Facing state pressure, Miami schools OK reopening next week

Volunteer Zoila Frometa sorts meals for distribution to students at Hialeah-Miami Lakes High School during the new coronavirus pandemic, Tuesday, April 21, 2020, in Hialeah, Fla. Miami-Dade County Public Schools are distributing meals twice a week for the remainder of the school year. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky) (Lynne Sladky, Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

MIAMI – Faced with a state ultimatum, the Miami-Dade school board agreed unanimously to reopen schools for classroom instruction next week despite looming fears that they're unprepared to prevent another spike in coronavirus infections.

It was either share classroom air again or lose millions in state funding by scratching a reopening plan approved by Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran. He ordered the board in a letter last week to follow through on Monday, and said the state would allow only case-by-case exceptions for certain schools.

Corcoran's letter objected to a previous board decision to postpone classroom instruction, perhaps until late October, so that more safety measures could be implemented and personal protective equipment obtained for teachers and staff.

Miami-Dade has both the largest school district in Florida, and the state's worst coronavirus caseload.

Both President Donald Trump and Gov. Ron DeSantis have pushed for classroom instruction to begin again. State officials granted flexibility to South Florida districts to continue with online learning because of their high virus caseloads.

Florida's health department has since begun releasing statistics on coronavirus cases “associated with” individual schools. The vast majority showed total caseloads in the single digits.

Two high schools in the Florida Panhandle where some parents have complained about repeated quarantines of students who sat next to asymptomatic infected classmates had the highest number of confirmed cases, at 31 and 22. In Miami-Dade, where schools have struggled to successfully implement remote instruction this school year, no school has more than four infections, the numbers show.

Still, the teacher's union condemned the board's decision to restart physical classes next Monday, saying it was done “too quickly and without preparation.”

“The pressure from President Trump and Governor DeSantis proved to be far greater a force on our school board than our pleas for public health and safety,” said United Teachers of Dade President Karla Hernandez-Mats in a statement. “When it came to our teachers, children and families in Miami-Dade, our board succumbed to the pressures.”

Also Wednesday, DeSantis signed an executive order extending an earlier order allowing local government bodies to conduct meetings virtually. A memo that accompanied the new order said local boards should prepare to meet in person as required by Florida law beginning Nov. 1.

Florida's Department of Health on Wednesday tallied 1,948 new confirmed cases of the virus and 173 new COVID-19 deaths. The state so far has reported more than 706,500 known cases and at least 14,486 deaths.