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Broward Teachers Union Urges District Not To Relax Social Distancing Measures

Superintendent Robert Runcie says there are "some instances" where maintaining six feet may be difficult, but it will happen in "vast majority" of classrooms.

Many teachers in Broward County have growing concerns about how the school district is handling this phase of the pandemic.

The Broward Teachers Union announced it is fighting to stop the district from relaxing social distancing as it pushes to get more students to come back to face-to-face learning on school campuses.

The union held a press conference to talk about several issues ongoing it has with Broward County Public Schools related to the pandemic. One of those is how social distancing is being applied in classrooms.

Union president Anna Fusco talked about her experience visiting school campuses earlier in the day.

"I saw kindergarten classrooms, first-grade classrooms, second-grade classrooms with 19 students, 17 students, 22 students, fourth-grade and fifth-grade classrooms with 25 students. Not only have they've gone over class size, they were not six feet apart," she said.

Following the union's news conference, district Superintendent Robert Runcie held his own press event. He said that there are "some instances out there where it may be difficult to do that," in reference to social distancing for students.

"I'm not going to sit here and say I guarantee to every single classroom in Broward County is going to have it exactly right at six feet," Runcie said. "But I would absolutely say, with a high degree of confidence, the vast majority of our classrooms will be able to meet that."

On Tuesday afternoon, Runcie largely reiterated student performance statistics from his Jan. 8 press conference, including that the district has identified 59,000 students they don't see making academic progress during the pandemic. Of those 59,000, 51% are still remote, according to Runcie.

The number of students with failing grades and absences is also higher than last year.

"We need to do a better job in serving our students," Runcie said.

He announced Jan. 8 that the district is working to end keeping students in cafeterias, gyms and media centers while bringing teachers back to schools.

The union is against ending remote working accommodations for teachers.

Earlier this month, the Broward Teachers Union sued the school district for ending remote work assignments for teachers with severe medical conditions. And, it put out a new ad with the American Federation of Teachers.

"It's nothing short of a betrayal when Superintendent Robert Runcie said he would force medically high-risk teachers into environments that threaten their health," the ad states.

Of 1,700 teachers with serious health conditions that had been working remotely, a little more than 600 of them are allowed to continue to teach from home — based on their schools operational plans submitted to the district.

Fusco said it's been hard for the union to check on how many students are coming to different schools for in-person learning.

"Some of the principals are blocking us, that they don't want us to get that count. They don't want us to ask, 'How has the teaching been changed? Are you doing it simultaneously? Are they going to be behind the computer? Do you have to walk around the room and break the social distancing?'" Fusco said. "We are being blocked and told you don't have a right to ask those questions. That is a concern."

At the union's event, Fort Lauderdale High School senior, Rocco Diaz, spoke out in support of his teachers. Diaz is also an alternate student advisor to the Broward County School Board.

"I've been raising concerns related to preventing the spread of coronavirus in schools while making sure the policies I advocate for do not hurt the most vulnerable," Diaz said. "As for teacher accommodations that warrant this gathering, they were the first thing I brought up in a recent meeting I had with Superintendent Runcie. And I will continue to encourage everyone to publicly advocate for these accommodations, despite school district staff repeatedly telling me that our current situation won't change."

Copyright 2021 WLRN 91.3 FM.

Caitie Switalski Muñoz