Thousands of students arrived for the first day of school in Miami-Dade County on Monday to a few changes.
There was security staff in new, gray uniforms scanning visitors’ IDs with a new system that checks against criminal databases. Students and staff had new school IDs, and a unified network of 15,000 high-definition cameras kicked into gear.
Most noticeable of all, there were police officers on every campus because of a new state law. But they, too, were part of what seemed like an overall smooth start to the 2018-19 school year.
“Now is the time to shift our focus from the necessary obsession over safety and security to the normalcy of teaching and learning,” Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said at an afternoon news conference. “I really want parents to shift their attention from the law officers outside of schools, the police cars, to great quality teaching and learning which is our expectation every single day, bell to bell, across Miami-Dade.”
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Officials said 94.4 percent of the 341,663 students enrolled with the district were present for the first day. Employee attendance was stronger than in past years, Carvalho said, and 100 percent of officers assigned to schools showed up — a first for the district.
There were a few reported traffic delays for about 900 buses transporting about 50,000 students, according to Carvalho. Schools opened with about 220 teacher vacancies, about 100 of those for core classes, but Carvalho said they were staffed with academic coaches and curriculum-support personnel in the interim.
“We’re in a better position than we were in past years,” Carvalho said.
Most middle and high schools already had a school resource officer, but the county’s 260 elementary and kindergarten-through-eighth-grade schools will now have an officer there from drop-off to pick-up, Carvalho promised. Some schools had increased police presence for the first day to help with traffic flow.
“I expected a little more hiccups, but all good,” said schools Police Chief Edwin Lopez. He said the first day of school saw no crime, student threats, or drama on social media, another first for the district.
South Hialeah Elementary Principal Linette Tellez said she had never seen such a strong police presence at her school. There were three Hialeah officers on campus, including one police dog.
“I think it’s going to be great, more importantly for arrival and dismissal,” she said.
Parent Aimee Fong said it seemed like a smoother first day of school than past years at Riverside Elementary in Little Havana despite having more officers.
Last year, “It was a disaster,” said Fong, 44, whose daughter started fourth grade. “Today, I see a lot more organization.”
But over in Brickell, parent Karl Ross described a “mob-like” scene at Southside Elementary. He said he and his daughter, a fourth-grader, had to cross a street in rush-hour traffic to a block with no sidewalk, only to be greeted by an officer shouting at parents to move over, as only students were allowed into the school.
“In the five years we’ve been going there, there’s never been anything like that,” said Ross, 53, who lives in Little Havana. If it doesn’t get better, he said, his family would wait until the traffic dies down to go to school.
Carvalho said he heard of the chaotic scene at Southside and paid a visit later in the afternoon. He said it comes with the territory of attending a school downtown.
“In some instances, there will be some degree of inconvenience,” he said. “But I consider that a trade-off.”
School district officials spent the summer hiring officers and working with 34 municipalities to iron out agreements to staff officers in schools, which is required for every school under a new state law. Some agreements were signed as recently as the end of last week.
As of Monday, six municipalities with about 15 schools in total have not signed agreements with the school district to staff their own officers in schools, although some have tentative agreements. They are South Miami, Cutler Bay, Miami Springs, Miami Shores, Florida City, and Homestead.
In addition to 40 officers sworn in over the summer, the school district will staff support personnel from its own police department to cover those schools.
Cutler Bay’s town council unanimously voted against an agreement to post its officers, who are contracted through the Miami-Dade Police Department, at five schools in its jurisdiction, said town manager Rafael Casals. He said it would’ve cost the town $760,000 a year.
“We just could not offer these services,” Casals said, adding that officers from Sweetwater covered Cutler Bay schools.
The school district also said it was deploying 29 armed guards under police supervision at satellite school sites.