Broward County Public Schools officials are facing a backlash from teachers, parents and students as the district continues to push for all employees to return to the physical classroom amid the soaring COVID-19 pandemic.
The ire is most tangible in the number of teachers who chose to either retire or resign since mid-December, when the district sent a memo to employees ordering any still working remotely to report to their brick-and-mortar schools for the spring semester’s January start.
Instead of coming back, however, more than 70 decided to leave their professions, according to the agenda for Wednesday’s scheduled school board meeting.
This is in addition to 42 non-instructional staff members who chose to leave district employment over the same time frame, according to the district’s public information office.
District: Students’ grades are faltering from remote learning
The district wants more teachers and students to return from online instruction because many pupils’ grades have been suffering since the pandemic began in March, when all students were forced to learn remotely. Broward allowed students back to their classrooms in early October.
According to numbers provided by the district, 37,162 students came back. After encouraging more students to return, 58,465 did so for the spring semester, the district said. The school district has roughly 240,000 students. Some of those go to Broward Virtual School and Broward College Academy, which is 100% online.
The enrollment at those schools was not immediately available, but both the district and union estimate that between 35 and 37% of students are now back in class physically.
The teachers union argues most of the 1,700 employees granted accommodations by the district to remain virtual after October have already returned to school. But, about 600 remain working remotely because they have health conditions like diabetes, heart and respiratory disease and high blood pressure that put their lives at particular risk if they catch COVID-19.
“They don’t want to be one of the statistics that die from COVID when it could have very well been prevented,” Anna Fusco, president of United Teachers of Broward, said during a Tuesday afternoon press conference outside of the school district’s administrative headquarters in Fort Lauderdale.
School custodian dies from COVID
Fusco cited the recent death of a custodian from COVID-19 as an example that all staff, not just teachers, are risking their lives by working in-person. She said he had both a kidney transplant and type-2 diabetes.
“And, this is a person who works in an environment where he is not enclosed in a room with students for seven hours a day,” Fusco said.
As of Tuesday, the district said 853 students and 925 employees have been confirmed by the Florida Department of Health to have tested positive for COVID-19 since the fall.
The union filed a lawsuit against the district earlier this month in Broward circuit court aimed at stopping the return-to-work mandate.
With so few of the Broward student body choosing to go to class in person this semester, the union says there’s no need to force all teachers, especially those whose health is compromised, to return to their physical classrooms.
Their plight remains especially dire as the Florida Department of Health reported this week that nearly 25,000 state residents have died from COVID-19 since March and community spread in Broward is getting worse, said Fedrick Ingram, secretary-treasurer of the American Federation of Teachers.
“Things are exponentially worse than they were in March 2020. Now they want 100% of our teachers back in the classroom to teach 35% of students,” Ingram said at the press conference. “Now, that does not make sense in the court of educational opinion.”
Ingram also took aim at the district’s stance that COVID is not spreading significantly in schools, especially with the emergence of new strains that experts say are more easily transmitted. In fact, Florida has more known cases of the highly contagious “UK Variant” than any other state in the country.
And, Ingram said, the pediatric spread of the virus is higher in Broward County than in the rest of the state — 14.7% compared to 14.1% respectively.
“I will tell you that there are so many unknowns right now, with the new strands of viruses, with the community spread that’s happening here in Broward and Dade counties and West Palm Beach, and the haphazard way we’ve handled the COVID-19 throughout the state of Florida,” Ingram said.
At the same time, while some classrooms remained relatively empty, others, especially in the elementary grades, have more students than they had pre-COVID, Fusco said. She based her observation after touring several schools Tuesday.
“Not only are they going over class size, they were not 6 feet apart,” Fusco said, citing the social distance space recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “I watched it with my very own eyes today. It was happening.”
The school district did not return a request for comment on the concerns discussed at the press conference.
Students, parents raise issues over returning to school
A student and two parents also spoke out against the district Tuesday.
Rocco Diaz, a senior at Fort Lauderdale High, said in most of his classes, there are only two or three other students. But, he said encouraging more to return to school in-person is dangerous as the pandemic shows no signs of abating.
“The school board shouldn’t be attempting to solve this issue by encouraging more people to come back,” he said.
John Escobar, who has a child at Sawgrass Elementary School in Sunrise, said he became concerned when the district sent a letter to parents last semester indicating that as more students return to the classroom, social distancing protocols would likely have to be relaxed.
“We are concerned about the health of our parents, of our students and our teachers,” Escobar said.
Nancy Fry, the mother of an elementary school student who remains learning virtually, said the district should encourage more students to return to virtual learning, not come back to school, until more vaccinations are available.
“We need to encourage more students to stay at home because there’s a certain point when we have enough students in school, social distancing no longer becomes a policy point, but a matter of business,” Fry, who is also a community activist on other issues.
“If we want our kids back, we need to do the work now and stop the spread of the disease.”