By Anne Geggis
Seeking to avoid the problems that plagued Broward County Public Schools’ online instruction last spring, reopening plans call for five hours of daily teacher-student online interaction and the option of attending evening class to accommodate the new normal.
A nine-hour workshop Wednesday unveiled some of the plans for resuming school in the time of coronavirus. Leaders did not shy away from acknowledging that the last months of the previous school year had its failings when schools closed to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus.
“This model is not just tweaking last year,” said Superintendent Robert Runcie. “This is a totally different model.”
Palm Beach County decided on Wednesday to open its public schools on August 31. Broward County, however, is holding fast to a more traditional date: August 19. But it’s going to be a virtual reopening — with 100 percent online instruction for the vast majority of the county’s 217,517 students.
Pushing into new educational ground has left out many last year. Sun Sentinel reporting showed that 88 percent of Broward public school students were in “school” on April 6, compared to the previous year’s 94 percent average attendance. Some special education students were simply unable to participate.
Daniel Gohl, county schools’ chief academic officer, said last year’s experience along with time to plan has shifted priorities: “In the spring, we prioritized flexibility,” he said. “Structure was less important. For the fall, structure is our primary delivery for establishing rituals and cadence. We received significant criticism for being too flexible in the spring.”
Other new developments announced Wednesday for the new school year include:
- Specific blocks of time for academic instruction, applied learning, recess, and lunch.
- The resumption of the district’s “Homework Hotline.”
- A small number of students returning to brick-and-mortar buildings with teachers in full personal protective gear, including gowns and foot covering.
- Prioritizing students with the most severe disabilities for returning to campus, followed by those who have recently arrived in this country and are learning English.
- Increased use of the Canvas Parent and Canvas Student apps.
“We are in a very difficult place being challenged to make some very difficult decisions,” Board member Rosalind Osgood said.
The schedule unveiled Wednesday shows the first shift starts at 8 a.m. with elementary school students. And the “night class” beginning in the afternoon that has teachers working as late as 9:30 p.m.
“It allows for flexibility for those who need access to live instruction with teachers later in the day,” said Valerie Wanza, chief school performance, and accountability officer. “Parents won’t have to choose between their child’s education and working to keep food on the table.”
The very specific instructional day that would put students in front of a computer for hours drew some concern.
Anna Fusco, president of the Broward Teachers Union, asked for the school district to do an actual mock day to see how realistic it would be.
“It’s an unrealistic day for Malik and Ms. Gomez,” Fusco said, referencing the sample student and teacher the district used to illustrate a typical online day. “You have them both working nonstop and minimal time to get things done. The last thing we want them to do is to have them both burnt out.”
Wanza said that, of course, teachers of younger students would be doing more than interacting through a computer.
“We know that the day has to be … in smaller chunks for them, and we will be making sure they have tools that are more applicable to them,” she said.
At one point, Wanza was near tears.
“We don’t get to recreate the first day of kindergarten with parents walking their kids into school for the first time,” she said.
The administration’s efforts seemed to please most of the board members.
“You are doing something that’s never been done before, and I think you are doing a wonderful job,” said Donna Korn, chairwoman of the School Board.
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- Anne Geggis has been a newspaper reporter for 30 years, most recently at the Sun Sentinel. She graduated from St. Michael’s College in Colchester, Vt., with a double major in journalism and sociology.
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