apart is going to be nearly impossible in some cases, despite guidance that she and other staff do so. “While my classes are significantly smaller compared to other years, I have some with 16, 19, 21, and 22 students,” she told The Daily Beast. “There is no way to do traditional social distancing given the square footage of my classroom.”
For her personal protection, Alvarez said, she received three six-packs of facemasks and a face shield from the principal’s office, along with a large bottle of hand sanitizer placed on her desk. To bolster the official offerings, some of her students gave her packages of clorox wipes in recent days to sanitize surfaces, added Alvarez, who teaches sixth, seventh and eighth graders.
The teacher’s concerns over clean and sanitized classrooms and bathrooms have a history at Norman S. Edelcup going back to this spring. Alvarez provided The Daily Beast email exchanges she had with Assistant Principal Neal Stayton and Principal Melissa Mesa as far back as May describing grimy conditions inside her classroom and bathrooms on the fourth floor of the school. In a May 7 email, Alvarez complained that objects such as cabinets and desktop screens were caked in dust and floors went unswept throughout the school year. She also claimed the bathroom often ran out of soap and toilet paper before the school day ended, and that toilets were not cleaned for days.
In email responses to Alvarez, Mesa acknowledged that custodial staff were supposed to clean bathrooms, including toilets, on a daily basis. But the principal explained that the school district only allocates one custodian per floor and that, based on the workload, the custodian assigned to Norman S. Edelcup’s fourth floor could only provide a full-service cleaning once a week. Mesa also noted that if the custodian missed work or went on vacation, it would take longer for full-service cleanings to take place.
“Please communicate custodial concerns with Mr. Stayton and myself throughout the school year and we will do what we can to assist you,” Mesa wrote back on May 7. “Please know that the health and safety of all our faculty, staff and students is of paramount concern to us as well.”
When she returned to campus on Friday, Alvarez claimed the bathrooms looked the same to her and that her classroom did not appear any cleaner than the start of previous school years, when floors are stripped and waxed.
“I can’t speak to the future,” she added. “But if my past experience is any indication, it’s going to be a dog and pony show in front of the cameras. Behind the scenes, it’s going to be the complete opposite.”
Alvarez’s bosses at Norman S. Edelcup referred inquiries to school district’s chief spokeswoman Daisy Gonzalez-Diego, who did not specifically answer questions about the middle-school teacher’s complaints.
Photo courtesy United Teachers of Dade
“Miami-Dade County Public Schools administrators and school site personnel are following all recommended health and safety protocols to ensure our schoolhouses are secure and welcoming environments where children can thrive under the instruction of our inspirational educators,” Gonzalez-Diego said in an email statement. “We also understand that beyond the academic benefits, in-person schooling provides children the social, emotional, and motivational support they need.”
But on a Facebook page administered by school district employees, dozens of teachers are sharing similar stories about their schools. One teacher posted photos of her classroom’s moldy ceiling tile and moldy air conditioning vents. The Daily Beast obtained a screenshot of a text message from another teacher complaining that no one had provided her with masks, hand sanitizer, and wipes. The teacher claimed to work at iPrep Academy, which is adjacent to the school district’s headquarters and whose principal is none other than Miami-Dade Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho.
“The office made me feel uncomfortable as if I were asking for something difficult to get when I thought they had plenty in store,” the text message read.
In an emailed statement, Miami-Dade Public Schools said all teachers at iPrep Academy received bags containing personal protective equipment. Gonzalez-Diego also explained that the school district prioritized resources to increase existing inventories of cleaning supplies and purchase large quantities of personal protective equipment, among other precautions. “With these investments, our schools are now equipped with sufficient PPE and sanitization supplies to safely welcome our students and employees back to the schoolhouse for the 2020-2021 school year,” Gonzalez-Diego said.
Likewise, on Sept. 30, Superintendent Carvalho sent a letter to all school district employees that read: “Rest reassured that comprehensive measures have been undertaken and will continue to be implemented as a means of ensuring a safe and healthy working environment for all. There is an overall heightened awareness and adherence to prescribed cleaning practices in order to reduce the risk of exposure to our employees.”
Regardless of how well prepared it is, the school district has been forced to rush things because Carvalho and the school board caved to Education Commissioner Corocan’s threats, Hernandez-Mats, the union official, argued. Cocoran, a Republican former speaker of the Florida House of Representatives, is a staunch ally of Gov. DeSantis and President Trump, who have advocated reopening schools as part of their push to resume normal life even as health experts across the country warn Florida is about to experience another surge once flu season kicks into high gear.
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“Obviously, this is very troubling how they are getting pressure from Gov. DeSantis, who is falling in line with Trump, telling him to reopen schools,” Hernandez-Mats said. “They are succumbing to political pressure instead of doing what is right to ensure the health and well-being of the students and the people who work in those schools with those kids.”
Gonzalez-Diego did not comment on Hernandez-Mats’ criticisms of local cooperation with pressure from the state level. But Florida education department spokeswoman Taryn Fenske clapped back, arguing school unions like United Teachers of Dade want to dictate the type of learning environment students should have, instead of giving them a choice between online and face-to-face learning.
“The union bosses are nothing but schoolhouse bullies who want to force everyone to make an identical decision,” Fenske said. “They’re just mad that we have no problem or hesitation with standing up for students and families, regardless of what the union demands.”
A spokesperson for DeSantis did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
Florida International University infectious disease expert Mary Jo Trepka told The Daily Beast the sheer size of Miami-Dade’s public school system makes it critically important that every school site has every possible precaution in place.
“It is not only critical that transmission be controlled within schools to protect students, teachers, and staff, but also because transmission within schools will fuel overall community transmission,” Trepka said. “This could happen at a large scale… Even if only half are interacting in person, that is a lot of opportunities for transmission.”
Trepka said the danger of reopening schools in Miami-Dade was compounded by DeSantis’ decision earlier this month to allow bars and nightclubs to reopen throughout the state. She said it’s a recipe that could lead to another spike in coronavirus cases similar to what occurred during the summer, when local and state government officials first relaxed COVID-19 restrictions.
“I fear we will repeat the same situation now with the added problem of colleges resuming classes and the reopening of schools,” Trepka said, noting that Florida’s summer surge was initially driven by young people catching coronavirus.
“They ended up infecting older people,” Trepka said. “Then, of course, we saw a lot of deaths.”
Read more at The Daily Beast.
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