FL education commissioner intervenes again on school reopening — this time in Miami-Dade

Sarasota District Schools, Transportation. Photo from Facebook page, Sarasota District Schools, Transportation.

Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran has conveyed “grave concerns” about the Miami-Dade school district’s plan to gradually reopen brick-and-mortar schools in a letter sent to the district.

He “expects” the district to open brick-and-mortar schools by Oct. 5, he wrote, or submit a school-by-school analysis to justify keeping those schools closed. Writing on Friday, he demanded an answer by the end of this week.

Corcoran’s letter once again highlighted the question school districts and educators have been asking since July. Who has final decision-making power over the reopening of schools during a pandemic: the state or the districts?

The letter came in response to the School Board of Miami-Dade County’s vote for a staggered reopening of brick-and-mortar schools starting on Oct. 14 — planning to let younger grades start going to in-person classrooms first, then gradually adding higher grades.

The plan was to have all students who have chosen brick-and-mortar education in the classroom by Oct. 21. But Corcoran didn’t like that plan.

“I am writing today with grave concerns regarding the School Board of Miami-Dade County’s recent vote to revoke parents’ ability to choose brick-and-mortar schools for their children’s education by forcing families to continue using only distance learning options, despite the fact that the entire county transitioned to Phase 2 nearly two weeks ago,” Corcoran wrote.

He addressed his letter to Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho and board chair Perla Hantman.

“It is also harmful for students who are experiencing violence, abuse, and food insecurity in their homes going unnoticed,” Corcoran said, “many of whom were already struggling to close the achievement gap and will now fall even further behind.”

Corcoran’s letter can be read in full on the twitter page of Colleen Wright, reporter for the Miami Herald.

On Sept. 11, Gov. Ron DeSantis announced that Miami-Dade and Broward counties would move to “Phase 2” of reopening during the COVID-19 pandemic, giving the counties the opportunity to open brick-and-mortar schools. At the time, the districts planned to be cautious with their reopening plans.

Previously, Corcoran and DeSantis said that they would trust school reopening decisions to be made at a district level to meet their individual needs, and an emergency order signed by Corcoran in July gave flexibility to “innovative” learning methods as long as the school districts provide an in-person education option.

But in his letter to the Miami-Dade district, Corcoran cites Palm Beach County’s example.

Corcoran writes: “Palm Beach County School District was able to offer brick-and-mortar options for all students within 16 days of entering Phase 2 on Sept. 4, 2020. [Miami-Dade’s] plan does not offer that option for all students until 40 days from the time the county entered Phase 2, more than twice as long as Palm Beach County schools.”

To continue with its reopening plan, Corcoran says, Miami-Dade needs to submit a thorough analysis explaining why a school should remain closed. Corcoran wants this done for each school the district wishes to keep closed past Oct. 5.

These requirements echo the demands Corcoran sent to the Hillsborough County school district when it initially proposed to open schools with only virtual instruction at the start of the academic year.

Corcoran rejected Hillsborough’s proposal and then sent a nearly identical letter to that district. Hillsborough ultimately provided a brick-and-mortar option on its first day of school, as Corcoran strongly recommended.

As of Tuesday evening, the Miami-Dade County school board was reconvening to discuss its reopening plan in light of Corcoran’s letter.

The emergency order, requiring that “upon reopening in August, all school boards and charter school governing boards must open brick and mortar at least five days per week for all students,” resulted in an ongoing lawsuit questioning whether the state or local districts have ultimate decision-making power amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Corcoran’s letter is another iteration of his answer to the question: That his expectations of providing in-person learning when reopening schools trump local discretion.

Miami-Dade’s reopening has been in the spotlight for quite some time. Earlier this summer, the county was the center of the COVID-19 crisis in Florida, leading the school district to negotiate a later brick-and-mortar opening while beginning the school year with purely virtual learning.

When it began virtual learning, the district made several headlines involving technical difficulties and cyber attacks. The district ultimately dropped its relationship with the company that provided its virtual learning platform, the Miami Herald reported.

Danielle J. Brown
Danielle J. Brown is a 2018 graduate of Florida State University, majoring in English with a focus in editing, writing, and media. While at FSU, she served as an editorial intern for International Program’s annual magazine, Nomadic Noles. Last fall, she fulfilled another editorial internship with Rowland Publishing, where she wrote for the Tallahassee Magazine, Emerald Coast Magazine, and 850 Business Magazine. She was born and raised in Tallahassee and reviews community theater productions for the Tallahassee Democrat. She spends her downtime traveling to all corners of Florida and beyond to practice lindy hop.