On any other day, the dozen administrators crowded around a conference table in an annex of Miami-Dade County Public Schools’ offices would be focused on educating kids at the macro level.
During the coronavirus pandemic, they’re help-desk operators. Each one has a landline phone with an extension, stemming from 305-995-HELP, with jumbo hand sanitizers and lemon Lysol wipes within reach. Poster-sized sheets of paper line the walls outlining callers’ frequently asked questions and how to troubleshoot them.
Since the Miami-Dade school district got a head start on online remote learning Monday, the district’s been flooded with private messages and social media comments from students and parents about issues with the multitude of online education platforms being used. A second conference room is being set up.
They’ll have to work out the kinks quickly. Schools statewide will officially begin online instruction March 30 until at least April 15. Grades and attendance will matter, even though all standardized tests are canceled.
Broward County Public Schools will have to catch up. As Miami-Dade already has done, Broward schools will distribute laptops for students in need, as well as open for students to pick up personal items or medication, on Friday from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m.
“We have lesson plans and content for every grade level every subject,” said Broward Superintendent Robert Runcie at a press conference Wednesday. “We’ll always make sure that we focus on our core mission, that we’ll continue to have an educational plan for continuity.”
The district plans to scale up Broward Virtual University, which already serves 9,300 students. Teachers will also have a training on remote learning on Friday. Like Miami-Dade, teachers will have “office hours” so students can go over assignments and ask questions with teachers.
“We’ve been doing virtual for a number of years and have been able to successfully administer testing through that as well,” Runcie said.
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Miami-Dade’s head start
Miami-Dade surveyed families about their need for a digital device at home at the start of last week. Laptops were available for distribution beginning Friday. As of late Tuesday, more than 50,000 laptops were handed out.
The district tracked how many times students voluntarily logged in so far this week: There were 803,186 logins for science and 156,200 for social studies on a platform called Edgenuity, used mostly by students in grades 6 through 12. Just on Tuesday, there were 216,000 logins for English language arts and 347,000 for math also on Edgenuity. There were 261,000 logins for a platform called iReady, used mostly by elementary school students, and 120,000 logins for another platform called Edmodo.
Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho admitted that some users have had difficulty logging in and experienced a lag in service, but he chalked that up to servers being over capacity as students nationwide log on. A document of frequently asked questions for remote learning was circulated on social media by the district Tuesday night.
“We’ve said all along we didn’t expect this to be perfect, we expect this to be good because at no point in the history of America has no school district launched a switch as swift as this one,” Carvalho said. “I’m actually surprised we didn’t encounter more challenges. We were bracing ourselves for a number of challenges.”
The help desk has also fielded calls from charter school parents and families from Broward.
He said the school district is already looking to scale up and roll out better versions of its “instructional continuity plan.”
The first issue to fix: Connecting students and teachers. Teachers currently have three hours of office hours for students to ask questions and get help, but many students and parents have complained that teachers are not reading emails. Under an emergency shutdown, unionized labor is not required to work.
Carvalho says that may take integrating some of the many platforms being used.
“I think [the plan] is doing exactly what we wanted it to but we may be pushed, based on the length of the shutdown, into I believe a new scenario where we need to entertain additional technological upgrades and improving experience,” he said.
Spring break, which will take place in Miami-Dade and Broward beginning Monday, gives districts a week to work on a more sustainable plan. Carvalho said he will also look at how the district can hold remote meetings, like bargaining sessions with the United Teachers of Dade to finally discuss teacher pay.