Under normal circumstances, parents have difficult choices to make about where their children go to school, what they do after school and what activities are safe for them to engage in. Since these are not normal times and many parents are concerned about the COVID-19 cases that have been reported in schools, United Teachers of Dade is reaching out to empower parents with critical questions to ask about returning to face-to-face instruction, and how to keep their children whole and well.

A range of professionals voiced their opposition to returning to in-class instruction. New educators, veteran classroom teachers and district staff vehemently disagreed with the crass political decision to prematurely reopen Miami-Dade County Public Schools for face-to-face learning and fervently stated so while the school board deliberated.

We take no joy in being right. But what will it take for responsible leadership to reconsider the decision to reopen school buildings?

As incidents of COVID-19 infections are now being reported every day, we are proposing two courses of action. First, we are educating about key areas within the building to keep our schools as safe as possible. Second, when infections occur in schools, we will advocate vigorously for closing buildings and returning to the safety of distance learning while implementing rigorous testing and contact tracing until it is safe to reopen buildings.

In the interests of doing the best we can, being resilient – tough and flexible under difficult circumstances – our union has launched an education campaign focused on health and safety using #SafeSchoolsSFL to encourage a healthy community discussion rather than deadly secrecy.

We are encouraging parents to keep their children safe and secure at home engaged in distance learning. Remember, your child can recover from a learning gap if they miss the visual cues and body language reinforcing classroom lessons. We do not know the long-term impact of COVID-19.

The more parents who opt for distance learning for now, the more space there is for schools to accommodate students who must return to face-to-face instruction because they and their families have no alternative.

If you are reconsidering your decision about returning your child to in-school learning, we have identified five key areas of safeguards. Please talk to the principal at your child’s school and make sure they address each of the following important issues:

1. Planning for physical distancing is critical. Students should be kept as far apart as possible, including while entering and leaving the school and moving around the building. The school should have designated responsible individuals to enforce procedures to ensure a minimum of 6 feet distance between staff, students and visitors. This is especially true for high-traffic areas.

2. Everyone in the building should utilize facial coverings at all times with a culture that supports and encourages the use of personal protective equipment (PPE) as a positive practice. At minimum, backup masks for both adults and children should be available.

3. Hand-washing should be a regular activity throughout the day, which means working sinks with soap and paper towels. As an alternative, 70% alcohol-based hand sanitizer must be available.

4. Thorough cleansing of classrooms and the entire building before, during and after students are present is necessary. While cleaning must be everyone’s responsibility, cleansing of areas relies on trained custodial staff and students wiping down their area before leaving the classroom.

5. Ventilation must have proper filtration to capture virus particles and be vented to diffuse recirculated inside air with fresh outside air. Ask your principal if filters have been upgraded to MERV-13, which is the lowest effective rating to capture COVID-19.

If schools are going to be open, these five standards should set a baseline to combat the spread that we have already started to see in our schools. The above issues are a starting point for any intelligent conversation about safely returning to or staying in school. Parents should be comfortable that these standards are being met before deciding the best option for their child.

It is up to parents to make the individual decision about keeping their children safe at home.

Collectively, our union will continue to monitor incidents and advocate for elected and appointed leaders to take responsible action to close schools when outbreaks occur.

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