More than 70,000 struggling students may be asked to return to school

Scott Travis, South Florida Sun Sentinel

Parents of more than 70,000 South Florida children will soon receive letters saying their kids are failing at distance learning and they need to come back to campus.

Whether the kids actually return will be up to the parents. But those who still want to keep their kids in virtual learning due to COVID-19 concerns will have to sign acknowledgement forms saying they understand their kids are performing poorly, but they still want them to stay home.

The letters are expected to go out to parents in early January, although some parents may have already been contacted. The at-risk students will be asked to return for the second semester, which starts Jan. 13 in Broward County, Jan. 25 in Miami-Dade and Feb. 2 in Palm Beach County.

“A review of your child’s academic performance in the first semester and his/her attendance record indicates that he/she is not performing adequately,” the Miami-Dade letter says. “This puts your child at risk for course failure and/or retention and may have long-lasting negative effects on his or her future academic performance.”

The Palm Beach County letter says the child’s poor performance could affect “your child’s likelihood of grade promotion” as well as “graduating on time, grade point average, and failing courses that will need to be retaken.”

The notices are required under a directive from Gov. Ron DeSantis and Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran. Some educators agree this move is needed.

“As we try to close the achievement gap, we’ll be able to do so much more having those students face-to-face in brick-and-mortar classrooms,” said Glenda Sheffield, chief academic officer for Palm Beach County schools.

But there may be reluctance, particularly in Broward County, where only 26% of students have attended school in person, compared to 45% in the other two counties. A recent survey went out to all Broward parents, regardless of academic level, and it found those planning to return has risen to 39%, means most parents still want their kids at home, School Board member Rosalind Osgood said.

“We are at the same place. Parents are reluctant,” Osgood said. “The COVID numbers continue to rise. It’s a horrible dilemma.”

Osgood, whose Fort Lauderdale area district includes a disproportionate share of at-risk students, said “it would be ideal for all students to return to face-to-face learning. However, COVID hasn’t gone away and the vaccines are not available to students and school based personnel.”

Melissa Ramos said her two special needs kids have struggled academically with distance learning, and she plans to send them back to Sunset Lakes Elementary in Miramar for in-person instruction.

“A child can’t engage and learn the same way as they can in person,” she said. “I’m so scared about COVID, but the classrooms at my school are big and only have about five to 10 students in them.”

DeSantis has downplayed potential health risks to students, saying they are low, while the academic risks of staying home are enormous.

Although districts have reported thousands of cases of COVID-19 involving employees or students, most contracted the virus off campus and there’s been little evidence of spread at schools, state and school district officials say.

At the same time, recent data from all three districts show a “COVID slide,” as the number of F grades and chronically absent students has more than doubled from a year ago.

Broward has identified 38,000 students, or 25% of all those learning at-home, who will be targeted for return. Palm Beach has identified 22,000 students, or 23% of remote students.

The Miami-Dade numbers are less clear. A spokeswoman said in a Dec. 18 email that schools “have already begun to reach out to the families of over 10,000 students enrolled in online schooling who were identified as not making adequate academic progress.”

That’s only about 5% of students who are learning online, and it’s unclear why Miami-Dade’s number would be lower than the smaller South Florida districts. The district was closed this week for the holiday break. Superintendent Alberto Carvalho, reached on his cellphone, said the number sounded low and he would check into it.

Each district has developed their own criteria for which students should return. For Broward elementary students, it’s based on factors such as their reading and math levels and whether they recognize names, letters and sounds. For Broward middle and high school schools, students with low or declining grade points averages and multiple F grades will be asked to return.

Broward is also focusing on immigrant students who have limited English skills due to being in the United States for less than a year.

Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties are looking at similar factors, but also are targeting students with poor attendance.

Students who return to campus will get extra remedial help and regular progress reports. They may be asked to participate in after-school tutoring and intensive programs during Spring Break and the summer.

Each school district has outlined their efforts to educate students next semester in education plans approved by the state.