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As she dropped her son off at school for the first time in almost seven months, Michele Drucker knew there was no guarantee he’d avoid getting sick.
In fact, she predicted the return of up to 142,000 students to Miami-Dade County Public Schools would eventually be considered the source of a coronavirus cluster.
“No doubt it will turn out to be a super spreader event throughout Miami,” said Drucker, whose son Max is a freshman at MAST Academy on Virginia Key. “There is no safe return to school.”
After easing more than 100,000 students back into the schoolhouse on Monday and Wednesday, the Miami-Dade school district on Friday welcomed the rest of its students — another 40,000 or so — who decided to return to their schools as many of their classmates stick to online learning for now.
But crossing guards and mask-covered smiles were not all that greeted students as they walked onto campus Friday.
For the first time since Miami-Dade’s public schools reopened Monday, students were faced with the first confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the school system.
Friday also marked the first day of school for students to return to the Broward County Public Schools system, which opened its classrooms from pre-K to second grade plus exceptional education students on all grade levels.
Miami-Dade Schools, which was pushed by the state to reopen earlier than scheduled, reported Friday that three students and one staffer had contracted COVID-19. The students attend Zora Neale Hurston Elementary in west Miami-Dade, William H. Lehman Elementary in Kendall and Charles D. Wyche Jr. Elementary in Miami Gardens. The staffer works at Poinciana Park Elementary in Liberty City. The school district had confirmed one of the student illnesses on Thursday.
The teachers union, United Teachers of Dade, said it had independently confirmed coronavirus cases in six schools, including one with four among students and employees.
At a press conference Friday afternoon, Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said it appeared that none of the confirmed infections could be linked to the school setting. He said the district is investigating two other COVID-19 reports.
He declared Friday’s school day a success, with no crowded classrooms or “systemic” problems impacting transportation, technology, teacher attendance or food distribution. He advised parents to conduct health screenings at home with their children before sending them to school.
“I personally inspected four schools today and we observed the best practices being followed by students and employees,” he said. “I saw effective teaching and learning taking place across the schools that I visited.”
On Friday, students in grades 7, 8, 11 and 12 returned to their schools for the first time. Students in elementary school, sixth grade and freshmen and sophomores began on Monday and Wednesday in a staggered start.
About half of the district’s 255,000 students opted to stay home and learn remotely. Some teachers taught from home, too.
Dani Parra del Riego, a Coral Gables High senior who opted to continue with online classes, said she will stay home until the pandemic eases — even if it means missing out on senior traditions like decorating a Burger King hat and wearing it to class on the first day of school.
“I’ll have more opportunities to make memories, and I don’t want one of them to be sending our teachers to the hospital,” she said.
Others were less concerned.
“I feel like I can trust my kids to not mess up with the masks and jump and hug their friends,” said Miami Beach Senior High father Itay Benzvi, whose ninth-grade daughter returned to school Wednesday. “With that said, now I’m focusing on mental well being.”
Several students who attended school Friday said distance learning was not as effective as in-person learning, and some said they did not fear getting sick because of their age and health.
Many of their parents said they felt comfortable with how the school district was handling the return to school.
“I know how to take care of myself,” said Carlos Basilio, 17, a senior at Miami Beach Senior High.
“I’m young and my immune system good,” said Anthony Jones, 17, a senior at Booker T. Washington Senior High in Overtown.
“The safest way is being at home, but I think this is the second best and I’m happy,” said Chloe Luczkow, 15, a sophomore at Miami Beach Senior High.
Reducing virus risk
To limit the risk of COVID-19 transmission, Miami-Dade Schools imposed various health-safety measures such as the mandatory use of masks, staggered seating in classrooms, enhanced cleaning of schools and buses, the use of one-way hallways or stairways and heaps of signage advising social distancing and good hygiene.
“You could tell the teachers were trying to make an effort,” said Noah Orlowsky, a seventh-grader at Nautilus Middle School in Miami Beach. “I think they did the best job they could under the circumstances.”
Parents Dalia and Carlos Rodriguez, who dropped off their 14-year-old daughter, Isabella, at Beach High, said the one-way hallways made navigating the school difficult but reassured them of the safety protocols in place to limit the spread of the coronavirus.
“But we’re concerned a little bit. We’ll see how it goes,” Carlos Rodriguez said. “If it gets dangerous, we’re going to have to pull her out.”
The school district’s COVID-19 dashboard, which documents confirmed cases in the district, confused some on Friday because it briefly omitted two previously reported coronavirus cases.
Carvalho explained that the omission was due to follow-up verification from the Florida Department of Health. Going forward, he said, the dashboard will only reflect cases confirmed by the health department. But the district won’t wait for confirmation to begin quarantine and contact-tracing protocols.
Anyone who is asked to quarantine cannot return to school or work until the health department clears them in writing, Carvalho said.
“I’m very encouraged by the smooth implementation of contact tracing,” Carvalho said, noting that the affected parents have been appreciative and understanding of the process.
United Teachers of Dade president Karla Hernandez-Mats said in a video statement Friday that because coronavirus cases are being documented at the school level, teachers and parents must “trust in the reporting, trust that parents are reporting when their kids are COVID positive or when they are in contact with somebody that’s COVID positive.”
She also encouraged parents to donate spare cleaning supplies to teachers.
“This virus is deadly, this virus is invisible and we cannot be invisible,” Hernandez-Mats said. “We need to understand lives are at risk.”
The school district does not have a comprehensive testing plan. After the district stated last week that it had not installed recommended air filters at each of its 340 schools, the school district said Friday it has “ensured ventilation in schools.”
Not taking any chances with his grandmother at home evacuating New Orleans ahead of Hurricane Delta, BioTECH High senior Sami Sepehri brought three masks and a packet of hand wipes on his first day back at the Richmond Heights school.
His mother, Hedieh Kiani Sepehri, said Sami missed half of his 11th grade year due to remote learning that began in March, and was happy to be back.
“He’s been beyond careful for six months. He hasn’t seen friends since March and he even wears a mask at home sometimes,” she said. “We decided to let him attend in person, try to make the most of senior year, and if he feels unsafe, he can stop.”
Sepehri, 17, said he was apprehensive going back to school for the first time. By the end of the day he felt relieved because his school, which was about two-thirds empty, strictly enforced its rules.
“I was nervous going in but now I’m glad I can trust my school,” he said.
Low turnout for Broward’s first day back
Just a few thousand students attended Broward County’s first day back at public schools since the pandemic shut them down.
About one-third of the 20,000 students the district expected to return ended up coming to class, Superintendent Robert Runcie said, which he called a sign that parents remain worried about COVID-19 and a testament to the district’s online learning system.
“So, you take all these factors into account, there’s a good percentage of folks, the majority, staying home and continuing to learn from different locations,” Runcie said. “But, we are fortunately in a position where we can offer that choice to all of our families.”
School officials estimate that 20-25% of total students will return to face-to-face learning by the end of next week.
“[Turnout is] highest in the early primary grades, and it’s the lowest when you get to our juniors and seniors in high school,” Runcie said.
Teaching to those at home, in class is not easy
Anna Fusco, president of the Broward Teachers Union, said “teachers were upbeat. They were there willing and ready to do it.”
Fusco, who spoke at a press conference at the union’s office in Tamarac, praised the administration and maintenance crews for thoroughly cleaning the schools and clearly marking spaces for social distancing.
The problems arose with the synchronized teaching — instructing those in the classroom and those who stayed home, at the same time.
“It’s not just walking into the physical setting and teaching, it’s teaching to the physical kids, teaching to the computer, helping out with social distancing, helping out with hygiene, figuring out technology,” Fusco said.
Keep your child at home if they’re showing symptoms, Runcie says
Runcie said the coronavirus cases in Miami-Dade highlight the need for parents to cooperate with their schools and be honest about their children’s interactions with others who may be sick.
“Make sure you’re aware if they’ve been around anyone who has tested positive. Is there anyone in your household who has tested positive?” Runcie said. “If you can answer ‘Yes’ to any one of those questions, you should keep your child at home.”
Runcie said the schools are set up to deal with COVID cases. This includes on-campus isolation rooms, nurses and medical support staff.
“Should any cases arise, students will be actively moved to the isolation rooms,” Runcie said. “They will be assessed per the Department of Health protocols, and we will contact an adult, a parent or guardian will pick up the child and there will be an opportunity to get tested.”
If the test is positive, the student cannot return to school until he or she has at least one negative test result after a 10- to 14-day period, Runcie said.
Runcie also said the district has plans in place should schools face multiple cases.
“If we have classrooms that are impacted, if we have whole schools that are impacted, we will do what we need to do, and that includes everything from closing down the school for a period of time until we are sure we can open the school safely,” he said.
‘I missed them a lot’
Yassy Comas didn’t get to see all of her students back in class on Friday. The kindergarten teacher split time instructing a few kids in person while the rest of her class watched from home.
Despite the unconventional class setting, the Broward Estates Elementary teacher said the school reopening felt like a return to normalcy.
“I missed them a lot,” said Comas, 33.
While bringing students back amid a pandemic remains a concern for her, Comas said it is important for their development to reintroduce children to in-person learning.
“I think with everything there is a level of risk,” she said. “And things have to eventually get back to normal. Our kids have been away from school for seven months and they need some kind of stability and some normalcy in their lives.”
A previous version of this story gave an incorrect number of returning students in the Miami-Dade Public School system.