BROWARD COUNTY, Fla. – Broward County Public Schools are hoping to reopen to in-person learning sometime in October, as long as the downward trend in COVID-19 cases in the county continues, Superintendent Robert Runcie said Tuesday.
“If the current trends continue and we can maintain that and continue on the path to improvement, we will be able to open schools in a phased approach as early as sometime in October,” Runcie said.
Runcie said the school district will be holding a workshop Sept. 22 to discuss the strategy of their reopening plan, and whether to reopen with a hybrid or full-time on-site structure.
“All of us are anxious for our schools to reopen for face-to-face learning, as we know how important and critical the work of the district is in meeting the needs of our students and our families, but we must open in a way that is safe and in a way that is smart,” he said.
He said easy access to rapid testing is one criteria that school officials are looking at, as well as the ability to acquire the proper PPE over the long term.
The school district has been advocating for state and federal funding to assist with that effort.
According to Runcie, voluntary workouts for student-athletes are expected to resume Sept. 21 and will be held strictly outdoors at the beginning.
He said athletes will gradually phase into moving into weight rooms and holding other indoor workouts.
The school district and the Broward Teachers Union have also reached a tentative agreement that will provide all employees in the BTU-EP unit a salary increase, and all employees in the BTU-ESP unit with a referendum supplement.
Runcie said under the agreement, no teacher will be making less than $47,500.
Considerations to reopening schools
Runcie said there are four key variables they are monitoring which impacts when schools can reopen for onsite instruction:
1. Disease progression: This includes monitoring internal COVID-19 metrics and related trends in community spread via the COVID-19 percent positive rate. Among the staff, he said numbers from last Friday show 362 employees and contractors reported positive test results since June 1. In Broward County, Runcie says there has been a sustained downward trend of cases over the last 14 days, which is promising, but community behavior remains a variable. “I know this was a festive weekend and I pray that this Labor Day weekend does not set us back in the coming weeks as we urgently need to get our kids back in school,” he said.
2. The ability to manage the spread: One area of concern is that testing remains a challenge, which impacts being able to perform “proper contact tracing”. Runcie says the availability of rapid testing will be critical to re-opening to onsite instruction and remaining open.
3. Health System Capacity: A continued metric they monitor is the community’s hospitalization rate. “The next following weeks following Labor Day holiday will be important to watch to see how the trends go going forward,” Runcie said.
4. District Safeguards: Runcie said they have made significant orders for signage, plexiglass, PPE, cleaning and sanitization equipment. They are also working with the state to help secure funding to offset the financial impact of safety protocols. Runcie said the mid-to-long term costs of PPE will be significant.
Parent survey likely coming
Runcie said they will probably be asking for the opinion of parents again following the Sept. 22 school board workshop.
The results of past parent surveys, he said, have generally found about a third of parents preferred the online learning model. He said at least 89,000 students have underlying health conditions that they are aware of, for example, which is why their households may choose to remain with virtual school.
Other parents have told the district they prefer the flexibility of online learning.
If that percentage of parents who prefer distance learning remains the same, it will allow them to offer five-day-a-week onsite instruction to the rest of the students at most school sites because they will be able to expand the footprint of classrooms needed to meet social distancing guidelines.
Runcie does say upwards of 30 to 50 school sites may have to feature both a hybrid and full-time on-site instruction model due to capacity limitations. He added that it is dependent on enrollment numbers, the findings of that upcoming school board workshop, trends in community spread, and the results of the anticipated new parent survey.