Hundreds of thousands of Miami-Dade County public school students and faculty returned to class after having two weeks off for the holidays. But instead of being refreshed and ready for the semester, the nation’s fourth-largest school district is continuing to grapple with major COVID-fueled teacher shortages and replacing an outgoing superintendent within the next few weeks.
More than 2,100 teachers called out sick on Jan. 3, the Monday back from winter break, compared to 1,333 who were out sick in 2021 returning from the holidays, Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said last week.
“We believe some are out with COVID and some are out because they need to supervise their children who were impacted by COVID themselves,” he explained. “We have contingency plans to mitigate if there are problems in the future.”
Even Carvalho stepped away from his duties to fill in for an environmental science teacher at Miami Jackson Senior High School last week, showing just how the jump in coronavirus cases has caused administrators from all over the district to cover classrooms.
In her 26-year teaching career, Tina Whitaker has never witnessed anything like this.
“This year was the worst I’ve ever seen,” the Arthur & Polly Mays Conservatory of the Arts social studies teacher said. “You might have a shortage of math teachers for one year or a shortage of reading teachers for a particular year, but not completely across the board a shortage of teachers. Coming off of Christmas break, teachers are usually back in the building, ready to go because right around the corner is testing season for us.”
On Jan. 6, Whitaker, who teaches students in grades 6-12, said six of her colleagues were missing after the break, but added that things have been improving as the week progressed. On Jan. 10, the school district reported 1,489 absent teachers, a decline of about 600 absences compared to last week’s 2,100.
“It’s been bad,” Whitaker said. “Once they’ve quarantined, we have had teachers able to come back, but the first day back was very difficult.”
Other instructors are seeing a double-digit number of colleagues absent from their schools. Daunte Foster, an eighth grade pre-algebra teacher at David Lawrence Jr. K-8 Center, explained that his school was missing 10 teachers Friday.
“The situation is really bad,” Foster said. “If we don’t get this thing together, I really believe this is going to be the first generation in the history of mankind that doesn’t do more justice than the previous (one), because we’re failing these kids.”
A concern he shared is that the need for teachers is outpacing available substitutes, and that despite substitutes being great at what they do, having one still doesn’t compare to having a teacher present to teach the necessary lesson plans consistantly.
“I’m a math teacher. It’s very rare that I can get a substitute that can come in and teach algebra,” Foster said. “They may just have some work to give students through the day, but as far as the kids actually learning new material and learning what’s going to be on the FSA (Florida Standards Assessment) this year, no, they’re not doing that.”
Whitaker also is the substitute locator for her school. From her perspective, those in positions similar to hers need to form relationships with their substitutes to know where they best fit when they are needed. It’s not like a physical education teacher or an office aide is simply brought in to babysit a classroom.
“You have to know your subs,” she said. “Instead of just looking for a body in the room you look for their strengths. And, believe it or not, a lot of my subs have college degrees so they are able to carry out a lesson plan. It might not be to the depths of a math lesson, but they can help the students work through the problems.”
Students and masks
According to the two educators, most of their students wear facial coverings, despite not being mandated to do so due to an executive order signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis.
“I have not seen a lot of students at my school that do not wear masks. They say, ‘Miss, it’s COVID in the streets,’” Whitaker laughed. “I applaud them for making decisions for themselves that sometimes adults feel like the children cannot … but kids are smart.”
On average, she said she’s had about three students missing from each of her classes due to COVID-19. Student attendance across the district was at 82.4% on the Monday back from the holidays while attendance for Monday of this week was at 89.9%, according to data provided by Miami-Dade County Public Schools. Whitaker said there’s a virtual option for those students of hers, who are missing, to tune into the class so they don’t miss the day’s lesson.
High risk for low payBefore the pandemic, teachers had a lot to do. Now with the work, stress and risks of contracting the virus, they find themselves struggling and possibly debating whether or not to leave the profession.
“When you have a state that defunds public education and doesn’t allow for the resources that a professional needs in order to do their job adequately – like making sure that children are safe and that they have the proper funding in schools – that creates an environment where it’s not only not lucrative, but it’s also not appealing because nobody wants to jeopardize their life to do a job,” said Karla Hernández-Mats, president of United Teachers of Dade (UTD).
“You can’t make people work when they don’t feel safe,” Foster said. “Especially for a job where they’re not being paid enough anyways. And that’s why we lose so many teachers. Like, why would I come here and not get paid and not be appreciated and they give you more work?”
As a veteran teacher, Whitaker admits that even she struggles with the low pay. Because substitutes are expected conduct a lesson planned by a sick teacher, she said a solution to the problem is paying substitutes higher wages to attract more people to the job and overcome the shortage. For those who are going to school to become licensed educators, the school district can work on licensing them earlier and have the hours they work count toward their credit, she said.
Rushing to replace the superintendentAmid staffing shortages, student absences and the risk of kids and adults potentially getting sick with in-person classes, the school district is facing yet another obstacle – Carvalho is expected to leave next month to head the Los Angeles Unified School District.
His last day will be Feb. 3, School Board Chair Perla Tabares Hantman announced last week during a special meeting. If necessary, Carvalho agreed to stay until Feb. 14.
In a 6-3 vote, the board decided on a seven-day application window for qualified candidates that closed at 5 p.m. Jan. 12, allowing about three weeks after the deadline to determine which applicant is best fit for the position.
“Seven days? Really? That isn’t enough time even in the modern era to get that word out,” said Sandra West, president of Miami-Dade County Council PTA/PTSA. Board member could name an interim superintendent as other Florida counties have done, West added, saying “They seem to want to make that decision of who the next superintendent’s going to be very quickly.”
Indeed, some members of the board countered that a nationwide search for a superintendent would make the process more exhaustive than it needs to be and there are no plans to hire an interim, unlike Broward County Public Schools.
“With respect to the timeline and one who has gone through a process, I am not in favor of a national search,” Vice Chair Steve Gallon III said. “We have the capacity within this district, throughout this state, with people who understand the nuances of Miami-Dade County Public Schools to continue the great work and build up upon the foundation that has been set. So, I don’t necessarily believe we have to go outside.”
West said the council wants the best person for the job, whether that person works inside or outside the district.
Hernández-Mats, who has been pushing for transparency in the selective process on behalf of UTD, said there are a lot of qualified candidates within the school system and that Carvalho himself, though not the most obvious choice for superintendent 14 years ago, came from inside the system.
The teacher’s union and responses from a community survey agree that Carvalho’s successor should be an educator, not a politician. Board members seem to concur since fetchers for candidates ask for “Demonstrated experience as a classroom teacher: Three years of highly effective public school classroom teaching experience.”
UTD also advocates for someone who understands the cultural diversity of the community.
“We have some of the poorest zip codes in the state and we also have some of the wealthiest zip codes in the state. So, how do we have an education that meets the needs of everybody; that addresses the concerns of the children that we’re representing?” Hernández-Mats said.