Tuesday, July 7, 2020

An Early Plan from a Must-Watch District: Reopening in Miami-Dade

Miami-Dade County Public Schools (MDCPS) have made their much-anticipated reopening plans public. 

The fifth-largest school district in the country was one of the earliest in the country to move instruction online, and by our account, it delivered one of the most robust plans.

For that reason, we’ve been waiting eagerly to see its plan for the fall. Here’s a breakdown of the highlights. We’ll have more detail on this and other plans soon. 

Choice is a foundational principle, of course.

MDCPS has a long tradition of offering a range of school choice options. This plan continues that culture of respecting family preference, allowing parents to choose all-online or hybrid schooling next year. The models are also designed for agility—flexible to move to online if local health conditions suddenly change. 

Each MDCPS school will pick a hybrid model. In schools with low enrollment or lots of students choosing online options, building utilization will fall below 75 percent. Students in these schools will attend physical classrooms daily. 

Schools with more limited space will choose whether students attend every other day or in alternating groups for two consecutive days at a time. All in-person options will use nontraditional spaces as classrooms to allow greater distancing. 

All schools will have a curriculum provided by the district intended to allow them to move seamlessly online during at-home learning days, or in the event they need to close.
 
The fully online option is designed to simulate, as much as possible, the regular classroom. This is based on feedback from families. 

Students will receive live instruction by MDCPS teachers, follow a regular bell schedule, and meet with teachers daily to check for understanding and receive assistance. Limited electives will be offered online. Students will remain enrolled in their regular school and can return at any time. Parents are expected to monitor student attendance and progress, and to contact teachers for support. 

Both options were informed by parent and teacher surveys. In response to parents’ requests for simple and consistent online platforms, My School Online is a single platform for accessing course information and live instruction. 

Logistics are well-planned.

With characteristic attention to detail, the MDCPS plan calls for precautions with food safety, air filters, face coverings, limited interaction in hallways, and extensive contact tracing plans in case someone in a school tests positive—but no express promise of six-foot distances. 

The plan also protects teachers with virtual meetings and protective equipment. The district plans to offer employees virtual counseling and telehealth services, as well as workplace disability accommodations. Before teachers return to work, MDCPS will help them prepare for new routines with dedicated training sessions on safe operations, online learning, and trauma-informed teaching. 

Mental wellness supports are addressed in detail.

Everyone is anticipating students will return to school with much more complex mental health needs, but few districts have said how they will address those needs. 

MDCPS’ reopening presentation indicates the district will:

  • Administer a wellness survey to families to identify priority supports for reopening.
  • Provide a blended model of support combining in-person and virtual mental health services. 
  • Enhance partnerships with a network of mental health professionals to provide services. 
  • Support parents with a mental health assistance phone line.
  • Implement trauma-informed practices by training school-site administrators and staff to identify warning signs.

Our recent report on diagnostic assessments recommends asking parents to help identify student needs. I’m also glad to see a parent assistance line, innovative service delivery, and an early warning system.

A robust communication plan—something school systems in other countries have struggled with.

It’s terrific to see a specific list of how MDCPS will communicate information to families. This has been a strength of the district in the past and, according to McKinsey, something other school systems have struggled with internationally.

  • Automated text, voice, and email messaging to families and employees 
  • Digital newsletters 
  • Social media posts on various platforms 
  • Published editorials and newspaper columns 
  • Radio announcements 
  • Television, radio, print, and digital media news coverage 
  • Various telephone support lines 
  • Dedicated page on the MDCPS website

While this will certainly be a model for other districts to watch, smaller districts with less infrastructure and more fragmented local media will almost certainly need help from states or collaborations with other districts.

I’d also like to see the communication go both ways, with the district soliciting regular feedback on what is working and what is not so it can continually adjust course. 

Interventions for struggling students.

MDCPS’s plan doesn’t offer a lot of detail for struggling students, but calls for bringing students with disabilities and English language learners in three weeks early to provide support. Kids with disabilities will have access to specialized classrooms. 

I’d like to see more information about how the district will fulfill obligations for inclusion, and how it will ensure these students do not get shunted into less-rigorous remedial classes or learning environments that keep them away from their peers. 

The plan includes no mention of other academic interventions, such as one-on-one tutoring, that might help the district address learning losses that occurred this spring. 

Clear and open advocacy requests.

The district plan includes a clear wish list for state and federal policy changes that will help it implement a similar plan. 

Districts will need flexibility in how attendance is defined, and to ensure that online attendance brings the same funding as attendance in physical classrooms—an issue Florida officials clarified with an updated reopening order on Monday. On the federal level, MDCPS advocates additional federal support for the E-Rate program that subsidizes internet connectivity and stimulus funds to help weather the economic downturn. 

In keeping with guidance from the Florida Department of Education, the district plans to use additional funds to support an early start to the school year for kids most in need. 

Public information leaves some important questions unanswered.

Impressive as Miami-Dade’s plan is, some important pieces of information are not yet evident from public presentations. 

  • There is no information about staffing strategies and any needed union contract flexibilities. How will online instruction work? Will teachers specialize? The district had an agreement hashed out with United Teachers of Dade in early March, before Florida officials ordered schools closed, and employee unions were represented on the reopening planning committee. But it’s not clear how, exactly, Miami-Dade schools expect teacher roles and working conditions to shift this fall.
  • There is no information about individual student assessments and targeted interventions. How will parents know if their children are getting what they need and catching up quickly?
  • There is no information on the implications this plan will have for school system budgeting.  Is this all doable with current funding? The answer seems to be an implied yes, but it’s not explicit. 

MDCPS is again setting the pace with one of the first comprehensive plans out, and a well-designed one at that. The district is asking parents to select in-person or online instruction this week, so it has time to flesh out its plans before classes resume August 24.

Unlike most districts’ plans so far, this plan includes attention to learning models and communication, not just logistics. The district’s online learning system is surely one to watch. 

Still, this plan leaves many remaining big questions, especially regarding how the system will accelerate learning for all students and be accountable to parents for results.  

Miami-Dade County Public Schools deserves kudos for a well thought out plan that respects family choice and allows for plans to shift quickly if needed. But it also highlights key issues that states and the federal government must ensure districts address. If nothing else, Miami-Dade has demonstrated that a coherent, timely plan is possible. 

Thu, 08/06/2020

During the pandemic, school districts must deal with uncertainty, not ignore it or take shots in the dark.

Tue, 08/04/2020

For many students returning to class in the coming weeks, it will be back to school online.

Tue, 08/04/2020

States are dumping the instructional planning burden during an unprecedented modern pandemic onto teachers’ laps (or laptops).