Stephanie Woolley-Larrea put on her expensive blue light-filtering glasses and the “back talk” lipstick she bought just for video-chat lessons like these.
The lesson: My School Online, the new platform that 19,200 Miami-Dade County Public Schools teachers will use to teach 275,000 students for the first time when school begins virtually Monday morning.
It was Saturday, and instead of being lost in a book, the Coral Reef Senior High language-arts teacher was conducting a Zoom lesson for her colleagues — even for the ones she didn’t really know — to get them ready for the first day of school, just 48 hours away.
“Allegedly after this weekend, I’m not working every weekend,” Woolley-Larrea said. She shared her screen with her colleagues and showed them how they’ll be teaching their own classes:
“That’s one of the things I like about this program. There’s a lot of ways to do the same thing.”
“That’s nicer than Google Classroom. This is so much better.”
“[Microsoft] Teams doesn’t feel good. This feels good.”
My School Online — or rather the training for it — hasn’t been a big hit with MDCPS teachers. The workshops, they say, are heavy on pedagogy and light on hands-on training. The district has been flooded with complaints about training that is too little and too late. Teachers didn’t get access to tinker with the program until it was rolled out to them at the end of last week.
So the weekend before a wildcard first day of school, a grassroots movement of teachers banded together and worked through the weekend to teach each other the new platform.
They traded notes on social media with other educators and created Facebook groups and WhatsApp chats for support. Teachers built websites and held Zoom parties. One teacher’s simple TikTok video showing students how to log into the new platform went viral.
“Teachers are really stressed, but everybody is reaching out,” said Woolley-Larrea. “Everybody who reaches out is trying to help someone else.”
A $100 incentive
Miami-Dade County Public Schools needed a uniform online platform. In the spring, when schools shut down on a day’s notice and quickly pivoted to online learning, teachers were allowed to use whatever platform they felt comfortable using. Parents complained that it was difficult to navigate and communicate across several platforms.
The district said it only had two choices when it came to picking an online platform for the 2020-21 school year. Turned off by the lack of customization offered by Florida Virtual School, school officials granted a $15 million no-bid contract to My School Online.
Education conglomerate K12, a for-profit online learning company that builds software for virtual charter schools, created the platform.
Teachers frustrated with My School Online’s rollout and training circulated articles about how U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and her husband were early investors in K12. They also pointed to how former California Attorney General and current Democratic vice-presidential candidate Kamala Harris in 2016 oversaw a $168.5 million settlement with K12 over alleged violations of the state’s laws against false claims, false advertising and unfair competition.
In interviews and statements, district officials said there wasn’t much they could do until the Florida Department of Education approved Miami-Dade’s reopening plan on July 17; they’ve worked with K12 to speed up the rollout timelines.
“We listened to the voices of parents and teachers who called for a single learning platform,” school district spokeswoman Jackie Calzadilla said in a statement Sunday night. “In six weeks, we have done what some would say would be impossible to achieve — carrying out a massive operation that would normally take several months to complete. We are getting it done thanks to the Miami-Dade County Public Schools teachers who are going above and beyond to pull off one of the largest and most complex implementations in the country.”
She added: “The tests that we have run ahead of tomorrow are positive; however, at the end of the day, much like the rest of the country, we are at the mercy of technology.”
On Sunday morning, teachers awoke to an email offering $100 to those who set up their online classes by midnight. The incentive came from the Foundation for New Education Initiatives, a nonprofit organization that Miami-Dade Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho started when he began as superintendent in 2008. He is the foundation’s chair.
“As a gesture of gratitude for their extraordinary commitment to provide students with an optimal schooling experience from day one, the Foundation for New Education Initiatives, through a K12 donation, is recognizing teachers who schedule their Class Connects by 11:59 p.m. today with a token of appreciation valued at $100,” the email read.
Miami-Dade County School Board Chair Perla Tabares Hantman serves as the foundation’s vice chair, according to its bylaws. Hantman said she did not know about the $100 bonus or the donation from K12.
“Nothing. Absolutely nothing,” Hantman said. “I found out this morning from a tweet and from a text that was sent to [School Board members] from the chief of staff [Jaime Torrens]. That’s the first time I heard about it.”
She says she feels for teachers.
“I just know that they’ve been working very hard,” Hantman said. “They really are. Hopefully, they will be able to have a good day tomorrow. That’s what we all pray for.”
Calzadilla said Carvalho and his staff were heartened by the hard work of teachers and that the incentive was a nice gesture of appreciation.
“We have extremely dedicated and creative teachers who have been working through the weekend, setting up their schedules and helping other teachers along the way,” she wrote. “After consulting with K12, it agreed to make a donation to the Foundation for New Education Initiatives for the purpose of acknowledging the flexibility and commitment our teachers have demonstrated to ensure our students have the best possible learning experience.”
Michelle Brito-Torre teaches gifted first-graders at Whispering Pines Elementary in Cutler Bay. Her three daughters got her into the wildly popular social-media app TikTok at the beginning of the quarantine.
Brito-Torre started by posting videos of dances and her fitness journey but realized her students and many of her daughters’ friends don’t know where to start for the first day of school. So she started “teacher TikToks” and posted a quick video of how to log in to the MDCPS portal and showing kids which icon to pick.
The video has racked up 156,000 views and 22,800 likes.
“People are like, ‘Thank you so much!’ ” said Brito-Torre. “Everyone who has commented, they’re all thanking me.”
She said people have told her they’ve learned more from her TikToks than the district’s welcome videos because “it had quick easy steps on what to do on Monday.”
Brito-Torre plans to post more “teacher TikToks” aimed at students. Her next topics are what to do about lunch time, should they turn the camera on during video-chat lessons and if they should wear uniforms.
“The kids are dying for info and knowledge for what’s going on,” she said.
So are teachers.
Breanna Wiersma is a sixth-grade language-arts teacher at Madison Middle School in West Little River. She created a website called “How to K12 Miami” and shared the link on social-media platforms popular with teachers.
She started recording how to use the platform as she learned it. She said it took her two to three hours to put the website together.
“It’s relatively little effort in terms of how it benefits teachers to know how to do something,” Wiersma said. “I think K12 has done what they can to support us but I think we could’ve benefited from this all working together a little sooner.”
This is Wiersma’s second year teaching.
“With that excitement comes that worry of, ‘Have I done enough as a teacher to prepare them? Is there anything else I can do to make that first day really positive for them?’ “ she said.
Wiersma posted the link to her website on a public Facebook page called “MDCPS Employees, YOU are worth more!” Since 2014, teachers have used that page to post and comment on articles, seek help, share a laugh and vent frustrations.
Teachers began populating the group, with 8,700 members, with questions about My School Online. A spinoff Facebook group called MDCPS K12 Platform QA, which was created Wednesday,already has nearly 5,000 members.
Palmetto Middle science teacher Elizabeth Sioli used her own unorthodox way to teach and learn the platform. She and her teacher friends used the smartphone app Houseparty to trade notes on what they learned and show each other where to find features on the website. The Houseparty app allows multiple users to video chat at the same time and play games, simulating a house party.
“We just kind of spread the information that way and basically taught ourselves in maybe 48 hours, 52 hours,” Sioli said. “Instead of spending days in that training, I wish they had just let us loose. It seemed like we learned a lot more from each other. It just seems it wasn’t rolled out in the right order.”
Sioli also joined the MDCPS K12 Platform QA page the day it was founded.
“I feel like we’re all first-year teachers again,” she said. “Just because it’s just so, so different from what it typically is. And I think that’s what brought on the need for a group. Because we were all lost.”
On Friday, Sioli posted her thanks to all the tips posted by teachers.
“Just want to say … I’ve learned more from reading posts in this group than in the 6 days of ‘training’. Thank you,” she wrote.
The comment received 649 reactions and 104 comments echoing the sentiment.
“I’ve never gone viral before. It’s just very exciting,” said Sioli. “The last couple days has made me really, really proud to be a teacher.”