One of the biggest public charter school operators in Florida surprised parents and teachers by doing an about-face this week on its reopening plans for this coming school year.
Charter Schools USA had initially said it would physically open its South Florida schools, but this week officials announced that in Broward and Miami-Dade Counties, the COVID positivity rates are still too high to reopen safely.
“The reality is that we’re in a very hard-hit area and we had to put the safety of everyone first, but we also have to realize that children most of the time learn best in a classroom,” said Jon Hage, CEO of Charter Schools USA.
The company operates 92 schools in five states, with 14 in South Florida serving about 18,000 students. Like the district schools, the CSUSA schools will reopen with distance learning only. Teachers will be instructing from their empty classrooms.
“I’m dying to get in front of my kids, I’m dying to be able to teach them, get them engaged in learning again,” said math teacher Jeanne Alonso.
“The fact is that some parents are disappointed that we’re here in Broward County not giving them in-person instruction at the beginning of the school year, I understand that, but there’s other parents who felt just as strongly that we’re doing the right thing,” Hage added.
We spoke to Hage inside a classroom at Renaissance Charter School, a K-8 in Cooper City. The classrooms are being disinfected and set up with desks far apart to allow for social distancing. The hard part is deciding when it’s safe enough to bring kids back.
“None of us have all the answers on this, no one does, if they say they do, they’re guessing ‘cause no one’s done this before,” said Hage.
To make the home learning experience exponentially better, they’ve invested in voice-activated camera technology which follows the teacher around the room, allowing the kids to see the entire classroom and all the materials that the teacher wants to use.
“Rather than just sit at my computer and have them stare at me in my dining room, they can actually watch me walk around the classroom,” Alonso said.
It’s still not the same as being in the classroom, of course, so CSUSA is promising its parents, students, and teachers that it will follow the data and science and as soon as the pandemic conditions improve enough, the kids are coming back.
Hage said at that point, teachers who have health or safety concerns will be able to teach from home. He also said teachers are not being asked to sign a waiver of liability.
“There will be no waiver of liability, you cannot waive your rights, what we are doing, though, is helping them understand and acknowledge what they’re walking into,” Hage said, adding that he’s confident the school environment will be as safe as any schools in the nation.