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Miami's Early Preparation Pays Off in Launch of Distance Learning

  • On March 16, Miami-Dade County Public Schools closed schools due to the coronavirus pandemic. But officials in the nation’s fourth largest school district had been preparing for the possibility of school closures since January, when Miami Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho began ordering full-scale preparation for the possibility of having to shut down schools due to COVID-19. 

    Carvalho directed operational staff to update the district’s pandemic plan, facilities managers to prepare for increased sanitization to prevent the spread of the virus, and the district’s academic leaders to begin drafting an instructional continuity plan, in the event of school closures. Miami Student

    “For several weeks, we had hoped for the best, but began preparing for the worst,” said Carvalho. “We took the necessary steps to be able to effectively carry out virtual teaching and learning.” 

    The Miami school system was ready to transition to distance learning, due to its long-standing priority of digital convergence. For the past six years, the 355,000-student school system has been undergoing a digital transformation, in an effort to give every student a device. Therefore, there was an inventory of about 200,000 computer devices as well as Wi-Fi access points available for distribution. 

    On March 6, an emergency preparedness mobile device survey was sent home with students to find out if they had a computer at home as well as internet access, to ensure all students could remain connected. The school system received 208,000 responses from the survey and a need for 60,000 more devices. Since the beginning of the year, the district has distributed more than 110,000 mobile devices to families who did not have one at home and collaborated with private and public sector partners, including Comcast and Xfinity, to provide internet connectivity to those households without it. 

    On March 13, the district launched its distance learning 1.0 program for students in grades K-12, intended for a short-term closure of schools. Webinars were offered for teachers on how to use distance learning and teachers were also to use Microsoft Teams, the preferred communication platform. 

    Carvalho knew the first iteration of the plan would not last indefinitely and communicated that to the community.  The learning plan would have to evolve efficiently and effectively along with the rest of the dynamics the district was managing, including widespread food distribution, capital improvement projects, and continued sanitization. Following Spring Recess, the district unveiled a second iteration called Instructional Continuity Plan (ICP 2.0) to provide guidance and support to teachers, students and families for an extended period of time.

    Professional development was conducted over three days involving more than 18,000 teachers, with the emphasis on having educators stay connected with their students.  

    “We provided over 40 sessions for teachers that were subject and grade-level specific,” said Marie Izquierdo, the district’s chief academic officer, in an interview with the Urban Educator. The professional development sessions covered topics ranging from teachers navigating their remote classrooms to exploring best practices for distance learning, as well as improving communication and collaboration with colleagues and students. 

    As part of the district’s online learning, attendance is being captured, with students logging in to the student portal to be recorded as present in school. If a student fails to log in to the portal, his or her parents will receive an automated phone call the next day, indicating the student did not log in to the portal the day before and was marked absent. 

    Dashboards adapted for live attendance and mobile device checkout data were reviewed by Carvalho and his cabinet every morning. Particular emphasis was placed on attendance, device distribution, and connectivity for the most fragile populations in the greater Miami-Dade Community. 

    Average weekly attendance for distance learning at the district is at 91.5 percent, which was similar to attendance in a regular brick and mortar environment. The district is also able to view attendance by grade level and has found that middle school students have been engaged with distance learning early on. High school students started out with 80 percent attendance, but are now up to 90 percent, with high school seniors at 89 percent. 

    Taking Attendance and Giving Grades

    Miami student The Miami school system created a call center for distance learning that received approximately 1,000 calls a day, but that number has lowered to approximately 500 calls a day. The calls came mostly from students, parents and teachers who had questions, and they were used to create a FAQ on the district website available in three different languages.

    In setting up its distance learning, the district’s academic team worked with all of its educational software partners to narrow the curriculum for the fourth grading period for the current school year.  

    Administrators examined what learning had been scheduled for the fourth quarter and had content directors hone that set of learning objectives to those that would be essential as a foundation for learning the key concepts in the first quarter of the next grade level. This was done to help students move more smoothly into the fall semester. 

    As part of this effort, Instructional Continuity Pacing Guides (ICPGs) for the fourth quarter were created to help teachers develop distance learning lessons/assignments for students across all grade levels.  

    Under Miami’s distance learning plan, teachers are required to assign students one grade a week. The district also developed general recommendations for how long a student should spend on each content area and activity.

    Summer Learning

    Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis recently declared that schools in the state will not reopen for the rest of the school year and Miami school officials are already having discussions about remote summer learning. 

    “At M-DCPS, we are prepared to engage in distance learning for as long as necessary,” said Carvalho. “I am truly impressed by our teachers, students, and their families who have committed to these efforts, generating an average daily attendance of more than 91 percent. From the elementary school teachers who read to their students, even at bedtime in some cases, to interactive instruction through video conferencing and other online platforms, our students are actively engaged in learning.”

    The district is currently looking at a number of models to combat summer academic regression and is aware that they need to address the two percent of students that are not engaging digitally and their exponentially growing learning loss. Carvalho expressed that he predicts “an unprecedented, historic regression,” and has emphasized the importance of the development of “a more targeted plan, which includes remediation and acceleration for the most at-risk students, including those who live in poverty, students with disabilities, newly-arrived immigrants, and English learners.”

    One idea the district is considering is for students who need extra instruction to return to schools earlier, in the event that schools are opened in September. They are also contemplating providing additional hours of instruction a day once school is back in session. In the meantime, public libraries and local state universities are offering free tutoring for struggling students. 

    In just a matter of weeks, the district has accomplished a herculean task; distributing more than 110,000 devices, providing professional development to 18,000 teachers and launching a distance learning program with 30,000 live video lessons a day. But the biggest challenge faced by the school system, and one it still faces, is the number of children who do not have internet connectivity. “You can give them the most sophisticated devices in the universe, but you can’t pay for their internet connection,” said Izquierdo. 

    The superintendent and school board members strongly believe and have been saying long before school closures and COVID-19, that it is a civil right of the 21st century for children and their families to have access to the internet.  “For years, we have been working tirelessly to eradicate digital deserts in our community by providing equity and access through connectivity,” said Carvalho. Miami Superintendent Alberto Carvalho

    Miami school board member Lawrence Feldman noted that school facilities are closed, but learning and the academic year is not over and said the board has supported the superintendent’s leadership and the untiring work of the district’s offices to provide hotspot and digital devices disseminations to students in need. 

    “This pandemic is obviously an unprecedented occurrence, one that I am thankful our district has approached proactively and with a great deal of thought and purpose…not just from an academic perspective, which is our main mission, but in ways that reflect the broader mission we all hold close – the care and well-being of the whole child and the communities we serve.” said Feldman. 

    The district believes internet access should be considered a utility, similar to water or electricity, and noted that as challenging as launching a digital online program has been, it is has served as a necessary wake-up call for the nation to understand the necessity of digital connectivity and its importance in education. 

    “Beyond managing the current crisis, the challenge ahead must be the recognition of an unprecedented, historic national academic regression, and the immediate steps we must take to mitigate against it,” said Carvalho. “We at M-DCPS are on it!”