By the end of the day, about 40,000 students were transported via 778 bus routes across the school district, 225,000 meals were served, more than 17,000 teachers taught in a classroom and more than 133 mental health specialists were in schools.
For Jose Dotres, those were among a handful of elements that fostered a “smooth” first day of school for Miami-Dade County Public Schools — his first as superintendent.
There were no “significant issues,” which reassured him the year was starting “on the right foot,” he told reporters. “This is a year where we get to inspire students, inspire our teachers and a year where we really need to reconnect and connect with each other. That’s what we’re going to focus on.”
Dotres’ remarks, which he gave from the Central West Transportation at the end of the school day, echoed comments he’d made earlier in the day at Hialeah Gardens High School, his first stop of the day, and during the annual opening of schools address Friday. The nation’s fourth-largest district, Miami-Dade Schools had 329,575 students and 18,739 teachers, according to the Florida Department of Education Fall 2021 enrollment count, and more than 400 schools.
The theme for the year, Dotres said recently from the stage at Miami Senior High School, was to “connect and inspire.”
Registration issues, safety concerns
The early morning at Miami Senior High, 2450 SW First St., however, did present challenges for some students and families.
Before school began at 7:20 a.m., about 100 students and parents waited in a line that snaked from the school’s historic courtyard to its auditorium — all looking for class schedules. Some parents were upset by the inconvenience, arguing they registered their child at the end of the previous school year. But Jackie Calzadilla, Miami-Dade Schools spokeswoman, said the issue was most likely because of “new registers that came in between yesterday and today.”
By the end of the school day, the parents of a new student said their daughter, 14, who had not received a class schedule, should have one by Thursday. The parents, who did not want to be identified, moved to Miami recently from Cuba and said they had registered their daughter a week ago.
Still, the girls’ mother said, “We’re glad it was resolved quickly.”
For Mayelen Gonzalez, a parent of a freshman and sophomore at Hialeah Gardens High School, her main concern was school safety, despite the presence of two resource officers on campus.
Ahead of the new year, Gonzalez had conversations with her children about safety and how to be aware of their surroundings, she said. But, she added, she wishes the district would do more to secure schools, such as considering implementing a system to check students’ backpacks upon entry.
At the afternoon news conference, Dotres touched on the “multitude of things” the district has done to ensure campuses are safe. Not only does every campus have at least one officer, he said, every campus has the same officer every day so they can know the students and the community.
Moreover, he said, the district’s police department conducted four emergency mass casualty drills to make sure all officers are able to respond to a school in the event of an emergency. Police officers are also trained in mental health awareness, which can help support students who may exhibit signs of a potential threat.
Teacher shortages, new state policies
On Wednesday, the district deployed 59 certified teachers to cover a class that didn’t have a teacher in place. Those individuals, Dotres said, could be curriculum support specialists or individuals at the district that are certified in a subject area.
Still, approximately 260 teacher vacancies remain, Dotres said. (Student attendance and enrollment numbers were not yet available Wednesday afternoon.) Florida districts are contending with teacher vacancies after a wave of resignations or retirements during the pandemic.
Carole Volel, a special education teacher at Miami Beach High, said she’ll be extra patient this year. She teaches students ages 14 to 22 and her curriculum focuses on life skills, academics as well as hygiene.
“I just want to give my students a fresh, new start on education after what we’ve been through the past two years,” referring to remote learning during the pandemic, said Volel, who has been at Beach High for eight years, but a teacher for 25.
She’s hoping school “can be a stress-free zone for students and for teachers,” but acknowledged new state laws and initiatives, including Gov. Ron DeSantis’ latest proposal to encourage military veterans, retired police officers and firefighters to become teachers to offset the teacher shortage, hurt teachers.
“People say, ‘Anybody can be a teacher now’ and disrespect that we’ve gone to college, workshops and have years of experience,” she said. “It’s really disheartening, especially when you have thousands of dollars in student loans.”
In the spring, DeSantis signed a slew of new laws that limit what schools can teach about race, gender identity and certain aspects of history.
Across the district, teachers have expressed concern about the new laws and how they will impact their classrooms, with some adding disclaimers to their syllabuses about academic freedom.
New features, goals for 2022-23
Like last year, much of this school year’s focus will be addressing the unfinished learning and academic setbacks caused by the pandemic, Dotres said at the news conference.
Students have made significant progress, he said, but “that does not mean that we are where we need to be.” (The district in the 2021-22 school year earned an A rating.) Students’ reading and math proficiency, in particular,will be a top priority, he said, and some students will require additional tutoring.
The new year will also feature an expanded role for the district’s parent academy and the “communication with parents,” he said. Officials will work to provide more information to parents and increase the number of interactions, activities and engagement offered.
Moreover, the district will also invest in multiple pathways, such as vocational training, to prepare students for higher education or the workforce.
For Alvaro Bermudez, however, Wednesday meant the start of a new cycle, a new year. The 16-year educator who teachers music at Ronald W. Reagan Doral Senior High School at 8600 NW 107th Ave., said he’s been looking forward to coming back.
Bermudez, 48, said he can’t wait to see his 9th- to 12th-graders learn how to play guitar and perform on stage: “I’ve been looking forward to coming back. I’m looking forward to the fall and .... and just the cycle of the year.”
Miami Herald staff writers Grethel Aguila, Tess Riski, Jimena Tavel and Miami Herald writers Clara-Sophia Daly, Natalia Galicza and Alex Lugo contributed to this report.