One by one, the Mourning High students unmuted themselves. Across the Zoom grid, mics lit up as they said, “That was amazing.”
They had just watched their classmate Stephanie’s video for Advanced Placement Psychology. The assignment: to create a set of meaningful “moments” of trying something new, expressing gratitude and sharing three activities she loves. In the video, Stephanie cooked dinner for her family while narrating it like a TV chef, set the table with nice plates and goblets and danced to Latin American music with her dad.
“In the pandemic, I thought, we’ve lost sight of some of the things that bring us joy,” Miami teacher Molly Winters Diallo told her students. Two full screens of heads nodded in agreement. “This is my favorite project that I’ve done in high school,” one of the students said.
Unlike Seattle, Miami isn’t known as a tech hub. And its school district is larger and more diverse than any in Washington: Of its more than 350,000 students, two-thirds are from low-income families, more than 70% are Hispanic and about 20% are Black, according to district records. But it has a lot to teach the Pacific Northwest about how to make online education engaging and effective — starting with its preparedness last spring.
Despite having the earliest coronavirus lockdown in the nation, Seattle struggled to implement any sustained online education in the spring, and some parents say offerings remain a patchwork in the new school year. This fall, after the sluggish spring start, about 92% of Seattle Public School students logged on to at least one of the district’s tools during the first two weeks of school; Miami achieved that level of participation daily back in April.
Miami drew on its emergency hurricane plan and several years of ramping up technology in schools — an investment that led to a smoother fall. Its stride didn’t even slow after a high-profile but short-lived disaster when it switched to a new online learning platform, then dropped it shortly thereafter. And its efforts have garnered notice: UW’s Center for Reinventing Public Education praised Miami-Dade as a model.
Asked whether Seattle was looking to Miami for guidance, Seattle schools spokesperson Tim Robinson said the district was relying largely on its own staff, though he noted that the chief academic officer usually participates in a weekly call with school leaders from across the U.S. that Miami-Dade’s chief academic officer often attends. Miami-Dade is more top-down than Seattle, he said, giving schools less autonomy, “so the context is quite different.”
Washington needs to get this right. Eighty percent of districts, educating 95% of the state’s students, opened the year remotely, according to state data. And though everyone hopes to reopen campuses as soon as possible, schools might need to close on a dime if cases surge. Miami began a partial physical reopening Oct. 5, but some students will continue to learn remotely, and even on-site classes won’t ditch digital, said Olema Herrera, Miami’s instructional technology supervisor.
So how did Miami-Dade do it? And what lessons can Washington learn, even seven months in?
While some districts here are still playing catchup after their slow response to the spring COVID-19 outbreak, Miami faced facts early. In late January, one week after the first U.S. coronavirus case was confirmed in Washington, the district alerted schools to monitor attendance for potential coronavirus absences, according to the Miami Herald. In early February, the School Board directed the administration to prepare a comprehensive coronavirus plan, according to an archived agenda. Fortunately, it had a starting point: Because the school year starts in hurricane season, the district maintains a short-term instructional continuity plan. On Feb. 27, Herrera said, the instructional technology team began revising it for the pandemic.
Though Superintendent Alberto Carvalho continued to say that a closure was “unlikely,” the district surveyed families about their home technology needs, had every class do a distance-learning dry run and signed an emergency work agreement with the teachers’ union before announcing the shutdown March 13. (Seattle’s first effort to comprehensively survey students on their connectivity didn’t launch until fall.) After laying that groundwork, Miami-Dade distributed more than 50,000 laptops and tablets in the next four days, according to a press release. Comcast provided free Wi-Fi and hotspots. At the end of April, 92% of students were logging in daily, CRPE reported.
Even in a distressing time, the transition “was fairly smooth,” Boys and Girls Club of Miami president and parent Alex Rodriguez-Roig said. “Every kid was able to figure it out with their parents’ help.” Or, in some cases, grandparents: With a large Latino population, “we have a lot of grandparents,” he said. He praised the superintendent’s decisiveness: “In those kinds of situations everyone’s always looking for answers.”
Melissa Sires, whose son attends the Boys and Girls Club and Miami Senior High, praised the district for “properly and effectively communicating with parents. And not sugarcoating it.”
Though some consider Carvalho a showboater — he likes to deliver hot meals to families himself, and he had a public flirtation with the prospect of leading New York City’s public schools — his celebrity and chutzpah helped him stand up and show leadership in the face of political pressure. Though Florida Department of Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran required all schools in the state to close in March, he then issued a July order requiring schools to open in person in August, and at the White House called virtual schooling second best.
Gov. Ron DeSantis consistently pressured schools to reopen in person, drawing a lawsuit from the Florida Education Association union. Even so, Carvalho resisted, announcing at the end of July that school would begin remotely. At the end of September, he and the Miami-Dade School Board split the difference, voting initially to begin reopening campuses in mid-October but pushing the earlier date in response to a threat by the state education commissioner to withhold funds.
Provide lots of training
Miami had an advantage that’s hard to replicate quickly: significant advance preparation for online learning. Voters passed a $1.2 billion bond issue in 2012 to fund technology. As of the start of the pandemic, all high school students had their own computers; middle schools were trying out the same strategy, and elementary schools generally had one laptop for every two students, Herrera said. They also had experience with the Florida Virtual School, a 25-year-old, homegrown, online public system that offers not only a standalone education but individual classes taught by local district staff.
Every Miami-Dade high school student must take at least one online class. “Teachers were encouraged to use technological tools,” for teaching, testing and monitoring student performance, high school English teacher Vanessa Valle said. She had already switched to mostly using online textbooks. “The heart and soul of every course was on a digital platform to start.” Meanwhile, three years after Seattle Public Schools secured a $16 million tax levy for student devices, the district had spent only one-eighth of that money.
Still, it’s one thing to log on to the student portal during class, and another to bring school entirely online. No matter where and when districts start, professional development is crucial, Herrera said.
Miami-Dade has blasted teacher training through the roof. More than 16,000 teachers took webinars on March 16 alone, according to a district statement. That’s ongoing; at one point, Herrera’s Word document of workshops reached 50 pages, she said — including sessions on everything from Microsoft Teams to Flipgrid to Zoom to Nearpod, all labeled with information that could help teachers choose which to watch. The district also gave online workshops for parents in an August “week of welcome,” again varying widely from tech tools to cyberbullying and digital citizenship.
With preparation came flexibility. Though the district encouraged teachers to use Zoom and Microsoft Teams, they could use any programs.
Commit to rethinking what you do
“Our teachers are phenomenal,” Sires said. “They’ve accepted the challenge.”
Teaching online “takes a lot more prepping,” Valle said — reworking lessons, not just lecturing on Zoom or sending out notes. “You have to make sure that you’re engaging everyone.” Administrators can join any class at any time, so teachers have to stay on their toes. Valle has also spent more time reaching out; she estimated she made 300 calls to parents in the spring.
Valle and Diallo enjoy the creativity. Instead of assigning essays or posters, Valle has students create Flipgrid multimedia magazines. She embeds polls in her lectures to keep everyone on their toes.
Luna Pedrosa, one of Diallo’s students and the Mourning High student government president, said the best classes happened in real time, using Zoom, cameras on. Seeing classmates meant “I never lost the sense of communication and interaction.”
Digital learning won’t freeze when schools reopen physically, Herrera said. The details are still in the works, but “we’re not going back,” she said.
Refine and rework
Pedrosa said her school focused on Advanced Placement classes, because the national exams weren’t canceled. Professional development included training on online special education, and Sires’ son, who has autism, got speech therapy via Zoom from his school.
Ferrero says her elementary-school daughter had an excellent spring, with two daily real-time meetings combined with independent work. Parents had a chat thread and helped each other out. “It was difficult but it was good,” she said. “She got good grades.” But her son, in middle school, was miserable. Multiple classes met at the same time; the teachers seemed stressed, and weren’t good at responding when he struggled to understand new concepts in math. This school year, students are now following a standard bell schedule and taking all their core classes in real time, which she hopes will make life easier.
Over the summer, the district surveyed parents. The biggest complaint: With all those different programs, parents were overwhelmed. To streamline the experience, the district switched to all-in-one My School Online by K12 Inc., a company best known for running for-profit virtual schools, for the fall. But from day 1, cyberattacks and overuse outages left students and teachers stranded. After one week, the district suspended My School Online for grades 6 to 12. In less than two weeks, the School Board pulled the plug — in the middle of the night, after a meeting that stretched 13 hours with public comment. K12 said in a statement the experience was “deeply disappointing for all of us.”
Yet even there, the district responded quickly, returning to what had (mostly) worked. Carvalho admitted it was a mess and authorized multiple measures to strengthen online security. District police arrested a 16-year-old South Miami Senior High junior who allegedly committed some of the cyberattacks. And the responses of several Miami teachers, parents and students pointed to the final recommendation: Cut everyone some slack.
Even in the first days of the new year, with her son panicking because he couldn’t log into My School Online, Sires said she felt confident that the district would fix the problems. “That man is on point,” she said of Carvalho.
Pedrosa mentioned the “debacle” almost as an afterthought. She said, “We’re not expecting perfection.”
This story was produced with support from the Education Writers Association Reporting Fellowship program.