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Butterflies and tears, angry parents, high fives: Miami schools begin first day of classes

Miami Herald logo Miami Herald 8/18/2022 Sommer Brugal, Grethel Aguila, Natalia Galicza, Clara-Sophia Daly, Tess Riski, Alexander Lugo, Jimena Tavel, Miami Herald
Alvaro Bermudez, a music teacher at Ronald W. Reagan Senior High School in Doral, said he was looking forward to returning to school. Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2022, is the first day of classes for Miami-Dade public schools. © Alexia Fodere/Miami Herald/TNS Alvaro Bermudez, a music teacher at Ronald W. Reagan Senior High School in Doral, said he was looking forward to returning to school. Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2022, is the first day of classes for Miami-Dade public schools.

The first day of classes for Miami-Dade public schools started with a pep rally, angry parents upset their children did not have their class schedule, long lines of traffic and kids backslapping old friends.

Meanwhile, Mater Brickell Academy — a charter middle/high school that has been under construction — could not open as it failed to get the city of Miami’s approval before school started. “In light of this, our leadership team has elected to proceed with commencing school tomorrow via remote live instruction,” the school said in a letter to parents it sent Tuesday.

A city of Miami spokesperson said Wednesday afternoon the building department is “considering putting out a statement” but it has not been finalized.

Here are scenes from schools around the county on Wednesday morning, the first day of classes for more than 300,000 students in Miami-Dade County Public Schools.

A crossing guard hugs a parent on Prairie Avenue outside of North Beach Elementary in Miami Beach, Florida on the first day of school Aug. 17, 2022. © Sydney Walsh/Miami Herald/TNS A crossing guard hugs a parent on Prairie Avenue outside of North Beach Elementary in Miami Beach, Florida on the first day of school Aug. 17, 2022.

READ MORE: ‘Looking forward to coming back.’ Miami-Dade Schools open smoothly, reconnecting is theme

Hialeah Gardens High: Superintendent’s first stop

Students were greeted by what seemed to be the first pep rally of the year: A marching band, dancers, a party bus and Maximus, a dog and one of the school’s mascots, welcomed students and Superintendent Jose Dotres to Hialeah Gardens High School, 11700 Hialeah Gardens Blvd.

Seniors wore crowns they decorated to indicate their status on campus.

Inside, Dotres visited the cafeteria staff who were already prepping lunch for the day, which included chicken nuggets and cheeseburgers. Dotres said this school year already felt different from last.

On Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2022 ,Yeiny Gonzalez, left, walks with her son Ryland, right, who is beginning kindergarten at Miami Gardens Elementary School in Miami Gardens, Florida. © Carl Juste/Miami Herald/TNS On Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2022 ,Yeiny Gonzalez, left, walks with her son Ryland, right, who is beginning kindergarten at Miami Gardens Elementary School in Miami Gardens, Florida.

“What this school year brings is a lot of connectivity,” he said. “It’s going to be a really special year. We are all inspired to impact children (and) support teachers so that we provide the very best conditions for teaching and learning.”

Outside the school, a group of mothers chatted. Among them was Mayelen Gonzalez, who has two children at the school, one in ninth grade and another in 10th. Her main concern for the new year is safety, she said.

“I know there’s always two security officers (on campus), but it’s still a concern,” especially at such a large school, she said in Spanish.

Gonzalez has 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.

- Sommer Brugal

Masks for many at Miami Gardens Elementary

Heading into the second year of full classroom learning since the pandemic began in March 2020, many students at Miami Gardens Elementary wore masks, even though they weren’t mandated.

“If they want to wear the mask, they can., “ said Principal Kathleen John-Louissaint, greeting students and parents at the school entrance at 4444 NW 195th St. “If not, that’s okay, too. There’s not a mandate, which is good.”

That’s a welcome relief to parents Rigoberto Rodriguez and Yeiny Gonzalez. Their two sons, Ryan and Rylan Rodriguez, started second grade and kindergarten, respectively.

“Last time, I had to take them away from school because of the mask mandate,” Gonzalez said. She added she would pull them from school again if a mask mandate were implemented, or if [COVID] vaccines were required.

The parents were also happy about the recent Florida law, the “Parental Rights in Education” bill, which critics have called the “Don’t say gay” bill. The law bans lessons on sexual orientation and gender identity for K-3 students.

“They’re too little to be learning that,” Gonzalez said.

“They come to school to learn math and science,” added dad Rigoberto. “I believe in family. I believe God made us male and female. I don’t want all the other stuff … We don’t even speak about it in front of them.”

READ MORE: This Broward kindergarten teacher isn’t going to let ‘Don’t say gay’ change her lessons

Principal John-Louissaint said her plan is straightforward.

“Follow the rules,” she said. “That’s it.”

- Tess Riski

Angry parents at Miami High

The early morning at Miami High, 2450 SW First St., wasn’t a smooth start.

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.

“How’s this possible? I registered my son at the end of the last school year. I don’t understand,” said a parent, speaking in Spanish, arguing with a clerk in the school’s main office.

She asked if there was anything else she had to do. The clerk brushed her off and attended the next parent.

Jackie Calzadilla, Miami-Dade Schools spokeswoman, said Wednesday it was “more or less around 50” parents, not 100.

“These are all new registers that came in between yesterday and today,” she said.

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.

“We’re glad it was resolved quickly,” the girl’s mother said.

- Grethel Aguila

Cuba émigré, friends reconnect

Regina Alvarez, 16, stood outside the gates at Miami HIgh with her mother. She’s had a lot of firsts lately: Wednesday marked the sophomore’s first year at the school; August marked her first month in the United States.

She and her family relocated to Brickell from Cuba in July, and while she studied English in Cuba for two years, she said she still felt nervous about navigating the new school system and language.

“It’s weird,” she said in Spanish.

Andy Martinez, 15, and Anderson Figueroa, 15, caught up with each other as they walked into the school. The sophomores viewed the occasion as “just another day.” They’re mainly looking forward to seeing friends.

“I just want to finish the year fast,” Andy said.

- Grethel Aguila

Disagrees with DeSantis over cops as teachers

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. “We’re hoping school can be a stress-free zone for students and for teachers.”

READ MORE: Between politics and poor pay, teachers are more strained than ever — and the numbers show it

She’s worried that Gov. Ron DeSantis’ plan to encourage military veterans, retired police officers and firefighters to become teachers to mitigate Florida’s teacher shortage will lead to people assuming just anyone can teach.

READ MORE: DeSantis wants cops, other first responders to help fill teaching vacancies

“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.”

- Natalia Galicza

Soon-to-be drivers at Carol City High

While the first day of school sparks anxiety for many students, Layla Marcelin felt more than the usual pressure. This year, she transferred from a Homestead school to Carol City Senior High School, 3301 Miami Gardens Dr.

“I’m a bit nervous,” said Layla, 15, adding she knows one person at her new school as she starts her sophomore year.

“I’m nervous for her,” said mom, Jessica. “Miami schools and Homestead — they’re so different, so hopefully she can get along with the kids well enough and fit into the culture.”

Despite the first-day jitters, Layla said she looked forward to learning how to drive.

“You’re not gonna be driving,” her mom said.

“I’m gonna be driving,” she retorted.

Music roared from a speaker as buses and parents pulled into the school’s drop-off zone.

“Go get ‘em!” one parent said as their teenager hopped out of the car.

Tony, a security guard who declined to give his last name, greeted many students by name. He said he closes the security gate promptly at 7:20 am, when the final bell rings. As that deadline loomed, dozens of students filed into the building.

Sophomore Jamal Rowell said he recently got his driver’s permit and he’ll get his license later this year.

Jamal, 15, said he’s not particularly worried about the COVID-19 pandemic this time around.

“I just distance myself, stay to myself,” he said.

- Tess Riski

A king at Miami Beach High

As he walked toward the entrance of Miami Beach High School at 2231 Prairie Ave., Daniel Obermeier’s outfit showed how he felt. He wore a gold plastic crown on his head tucked underneath his gray and black hoodie; he started his senior year Wednesday like a king.

Daniel felt most excited to see familiar faces, including his cousin’s who simultaneously started his freshman year.

“I’m kind of hyped for that,” said Daniel, 17.

He said his summer vacation flew by and he’s hoping to travel next summer to Europe with his friends, a trip he’s already planning.

Karli Torres also started her senior year Wednesday, but the 17-year-old felt less enthusiastic about her last first day of high school. She wore a red crew neck sweater, light wash jeans — and no crown.

“I’m just here to do my work and go home as soon as possible,” she said.

She sauntered over to her first class of the day, forensic science. She plans to study family law at Florida International University and become a judge in family court.

- Natalia Galicza

Nutella, tears at Sunset Elementary

Kids and parents smiled as they walked into Sunset Elementary School, 5120 SW 72nd St., on Wednesday morning. Two sisters carried boxes of Nutella and dulce de leche cookies to bring to their teachers.

Identical twin brothers Emil and Franz Funke, walking alongside their parents, donned navy zip-up jackets, khaki pants and blue-and-gray backpacks.

Emil was excited about sports class and the possibility of getting a reading prize, which he has won before. His mom noted it comes with a big trophy.

Liann Tejo, 5, wore a navy blue skirt, just like her mom’s, and a blue bow that read “I am sunset” in yellow letters.

Tejo, who started kindergarten this year, said kids go to school to “learn French and letters and numbers.”

Sunset Elementary teaches students in Spanish, French and German as part of its International Studies Magnet Program.

Elena Gonzalez, 10, said she was “rumored to have the strictest teacher,” but was excited about seeing her friends, learning science and “not doing any work.” There’s also a new kid in her class whom she wants to meet.

Luka Santa, who just moved to Miami from Haiti, said he’s “a little bit nervous but excited” for the first day of school. His dad, a former Colombian consul to Haiti, reminded him that it’s safer in Miami.

As drop-off ended, parents waved goodbye and one younger sibling, Livia, cried in the arms of her mom Eloísa after dropping off her older sister Luiza to first grade.

Eloísa Vladescu was grateful to be able to send her daughter to the same school she attended as a child. She wants her children to “be exposed to a wealth of topics” and thinks it’s “important they learn about the LGBTQ community,” criticizing Florida’s new law that bars K-3 teachers from teaching about sexual orientation and gender identity.

COVID and monkeypox don’t perturb her, Vladescu said.

“If they get it we will deal with it, it’s a part of life,” she said. “I have little energy to spend on one thing in particular, I’d rather spend it excited and watching them be happy.”

- Clara-Sophia Daly

Generations at North Beach Elementary

James and Shelly Orlowski strained to peek through a green fence guarding the entrance to North Beach Elementary School in Miami Beach. They had just dropped off their son, Ethan, for his first day of fifth grade and kept trying to catch sight of him from behind the barrier.

The 10-year-old is not the only Orlowski to attend the school. Ethan’s older brother and his father James both graduated from the school.

“This is sort of a farewell to the school,” James Orlowski said. “It’s been a big part of our lives.”

Most of the memories of North Beach Elementary are fond to the Orlowski family, but James and Shelly said they both wish the school building were better cared for. The school was built in 1936.

Following the condominium collapse in neighboring Surfside last year, structural integrity has become a primary concern for South Florida residents. The same goes for parents who send their children off to school each day in old buildings spitting distance from a salty ocean breeze.

“The paint is peeling off the walls, even the basics are not being met,” James Orlowski said.

“And air conditioning,” Shelly Orlowski added. “There are air conditioning failures inside the classrooms.”

- Natalia Galicza

Butterflies at John Smith K-8 Center

Estephany Giraldo, a patient representative at Baptist Health South Florida, dropped off her son, John Cardounel, for his first day as a second grader at Doral’s John I. Smith K-8 Center, 10415 NW 52nd St.

“Are you nervous?” asked David Cardounel, his father.

“Yes,” replied John, 7.

Giraldo, 34, told her son she also had butterflies during her first days of school.

“I never knew why,” she said, making him smile.

The three sat at a bench across from the school’s parking lot, where a school crossing guard directed traffic and made sure parents, who stopped to snap photos of their kids by the “Welcome Back” sign, moved quickly and used the sidewalk.

Vilmarys Franco, 32, said her heart felt happy as she left her two kids off at their new school.

Her family moved to Mississippi from Venezuela eight months ago, and said they struggled without any Hispanic students in their Mississippi neighborhood. Now, Doral feels like home.

“The kids are super happy to be around other kids who speak their language,” she said.

Lorena Pachano, of Doral, said her daughter usually likes to sleep, but she woke up quickly. Her daughter was excited to see her friends even though she didn’t get any classes with her cousin, in the third grade like her.

Pachano, 43, said she’s hoping for a normal year.

“We don’t want anything eventful happening here this year, and you know what I’m talking about.“

- Alex Lugo

Teacher thrilled to be back at Ronald Reagan High

From left to right: Julio, Matteo, Sophia, and Luka Santa walk into the first day of school at Sunset Elementary School on Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2022, in Miami. The Santa familys recently moved to Miami from Haiti where Julio was the former Consulate for Colombia. © Alie Skowronski/Miami Herald/TNS From left to right: Julio, Matteo, Sophia, and Luka Santa walk into the first day of school at Sunset Elementary School on Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2022, in Miami. The Santa familys recently moved to Miami from Haiti where Julio was the former Consulate for Colombia.

Alvaro Bermudez, who teaches music at Ronald W. Reagan Doral Senior High School at 8600 NW 107th Ave., hurried to get to class.

“I personally just love the cycle. I love the cycle of life. I love the fact that there’s always something to look forward to,’’ said Bermudez, 48, who has been teaching for 16 years. He can’t wait to see his 9th- to 12th-graders learn how to play guitar and perform on stage.

Students park their bikes and scooters on the first day of school at Miami Beach Senior High, 2231 Prairie Ave., in Miami Beach, Florida, on Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2022. © Sydney Walsh/Miami Herald/TNS Students park their bikes and scooters on the first day of school at Miami Beach Senior High, 2231 Prairie Ave., in Miami Beach, Florida, on Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2022.

“I’ve been looking forward to coming back. I’m looking forward to the fall and to the events in the fall. And just the cycle of the year.”

- Alex Lugo

Hialeah Gardens, Florida, August 17, 2022 - Miami-Dade County Schools Superintendent José Dotres talks to students eating breakfast in the cafeteria at Hialeah Gardens Senior High School. © Jose A. Iglesias/El Nuevo Herald/TNS Hialeah Gardens, Florida, August 17, 2022 - Miami-Dade County Schools Superintendent José Dotres talks to students eating breakfast in the cafeteria at Hialeah Gardens Senior High School.

©2022 Miami Herald. Visit miamiherald.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Students watch people enter campus on the first day of school at Miami Beach High in Miami Beach, Florida on Aug. 17, 2022.

Students watch people enter campus on the first day of school at Miami Beach High in Miami Beach, Florida on Aug. 17, 2022.
© Sydney Walsh/Miami Herald/TNS
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