More than 98,000 students and nearly 3,760 instructional staff across Miami-Dade and Broward county public schools on Monday were absent. In Miami-Dade, 94 bus drivers were absent, while 96 bus routes in Broward County were doubled, meaning some drivers picked up a second route, officials said.
Though it was the first day back at school after the two-week winter recess, the high number of absentees highlights the current and potential challenges schools face amid the surge in COVID-19 cases across South Florida.
On Friday, Florida reported three new deaths and 76,887 new COVID-19 cases, the largest single-day increase of COVID cases since the pandemic started.
Miami-Dade had its highest weekly COVID case count with 110,441 new resident cases for the week ending Jan. 6, according to Herald calculations of Friday’s Department of Health Report. Broward, too, reported its highest weekly COVID case count for the seven days ending Jan. 6 with 50,254 new resident cases, according to Herald calculations of the same report.
By Friday, the number of students who called out had decreased to nearly 67,000 across both counties. The number of instructional staff absences, however, fluctuated.
In Miami-Dade, the number of instructional staff, which includes teachers, who called in sick decreased from about 2,100 on Monday to about 1,770 Thursday, officials said. In Broward County, about 1,800 teachers called out Friday, up from around 1,600 at the start of the week, officials said.
Both South Florida districts called on instructional personnel typically not assigned to a classroom to fill in when teachers were absent.
“I hope we see less absentees [moving forward], but what we’ve seen, scientists say we may hit the peak in the next two weeks,” said Karla Hernandez-Mats, president of United Teachers of Dade, the teachers’ union. “It’s possible more people will be absent, so we have to see.”
Teachers, parents concerned about safety
Days before students and staff returned to the classroom, both Miami-Dade and Broward amended their mask policies, citing concerns about the high number of COVID-19 cases in the region.
While Miami-Dade required staff, not students, to wear a mask while on campus, Broward County fell short of requiring the same. Instead, it made masks mandatory only for visitors.
Legislation that Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law in November prevents the districts from imposing mask mandates on students.
“Part of my trepidation [coming back] was that the district didn’t require students to wear a mask,” Jordan Schwartz, a ninth-grade teacher at Booker T. Washington High School, 1200 NW Sixth Ave., told the Herald Monday. Surprisingly, though, about 95% of her students chose to wear a mask, which allowed her to “walk around without feeling anxious,” she said.
Like Schwartz, Molly Winters Diallo, department chair for social studies at Alonzo and Tracy Mourning Senior High School in North Miami and the district’s 2018 Teacher of the Year, worried about returning to the classroom with the more contagious omicron variant.
She applauded the district’s efforts to provide COVID-19 at-home tests to teachers and staff before school began, but admitted her concerns would likely continue “as long as I keep seeing the dashboard rise.”
In the first week of the second semester, 34 students and 86 employees in Miami-Dade Schools had tested positive for COVID-19, according to the district’s dashboard. In Broward County, 450 students and 482 staff had tested positive, according to its dashboard.
“Schools were not set up for social-distancing and the fact that this [variant] is so highly contagious, that’s the challenge here,” she said. “We had a higher number of people out, higher than normal, [and] that creates a lot of stress on the school site.”
And that’s the concern, said Miami-Dade schools parent Jennifer Restrepo.
“I understand there can’t be 100% distance-learning,” she said, “but if the parent wants to keep their kids home, not indefinitely, but just this first week, they should be allowed to do so.”
Most students wear masks
Miami-Dade schools’ mask mandate concerns only staff, yet students across the district chose on their own to wear one.
At Booker T. High, senior Jaylen Hardy chose to wear a mask to protect himself and his parents. He didn’t want to bring the virus home to them, he said. Demiya Benjamin, a sophomore, decided to wear one because she doesn’t want to get sick or be required to go to school virtually, she said.
Jade Caballero, a senior at Miami Senior High School, 2450 SW First St., shared similar sentiments. She wore a mask to help prevent her family from getting sick.
“It’s a little worrying [being in school],” she said, “but I prefer this to online school because I feel like I learn more here.”