A small group of medical experts met virtually Thursday to weigh in on whether Miami-Dade County Public Schools should open for in-person learning, possibly as soon as this month.
The School Board will hold a special meeting, also virtually, Monday at 11 a.m. to discuss the medical experts’ comments and that possible reopening.
Dr. Aileen Marty, an infectious disease professor at FIU’s Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine, drove the conversation, asking direct questions about the district’s preparedness, from air quality and ventilation to how high-risk activities like music programs will be handled.
Marty said of the eight criteria laid out for reopening schools, all but two had been met. There is a lag in the reporting of school immunizations to the health department, said the school district’s chief of staff, Jaime Torrens, although Marty noted improvement in that area. She also expressed concerns over contact tracing.
A school district spokeswoman said the district is working on a COVID-19 data dashboard for employees and students that it hopes to have ready before the reopening of schools. Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said Thursday that the district is in the final stages of developing infrastructure and technology for data management and communication to families in the event of an outbreak.
Dr. Yesenia Villalta, the executive community health nursing director at the Florida Department of Health in Miami-Dade, said the daily positivity rate is 3.76%, the “lowest we’ve seen,” and the average rate is 4.41%. She said the county has 600 contact tracers available.
Villalta also said the turnaround time for COVID-19 tests has improved, with 93.6% of tests reported within three days.
District officials said schools would be “100%” ready with all precautions and protocols by Friday, Sept. 25. There is a teacher planning day scheduled the following Monday, Sept. 28.
Marty also asked about what provisions were in place for employees and students whose underlying conditions make coming in for face-to-face learning too dangerous.
Carvalho did not give specific numbers about how many teachers have submitted paperwork for Americans with Disabilities Act accommodations but said the district has received more inquiries from teachers.
“We will make the necessary provisions,” he said.
Carvalho has said that teachers are expected to only teach in one modality: Virtual teachers would teach students online and in-person teachers would teach students who choose to return to brick-and-mortar schools. Some teachers, like those in Advanced Placement and dual-enrollment classes, may be exceptions.
Some teachers have reported being surveyed by administrators who ask if they would be willing to teach both, implying that teachers would teach virtually and also have students in the classroom.
The United Teachers of Dade held a joint press conference with the Broward Teachers Union calling for “bare minimum” social distancing protocols in the classroom. Specifically, UTD President Karla Hernandez-Mats called on parents to document overcrowded class sizes as part of a community campaign. She said a memo has been circulating among principals to place student desks 3 feet apart when an agreement with the union calls for 6 feet of distance.
Marty also spoke on social distancing in the classrooms. She said internationally, one meter, or 3 feet of distance, is enough to protect from 90% of droplets, but 6 feet is even safer.
Marty also asked if the district has a contract in place with parents who choose to send their children to school that they will cooperate with the county health department.
Carvalho said those protocols and assurances “regarding the necessity for information exchange and compliance” will be in place. He said information is being sent out in English, Spanish and Haitian Creole and said the district is setting up another hotline.
Marty was appointed to a prior ad hoc committee about the school reopening plan by board member Lubby Navarro, who listened to Thursday’s meeting.
Navarro said she felt as if the medical experts couldn’t participate in the meeting. She said she will ask the district to put all of the feedback from medical experts in writing and have it sent to board members.
Some medical experts on Thursday sent comments or sent a video message.
“This is not a comprehensive review of the documents,” she said. “I want to make sure that all the experts had an opportunity to review this and provide responses in writing about the plan.”
School Board member Mari Tere Rojas was the only board member actively participating in the meeting. She said she felt “a lot better” listening to medical experts make their statements.
She stressed that even though the medical conditions might be right, schools must be ready operationally.
“I want a safe, smart and very orderly opening of school if we go back to brick and mortar,” Rojas said. “I think the parents and the children and the teachers and everyone has gone through enough with what we’ve had to deal with with the online K12 situation.”