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Students, parents and teachers across Miami-Dade County on Wednesday celebrated the last day of a challenging and disruptive school year that began with a rocky start to online classes and ended with mask-wearing students graduating in socially distanced ceremonies.
For Aranxta Llamas and Maria Luiza Cunha, they never thought their first year of high school at iPrep Academy, a K-12 school in downtown Miami, would begin online. They also didn’t think that when they would return to the classroom, their norm would become masks, quarantines and socially distanced lunches in the school lunchroom.
It “was a great shift from what I had envisioned it was going to be and especially when I came back, the school was so empty,” Maria Luiza said. “I enjoyed it, but it was very different.”
But with the exception of people wearing masks, you couldn’t tell iPrep Academy was ending the year in a pandemic. Pre-K students paraded around the school, wearing graduation headbands emblazoned with “I Did It’” across them, to celebrate their promotion to kindergarten. Students took pictures with their teachers and friends. Some even hugged teachers before saying goodbye.
Teachers at iPrep acknowledged the work of their students, despite all the difficulties of attending school amid the coronavirus pandemic.
“This year, if anything, we know that Miami children, they are resilient. They are hopeful ... in a difficult year they have gone above and beyond. They have done remarkable work,” said Dahiana Tejada, a fourth-grade teacher at iPrep, who spoke at a Wednesday afternoon news conference at the school.
“Every day I come in and tell the parents, I’m pretty sure I have the next president of this country in one of my classrooms this year,” Tejada said.
High graduation rate
Miami-Dade Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho echoed that thought, praising the thousands of people who work in Miami-Dade Schools and all the work they did during the pandemic-plagued school year to help the students succeed.
“Despite the obstacles, despite the challenges, through the vision of this school board, through the determination and courage of our principals, the courage and hard work of teachers, support staff, our police department, our bus drivers, our cafeteria workers, we were able to maintain our schools open,” said Carvalho, who is principal of iPrep Academy.
“We were able to teach. We were able to maintain our A grading from the state of Florida with 99% of our schools rated A, B or C , with 47% of our schools rated A, a higher percentage than the state.”
Carvalho listed several of the district’s accomplishments this year, including a 93.1% graduation rate, the highest in the school system’s history. He also discussed the upcoming challenges the community will face in the coming months, including food insecurity, pandemic learning loss and grappling with the recent shootings that have struck Miami-Dade County.
“We are departing this school year to a certain extent with a bruised heart over the level of violence that continues to incur in our community, particularly gun violence that has maimed or killed far too many individuals, some of them school-aged individuals. That is simply unacceptable,” Carvalho said.
Miami-Dade County has recently seen a string of gun violence, including a drive-by mass shooting outside a hookah bar where a graduation party was being held.
Carvalho applauded Miami-Dade County’s plan to spend $7.8 million through 2022 on a mix of summer programs and surveillance to reduce shootings. Most of the money goes to summer and after-school programs, with a focus on teenagers in the county’s juvenile-justice system for past offenses or other legal issues. He said it “supplements” what the district already does through its internship program for students.
How will summer work? What about the 2021-2022 school year?
Carvalho also gave updates on what families should expect during the summer. The district will once again offer free grab-and-go breakfast and lunch to any MDCPS student. Families will be able to pick up the free meals at 50 sites across the county. Hours, location and additional information can be found on the district’s website.
He said 179 schools, including elementary, middle and high schools, will be offering summer programs as part of the district’s “Summer 305” plan. About 42,400 students have already registered for summer school — about 10 times the normal attendance levels — and 20,000 have registered for summer camps, he said. Spots are still available.
“It is to mitigate academic regression, it is to make up for time loss and is to accelerate learning for students toward their full potential, Carvalho said.
The summer will be an opportunity for “exploration, experimentation and for excellence,” with camps available for different interests, including dance and IT, he said. Social and mental health support will also be available for students.
Decisions have not been made yet on what the COVID protocols for summer school will be, including mask usage. Carvalho said the district will announce a decision about a week before summer school starts on June 14.
As for the 2021-2022 school year, Carvalho says it will likely be mask optional. And while he hopes most, if not all, the students will be back in-person, the district will offer some online options for parents who want their kids to stay remote.
“We are ending the year on a high note with happy parents, happy teachers and happy students,” Carvalho said. And based on the county’s low percent positivity rate, he expects the district will be able “to make the 2021-2022 school year as normal as we can possibly imagine it to be.”