Cassandra Holmes started her Monday pre-K classes like any other school morning, with a round of good mornings from her 4- and 5-year-old students.
Except this was like no other morning. The coronavirus pandemic is shutting down the world. South Florida is the epicenter of the disease in Florida. And all Miami-Dade and Broward schools are shut down for two weeks, and possibly longer.
But there Holmes was on Monday morning, staring at the small faces arranged on the monitor in front of her. They screeched at the sight of her signature look: A big flower perched atop her head.
“They don’t have the full understanding of what’s going on,” said Holmes, a 25-year veteran educator. “I just want to make sure I’m a safe place in their life, and if they see me they know everything is OK.”
Distance learning was the Miami-Dade County school district’s answer to maintaining normalcy for its 350,000 students during this crisis. The district went through a dry run on Friday to see how it would work with each teacher. More than 45,600 digital devices were checked out to students who needed one at home.
The district also sought to keep another constant for the 73% of the school district’s enrollment that qualifies for free or reduced lunch. On Monday, the school district distributed hot breakfast and lunch to-go at every school site from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.
But as schools prepared for the worst, there were no plans laid out for pre-K students.
What, Holmes thought, could she do to remain a constant presence in the lives of her 20 students at Eneida M. Hartner Elementary School?
“My mind was already in motion,” she said. “I wanted something more personal with my class.”
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She sent parents instructions on how to set up Skype accounts and scheduled the kids’ daily routine just like a normal day in class, with lunch, quiet time, outdoor play and learning.
A dozen of her students logged on at 8:30 a.m., the start of school. An hour later, it was time to sing a song about books and read one out loud, asking questions about character development along the way.
What Holmes couldn’t make normal, she embraced: On Skype, there’s no quietly raising hands. On Skype, you can be out of uniform, snuggling with a blanket, on the couch, or at the dinner table or even still in bed.
Five-year-old Layla Figueroa put on her favorite skirt and school polo. She thought Mrs. Holmes was coming to her house, but no, her mother explained, they were going to watch her on the computer. And she had to dress appropriately.
Layla warmed up to the idea about going to school without being in school.
“She kind of got the idea,” said mother Denise Figueroa. “It’s a little hard at home but we try to do our best.”
After story time, parents and grandparents sent Holmes photos and videos of her students learning from home. Holmes created a private Facebook group for parents to keep up.
“She likes going to school, and she loves her teachers,” Figueroa said of her daughter. “I think it’s a fun different thing for her. She hasn’t really been sad.”
It was an adjustment for Holmes, too. Her 13-year-old son, an eighth-grader at iPrep Academy, was doing his own online work. And her 5- and 8-year-old grandchildren were following their own schedules.
“We all have laptops and we’re all doing the schedules,” Holmes said. “ Even though I’m a parent, I’m a parent-teacher. I’m doing my class but I’m also the teacher for them this week as well.”
She laughed. “All of that together in one household, it can be a lot. We still had fun.”
Figueroa welcomed the routine.
“I think it’s very important,” she said. “They don’t get lazy, they don’t just sit back.”
No attendance is being taken this week. It’s an honor system, said Marie Izquierdo, the district’s chief academic officer.
“We’re trying to give them a sense of normalcy,” she said.
Beth Edwards, president of the Miami-Dade County Council of Parent Teacher Associations, said she hadn’t heard anything out of the ordinary from her region representatives on distance learning and the distribution of free meals. She attributed the smooth rollout to Friday’s test run.
“Right now it seems pretty good,” Edwards said. “There’s been some jokes like [Superintendent Alberto) Carvalho for president. They feel so far it’s unfolding the best we can hope for.”
Edwards’ own daughter, a freshman in Miami Beach Senior High’s pre-International Baccalaureate Scholars Academy, woke up on time to do work.
“The first thing she did, she had her devices on her, checking every single class,” said Edwards. “It’s almost second nature. I think the parents are struggling more than the children because the children are on these devices every day.”
She added, “These kids don’t look at it as a vacation.”