The pandemic hit Miami-Dade public schools hard. Regardless of how well students and their families have adjusted to remote learning, the practice poses significant challenges. If they haven't lost a job, parents fortunate enough to be working from home have had to balance work with assisting their children through Zoom education. And teachers also continue to struggle.
As more COVID-19 vaccines become available and CDC classroom guidelines relax, students are beginning to return to in-person class. Miami-Dade County Public Schools report that about 50% of its students are attending school on-site, although a March visit to Booker T. Washington Senior High School in Overtown by The Miami Times, witnessed an average of only 5-6 students per classroom.
But one thing is certain: A large number of students have left Miami-Dade schools – about 10,600 out of its pre-pandemic enrollment estimate of 345,000. That near 3% drop may provide a little more elbow room in the fourth-largest school district in the country, but it also translates to a troubling loss of revenue.
“The district’s main source of per-student funding is the Florida Education Finance Program (FEFP),” said Superintendent of Schools Alberto Carvalho during a March 17 school board meeting. “If we lose students, we lose that revenue, and there is no other recurring source that can make up for it. We will continue to seek non-recurring sources to our greatest capability, and we are certainly grateful for the Federal government’s financial stimuli to help with pandemic-related costs, but there is no replacement for FEFP funds in its ability to pay for our recurring costs. We are a governmental organization that relies on tax dollars; but it is the state that sets the rules for those education taxes and it appears as if the Florida Legislature will take the position of funding our actual number of students as statute dictates.”
In a Feb. 18 presentation in Tallahassee to the Florida House of Representatives Pre-K through 12 Appropriations Sub-Committee, Carvalho said that district officials know where most of the vanishing students have gone. He reported that 2,400 have moved out of Florida and about 2,600 have moved out of Miami-Dade County. Around 2,700 have left the district to attend private schools and some have received Empowerment Scholarships. He claims just 1,000 students are unaccounted for. Some never appeared for class while others were “removed” for excessive absences, and there are some students whose whereabouts are unknown.
Hunting for Missing Students
District 3 school board member Lucia Baez-Geller is very concerned about the struggles students and teachers are facing. She wants to bring missing students back.
“We want to identify all the paths that students are taking,” said Baez-Geller, who recently taught language arts at Miami Beach Senior High School. “There are about 700 students we are trying to find. We know that most of the students who are no longer in Miami-Dade schools have left the state or Miami-Dade County, or they have enrolled in charter or private schools. A reason some students are missing is because their parents did not enroll them in kindergarten this fall.”
Angie Torres, district director for Miami-Dade Schools ESE programs serves in the social work area. She is working to bring students back to school.
“If a student has been missing, we will make a phone call to the student’s home. If necessary, we will go the home to try to reengage with the family and meet with that family,” she said.
Torres also emphasizes the importance of being patient with students and their families.
“There can be many things people are going through. The student may have experienced trauma or food insecurity or problems finding shelter,” she said. “We want to engage the parents of the children. We want to collaborate in the school community. We want to find out why students are not coming back to school.”
School officials also plan to contact neighbors and people who may know the missing students.
After a child accumulates more than 20 absences, a red flag is raised and a case file is opened. This year, caseloads have doubled or tripled because of disruptions caused by the pandemic. Dorothy Bendross-Mindingall, District 2 school board member, agrees with an aggressive strategy to find children and bring them back to school.
“As a [prior] principal at Lillie Carmichael Evans Elementary School in the heart of Liberty City, when children didn't come to school, I went to their homes and got them,” she said.
“Many of these students are at high risk of failure. We know that everyone has been traumatized by what we have been through with the pandemic. Many people need therapy. I think this has hit minority students the hardest,” said Baez-Geller. “I was a high school teacher for 15 years and I have seen how this pandemic has shown us the struggles that lower income families are facing ... the biggest issue is resources and to ensure that every student who needs services has access to them. It is hard to know all the resources that are out there ... we need to have an outreach program.”
State Sen. Shevrin Jones also is concerned about the situation.
The Price of Partisan Politics
“Unfortunately for the people of Florida, the GOP majority in the legislature is doing everything but making sure our families, parents, teachers, students and school districts get the COVID relief, support and resources they need to educate all kids safely,” he said. “I am thankful that the Biden administration has stepped up and led since taking office a short time ago – without that relief, Florida families and small businesses would face even harder choices than they already do each and every day.
“Throughout this crisis, I’ve called for my colleagues on the other side of the aisle to set politics aside and lead, but it is clear that many have no interest in governing as they prioritize legislation that couldn’t be further disconnected from what our communities actually need. People are frustrated and need results – not more grandstanding and political stunts that further divide us in these already fraught, polarized times.
“My team organized a teachers-parents virtual roundtable with Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran to discuss COVID-19 school safety procedures, connectivity issues, teacher pay and other relevant topics. While there are a wide range of perspectives on the best way to approach these issues, ultimately everyone at that table wants to make sure Florida students can get a quality education safely. That’s the top priority, and I will continue to lift those voices as a member of the Senate and the Education Committee.”
Christi Fraga, District 5 school board member, also has acknowledged that with less money coming from the state, some hard decisions will have to be made. She said some programs may have to be consolidated and efforts will have to be made to make Miami-Dade schools more attractive to families. One option might be to have more K-8 schools.
“I want to see under-enrolled programs consolidated rather than eliminated. We are working on a strategic plan for the next five years and we will have to tackle a budget crisis,” she said.
M-DCPS spokesperson Elmo Lugo said it will have a better handle on its financial situation after the new state budget is passed and signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis. That's when plans for next year will be able to commence. And with the anticipated return of all students to brick-and-mortar schools, perhaps some of those missing children will reappear.
How making up for lost time in summer school? Lugo say the district is waiting for guidance from the state.
“We have not received guidance from the state on whether there will be an option to attend in person or online in the coming year and this affect decisions for the summer. For example, if all students must attend in person then this will affect how the district will follow CDC guidelines, teacher assignments and even food distribution,” said Lugo.